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How long before we see effective alcohol advertising control?

We have the evidence, now we need the political will, writes Dr Simone Pettigrew

Professor Simone Dr Pettigrew

Professor Dr Simone Pettigrew

08 March 2018 – Every year, many billions of dollars are spent on alcohol promotion globally. It should not surprise anyone that it actually works. Businesses can’t go spending that much of shareholders’ investment without demonstrating a return. But the onus is on the health community to show that alcohol promotion is causing harm to justify the introduction of much-needed regulatory intervention. In recent years, the evidence has been strengthening and we now have a solid evidence base to support more stringent controls over alcohol promotion.

Our recent review of the effects of alcohol promotion, especially on children, collates the evidence (you can find the report here). In a nutshell, the review confirms previous analyses concluding that exposure to and interaction with alcohol promotion across a broad range of platforms increases the likelihood of young people initiating alcohol consumption earlier and drinking at hazardous levels. These platforms include traditional media such as television, radio, and print, along with sports sponsorship, alcohol-branded merchandise, and digital forms of promotion.

So what should be done? It’s not rocket science – we have done it all before with tobacco. For some time analysts have been advocating for the following actions to be taken to reduce the enormous but completely preventable harms accruing from alcohol consumption:

  • Self-regulation doesn’t work and should be abolished. It is illogical to expect vested interests to produce outcomes that prioritise human health and well-being over profits.
  • Evidence-based mandatory regulation needs to be introduced. This regulation should be independent and actively enforced. Relying on complaints from the community is ineffective where (i) very small proportions of the population are aware of complaint mechanisms and (ii) individuals have been acculturated into an alcohol-saturated environment and hence can be unable to identify inappropriate types and levels of alcohol promotion.
  • Meaningful sanctions for offenders need to be applied. Currently effective sanctions are lacking.
  • Alcohol promotion regulation should be expanded in scope to include comprehensive coverage of both the content and placement of alcohol promotion. The French model, the Loi Évin, that specifies what can be included in alcohol advertising (rather than attempting to list the things that shouldn’t be in ads) is a worthy exemplar.
  • Special consideration should be given to the regulation of digital alcohol marketing. The lack of effective age controls and the embedded nature of alcohol advertising across numerous online platforms are major challenges that need to be addressed.
  • Efforts should be made to close existing loopholes in television advertising regulations. In Australia, for example, alcohol advertising is not permitted before 8.30pm unless shown during sporting programs. This exemption results in large numbers of children being regularly exposed to intensive alcohol promotion. For example, during some televised sporting events they can be exposed to more than 200 references to alcohol (eg through grounds signage, sponsorship messages, team uniforms, and advertisements shown during commercial breaks).

We can expect ardent and well-organised resistance from the alcohol industry when attempting to introduce such changes. Their efforts to avoid regulatory interference are increasingly being compared to those employed by the tobacco industry. As such, we should be able to anticipate and pre-empt them. Given the strength of the evidence, it is now just a matter of political will to do what needs to be done.

Written by Dr Simone Pettigrew, research professor at Curtin University School of Psychology.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.