Globally alcohol causes the deaths of 3 million people every year and more than 200 diseases and conditions. Alcohol marketing causes alcohol consumption, so its contribution to this significant burden of harm must be recognised and addressed.
In 2020, Alcohol Focus Scotland reconstituted a group of international experts in alcohol marketing, research, law and policy to expand on their 2017 recommendations on alcohol marketing. The Alcohol Marketing Expert Network increased the scope of our recommendations to cover a wider range of marketing activities and considered the evidence base on the general population and people with or at risk of an alcohol problem.
As well as commissioning a literature review looking at the effect of alcohol marketing on people with, or at risk of, an alcohol problem, the real-life experiences of people in recovery and of children and young people were incorporated into the report. In addition, the Network looked to other countries where restrictions on alcohol marketing already exist to understand what works and best practices that could be adopted by others.
The new report Realising our rights: How to protect people from alcohol marketing was published at the end of June 2022. It proposes a framework for how countries can introduce effective marketing restrictions, with specific recommendations for the Scottish Government.
What do we mean by alcohol marketing?
Key to this work has been expanding the scope of what we mean by alcohol marketing. In this report the Network considered the wider ‘marketing mix’, encompassing promotion, product, place and price.
Promotion includes advertising but also many other activities, such as digital marketing, sponsorship, branded merchandise and competitions. Product packaging, the use of price as a promotional tool, and how alcohol is placed and promoted in shops were also explored.
A rights-based approach
The Network was also keen to consider a rights-based approach to our research and recommendations. There is an inherent conflict between the commercial goals of businesses that sell unhealthy products such as alcohol, and the protection of the health of individuals and society. As well as harming the right to health and the right to life, survival and development, alcohol marketing also undermines people’s rights to privacy and to be free from exploitation.
Impact of alcohol marketing
Alcohol marketing affects us all. It encourages positive attitudes towards alcohol, changes our behaviours and creates and sustains the cultural idea that drinking alcohol is normal and desirable.
Some groups of people are particularly affected. Children and young people and those with alcohol dependence both experience disproportionate harm from alcohol use and have increased susceptibility to alcohol marketing. Exposure to marketing causes children and young people to start drinking earlier, to drink more if they are already drinking, and to drink at heavy or problematic levels. For those in recovery, research and personal testimony shows that , alcohol marketing is a common trigger and can put their recovery at risk.
Despite this evidence of impact, people tell us how inescapable alcohol marketing is in our society, with vulnerable groups regularly exposed.
Countries should put in place comprehensive statutory restrictions on alcohol marketing
The main recommendation of the Network is that all countries should put in place comprehensive statutory restrictions on alcohol marketing. Current self-regulatory approaches are failing to protect people. Officials from European countries where marketing restrictions are already in place highlighted the advantages of comprehensive approaches over partial restrictions, including being easier to implement and enforce.
The importance of including brand marketing
Alcohol companies invest millions of pounds every year in building their brands, so much so that brands don’t even need to use their name or logos to be recognised – visual cues alone, like straplines, colours and shapes, can easily bring the brand to mind. This means that any restrictions must go beyond simply brand names and logos, to include all elements of brand marketing. This would prevent brands circumventing restrictions (as we’ve seen happen in other European countries) by brand-sharing, where non-alcoholic products and services are used to promote a brand; or via alibi marketing, where a brand’s name or logo is replaced with key, identifiable components of the brand identity.
Mandating health information on all alcohol packaging
If comprehensive restrictions are introduced on key forms of advertising and promotion, the industry will likely increase their attention on those forms of marketing which remain available to them, such as packaging. Mandating the inclusion of health information on alcohol packaging would act as a form of counter-marketing, reducing the power and salience of the branding and packaging. It would also address the needs and wants of consumers. People generally have poor knowledge of health harms associated with alcohol; for instance, almost two thirds of drinkers in an international survey did not know that drinking less can reduce the risk of seven types of cancer. People are also supportive of mandatory labelling requirements.
Alcohol displays and promotions should only be visible to those planning to browse or buy alcohol
The retail environment is a major source of exposure to alcohol marketing for children and young people, and a particularly challenging space for people in recovery. People in recovery shared stories of varying their routine or asking others to get their shopping for them, for fear of relapsing. Ensuring that alcohol display and promotion is only visible to those intending to browse or purchase alcohol would help limit exposure for vulnerable groups, as well as reducing impulse purchasing and consequently alcohol consumption in the general population.
Restricting price promotions
When alcohol gets cheaper, consumption levels generally increase. Using price as a promotional tool, through activities like discounting strategies, price cues on the packaging itself, or signage that draws attention to a low or reduced price, should be restricted. It is inappropriate to encourage the purchase and consumption of a health-harming product such as alcohol through price incentives.
International action to regulate digital alcohol marketing
Digital marketing crosses borders making it difficult for any one country to effectively regulate. The case study research identified the complexity of interpreting and enforcing restrictions given the rapidly changing nature of the online environment, with “no barriers, no borders”, and that social media companies are large, powerful and international. With these challenges in mind the World Health Organization have concluded that a global approach is needed to ensure that countries are able to effectively reduce exposure to, and the impact of, alcohol marketing. The network recommends that the most effective approach would be the implementation of national and international alcohol control policies, modelled on the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
Written by Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland
Read the report, the summary, the literature review The effect of alcohol marketing on people with, or at risk of, an alcohol problem A rapid literature review and the case study research Alcohol Marketing Restrictions Learning from International Implementation.
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.