GENEVA – Countries around the world are pledging to get tough with companies that market beer and liquor on social media networks such as Facebook, warning that such promotions threaten to entice a new generation into harmful drinking patterns.
The crackdown is part of a strategy endorsed Thursday by the World Health Organization's 193 members, breaking decades of global inaction on one of the leading causes of death. It also puts national governments on a collision course with an industry wary of new taxes and advertising controls.
Brewers and liquor manufacturers have trumpeted their brands online, and their sites on Facebook are booming. Heineken counts 400,000 people who "like" its beer, while vodka maker Absolut and alcopop brand Smirnoff Ice are nearing a half-million each.
But the Global Alcohol Producers Group — representing Heineken, Diageo, Anheuser-Busch InBev and others — called WHO's strategy an "important and constructive step forward in helping address alcohol issues around the world."
Spokeswoman Carol Clark said the group wanted to work with WHO to reduce alcohol abuse, and voiced support for minimum age requirements, drunk driving laws and other optional measures suggested in WHO's report.
In the 24-page report, WHO warned that alcohol was being "marketed through increasingly sophisticated advertising and promotion techniques." Sports, concerts and sponsorships are being joined by e-mails, texts, podcasting and social media to reach consumers, some of them underage.
Online sites have been used by European youths organizing massive binge drinking festivals that are being increasingly scrutinized by authorities. Last week, a 21-year-old man died in France after an accident at an alcohol-drenched party organized on Facebook attended by 10,000 young revelers.
The nonbinding resolution comes less than a month before soccer's World Cup in South Africa, which is expected to be watched by over a billion people. Anheuser-Busch InBev is a sponsor and its brand Budweiser will grace the trophy for each match's best player.
"Reducing the impact of marketing, particularly on young people and adolescents, is an important consideration in reducing harmful use of alcohol," WHO said. Ads shouldn't target young people — even of drinking age — because this could also attract adolescents, it said.
The strategy isn't a legal treaty and it lacks the teeth of WHO's 2005 landmark tobacco accord, which requires ratifying governments to fight smoking. But WHO guidelines can send a powerful message that countries are ready to work together on tougher international laws for products from cigarettes to booze.
Harmful drinking is the third leading risk factor for disability and premature death in the world, with 2.5 million deaths each year linked to alcohol, WHO said. That figure includes 320,000 people between 15 and 29, and the agency said many others are sickened with heart and liver diseases, cancer and even HIV/AIDS because of alcohol abuse.
"Alcohol is the risk factor for many other things," said Dr. Shekhar Saxena, director of WHO's mental health and substance abuse department. "Usually it is not perceived as the killer, but it is."
WHO intensified its alcohol work in 2008, and has faced fierce lobbying from industry groups, which at one point were excluded from discussions. They have argued that advertising bans and higher taxes don't reduce drinking.
WHO also argued that taxes help reduce alcohol abuse.
"The more affordable alcohol is ... the more it is consumed," its strategy said, calling for minimum prices on drinks and taxes and other pricing policies to reduce underage drinking and bingeing. "Consumers, including heavy drinkers and young people, are sensitive to changes in the price of drinks."
But that reasoning was rejected by SABMiller, the brewer of Miller Lite, Pilsner Urquell and other beers. It warned that minimum prices and high taxes could hurt public health by leading people away from safe brands toward cheaper, homemade moonshines and brews.