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Conservative MP introduces Bill to restrict alcohol marketing

Conservative MP, Dr Sarah Wollaston, has introduced a Ten Minute Rule Bill in the House of Commons to toughen regulations on alcohol advertising, along the lines of the French Loi Evin. Here, she explains the Bill.

Since arriving in Parliament, I have been campaigning for an end to our binge drinking culture and I introduced a Private Member’s Bill at the end of March to prevent alcohol being marketed to children.

About 13 young people will die this week as a result of alcohol, and about 650 this year. Nearly a quarter of all deaths of young people aged between 15 and 24 are caused by alcohol. That is two every day - far more than are killed by knife crime or cancer - yet this tragic loss from alcohol attracts far less by way of a response. These totally avoidable deaths are just the tip of the iceberg and do not begin to represent the full scale of the harm caused by alcohol to children.

Alcohol blights lives, with criminal records as a result of violent and antisocial behaviour, and it results in educational failure. Regretted and unprotected sex raises the risk of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections. Around 7,500 children are admitted every year to English hospitals alone as a result of acute intoxication, and that figure does not include the carnage in our accident and emergency departments. There are many contributing factors and no simple solutions. Ultra-cheap alcohol and saturation availability still need to be tackled, but we also need a change in our drinking culture. The Bill aims to tackle one of the root causes of that culture, and there is a clear evidence base to support it. Youth culture is heavily influenced by marketing and our children are saturated by alcohol advertising. Despite the clear evidence of harm - only Denmark and the Isle of Man have higher levels of binge drinking and drunkenness in their schoolchildren - the European school survey demonstrated that our children have the most positive expectations of alcohol of any children in Europe and were the least likely to feel that it might cause them harm.

The problem of advertising

Where do those positive expectations come from? Let us just look at the scale of marketing in the UK. The estimated spend on alcohol marketing is around £800 million, compared with the Drinkaware Trust’s funding by the industry of just £2.6 million. When £307 is spent encouraging drinking for every pound spent promoting sensible behaviour, the results are predictable. The World Health Organisation hit the nail on the head when it said:

“In such a profoundly pro-drinking environment, health education becomes futile.”

The Portman Group, one of the main regulators of the industry, would have us believe that it runs a very tight ship and is effective in protecting children. That simply is not true.

Our confusing and inadequate combination of legislation and industry self-regulation is not working. The report on alcohol by the last Health Committee highlighted the fact that 96% of 13-year-olds from a sample of 920 were aware of alcohol advertising in at least five different media, and between 91% and 95% were able to identify masked brands. Nearly half owned alcohol-branded products, such as clothing. Does that matter?

A systematic review of multiple studies looking at the impact of alcohol advertising and media exposure on adolescents - a study that reviewed many studies - concluded that increasing exposure to alcohol marketing encourages children to start drinking younger and to drink more when they do. The Academy of Medical Sciences’ report “Calling Time” showed a consistent correlation between consumption levels by 11 to 15-year-olds and the amount spent on marketing. We can be sure that, if alcohol advertising did not work, the industry would not pay for it. So many of the possible solutions to our binge drinking epidemic are incompatible with European law, so it is rather refreshing to hear that France has found a way forward. In 1991, in response to saturation inappropriate marketing, the French introduced a measure called the Loi Evin. This law has been repeatedly challenged in the European courts and has been upheld as “proportionate, effective and consistent with the Treaty of Rome”, which all Members of Parliament would agree makes a pleasant change.

The French Model

Alcohol was a serious problem in France. In 1960 the French were consuming over 30 litres of pure alcohol per capita per year. Consumption is well under half that figure now. I accept that French levels of alcohol consumption were falling before the Loi Evin was introduced, but the French have managed to sustain that decline and the long-term trend continues to be downwards. That is partly because their young people are no longer exposed to a continuous barrage of insinuating and pervasive messages about alcohol.

I am not suggesting a retreat to the nanny state or a ban, but we should aim to protect children, especially as there is clear evidence of their exposure to marketing and the consequent harm. We currently have an absurd situation where advertisers are not supposed to link drinking with social or sexual success or portray drinkers as youthful or vigorous, but they can regularly sponsor major sporting and youth events, such as T in the Park. The Bill aims to reduce the exposure of children to the harmful effects of alcohol marketing by setting out what advertisers are allowed to say and where they can say it. Rather than the current confused cocktail of legislation and self-regulatory codes, let us switch to something that works.

The Bill would permit the promotion of alcohol in media that adults use. That would include the print media, where at least 90% of readers are adults rather than children, radio after 9 pm and films with an 18 certificate. It would allow advertising at the point of sale in licensed premises and at traditional producer events, so it would not penalise, for example, west country cider makers or small Scottish distilleries. In these media, advertisers would be permitted only to make factual and verifiable statements about their products, such as alcoholic strength, composition and place of origin. Every advert would also carry an advisory message about responsible drinking or health.

Any other marketing or promotion not specifically permitted would therefore be banned, and this would include television, social media and youth-certified films. The Bill would specifically prevent the growing threat from viral phone marketing and ploys such as “advergames” on the internet, where so-called games are a cover for alcohol marketing. I think we would all agree that those are designed specifically to appeal to young people. Ofcom, in its own research, has demonstrated that for every five 24-year-olds who see an alcohol advert on television, there are four 10-year-olds who see the same advert. The industry will claim that these measures will kill off sport and culture, and that advertising is designed only to persuade people to switch brands. The same claim was made before the tobacco advertising ban. I point out that France has managed a World cup and a European cup without any help from alcohol sponsorship.

Across the channel, the Loi Evin is backed up by heavy penalties which have been imposed by the courts and now act as a significant deterrent. May I ask that we stop putting the fox in charge of the chickens and have a clear statutory code to protect our children? The Government could adopt this measure very quickly.

The Coalition has staked a great deal on talking about outcomes. If we are serious about outcomes such as reducing health inequality, reducing violent crime and domestic violence, improving the life chances of our children and reducing teenage pregnancy, we must stop talking to the drinks industry, with its vested interest in increasing drinking, and start listening to those with real expertise in preventing alcohol-related deaths. Not so much big society, perhaps, as big sobriety.