STEPHEN LEEDER. Alcohol and sport. A REPOST

Queensland’s victory over NSW in the 1 June  game lin 2016 was reported as the highest rating State of Origin match ever and ‘the top TV event of 2016.’  Both teams carried alcohol advertising on their clothing into the match.  The association of alcohol with sport is deep, complex and profitable. Sport provides a lucrative vehicle for advertising and in turn many codes have come to depend heavily on the support of alcohol sponsors. The relationship is one of co-dependency.

The physical and mental damage from alcohol has led public health campaigners to advocate for alternatives to alcohol sponsorship and advertising.   In 2012, supported by $12m  generated by the Alcopops tax, 12 sporting organisations including soccer, swimming and cycling ‘signed the pledge’ to reject alcohol sponsorship. Big football and cricket codes did not.  The then president of the AMA, Dr Steve Hambleton, foresaw the day when alcohol sponsorship of sport would cease. That day is yet to dawn.

Why the fuss?

First, the purpose of commercial advertising is to increase the sale of the advertised product. By their own metrics advertisers judge that the exposure of their product at major sporting events is good business.  If it were otherwise why would they do it? In the run-up to the State of Origin match Mr Tim Reardon  of the Brewers Association of ANZ stated that the investment in sponsorship related to influencing brand preference and that it would have very little effect on consumption. Such advertising was in any case highly regulated.

But we have been down this path before when the tobacco companies argued that their advertising was designed only to influence brand preference. In fact, curtailment of tobacco advertising was a component of tobacco control measures that effectively reduced consumption.

Alcohol is the elephant under Harry Potter’s invisibility cloak when it comes to health in Australia.  It is often left off the list of public health hazards about which we should take action.  We have been systematic, belligerent and effective (well, relatively so) in combating tobacco, including ridding sport of tobacco advertising and sponsorship.  But not alcohol.  It remains safely out of sight.

Yet by any calculation the destructive health effects of alcohol are vast and pervasive. There are about 6,000 deaths and 125,000 hospital admissions each year due directly to alcohol.  But in moderation it remains a revered and widely enjoyed commodity.  Even if we incline to the view that a little is a good thing (and the epidemiological support for this notion grows weaker each day) it is difficult to sustain an argument for more advertising and hence yet more consumption and embedding of alcohol in the fabric of our society.

Second, professional opinion is behind bans on alcohol sponsorship of sport, as is the community. The Royal Australasian College of Physicians’ then president, Professor Nick Talley, reported in March this year a community survey on alcohol and sport.  It showed that about 60% of the sampled NSW residents were worried about alcohol sponsorship of cricket and Rugby League where alcohol ‘features in sponsorship, naming rights, clothing branding, press conference backups and TV advertisements.’ NSW premier Mike Baird was reported as saying, ‘I find it quite incredible…[that] the captain of our cricket team sits there with a big VB on the middle.’ 

Third, and more broadly, alcohol raises questions about the kind of society we wish for ourselves. Alcohol, because it is integrated with so many aspects of our society, qualifies as a ‘social determinant of health’ alongside air and water quality, socioeconomic status, educational attainment, employment and food supply. All these variables, turned up or down in volume, affect our health and life expectancy. None is entirely under the control of the individual. 

What do we wish to define as an acceptable level of alcohol consumption in our society?  Given the dangers associated with it, to what extent do we wish to encourage its use? 

A recent hard-hitting document from the St Vincent’s hospitals set the goal of reducing alcohol-related illness and injury by 25% by 2025.  This could be achieved, the report suggests, by a combination of lockout laws, health warnings on alcohol, no more alcohol advertising on free-to-air TV coverage of sports and an end to alcohol sponsorship of sport and music. 

A big problem with alcohol consumption is that it readily develops an addictive momentum that rides over individual intention and responsibility.  It is the seduction of advertising to use the relief and joy that consumption of alcohol enables to blot out its cost and destruction. A caring society is one that applies reasonable restraint and education to protect its citizens from such hazards.  This is scoffed at and derided as a manifestation of a nanny state: personally, I find that nannies do much good and little harm, so this sexist epithet backfires.  

Permitting the alcohol industry to exploit the brilliance, excitement and delight of sport to advertise its products of destruction is inconsistent with social responsibility.

Stephen Leeder is Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, Menzies Centre for Health Policy and School of Public Health, University of Sydney.

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