IAN WEBSTER. Protecting young people from our ‘favourite drug’ – alcohol.

Marketing of alcohol is out of control. 20% of those watching major sporting events on TV are under the age of 18 years.  

At holiday on the South Coast men and women clutch stubbies, adolescents clutch stubbies and play beach cricket. Babies and children are at their feet and there are hectoring sounds, not music, from passing speed boats. They can hardly be blamed for this modelling as they too were modelled. The town’s main entertainment is the ‘club’ with its unending TV streaming of sport and alcohol advertisements and ‘happy hours’. It is supposed to be a family place.

Their culture is shaped by the constant bombardment of alcohol advertisements on top of the social drivers of unemployment and limited opportunities for young people. Like so many Australian towns, alcohol pervades this place which is reflected in the local hospital’s ED presentations.

Twenty percent of those watching major sporting events on TV are children under the age of 18 years.

The worst example of alcohol sport sponsorship reported to the independent Alcohol Advertising Review Board’s (AARB) concerned an AFL finals game on Foxtel, the complainant said, “..during the Friday night coverage of the Hawthorn v. Geelong AFL finals game on Foxtel there was a ‘Jim Beam half-time break’ during which there were multiple promotions for Jim Beam on screen, in the studio, and promotional mentions by commentators; and the Jim Beam logo was seen on the screen for several seconds at a time, and commentator Eddie McGuire stated ‘thanks to Jim Beam’ and ‘your half-time brought to you by Jim Beam’.”

A physician said of complaints he had reviewed for the AARB, “Alcohol advertisements saturate sports games, social media and public spaces where children cannot help but look. Many advertisers refuse to change placement or the content of ads which are challenged. Strong regulation is needed to protect children and young people from exposure to advertising for the substance that causes the most violence and harm in our community.”

At the FIFA World Cup in 2014, 86% of the alcohol advertisements on TV violated even the industry’s own code for self-regulation; in Mexico the violation rate was 100%. The study’s researchers (reported in the international journal Addiction) concluded that self-regulation and statutory policies had been seriously ineffective.

The World Health Assembly (WHA) has recommended strong measures to prevent the harms to young people from alcohol advertising and promotion – through tighter government regulation on alcohol advertising, including bans, and sport sponsorship – especially where young people are targeted – and it warns of the growing impact of digital media.

The digital media offers new disturbing opportunities for promoting alcohol to young people. Digital media can be on-going, repetitive and most troubling of all it can be individualised. Tim Lobstein and colleagues from Curtin University in Western Australia have shown digital exposure is associated with increased youth drinking. They found digital marketing materials are attractive to young people, are interactive and undermine accepted marketing codes. Digital alcohol promotion to young people has been described as “intoxigenic digital spaces” creating “intoxigenic social identities”.

The WHO and other health bodies know very well that 4% of the global burden of disease is due to alcohol, equal to that of tobacco, and that strong measures are required. They also know that public health is in competition with the international efforts of a cashed-up global alcohol industry.

The alcohol industry has taken up corporate social responsibility (CSR) with alacrity. Drinkwise is an example of CSR in Australia. For most of us, CSR implies an altruistic commitment by a company to the well-being of the community. But research in Latin America and reported in the international journal Addiction in January 2017, shows CSR is the stalking-horse for corporate credibility and creates opportunities for the marketing of alcohol. In Latin America where alcohol consumption is increasing and 4.5% of deaths are due to alcohol 56% of CSR activities created marketing opportunities for the companies involved. Fifty percent of CSR activities in classrooms and colleges created marketing opportunities and 62% of the activities were to mitigate the risks of corporate externalities or in response to community demands for change.

The evidence is overwhelming that alcohol marketing harms vulnerable populations, and, self-regulation is ineffective

Michael Moore, co-chair of the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol, and CEO of the Public Health Association of Australia, said in the Guardian, 10 January 2017, “The takeaway from this research (international journal Addiction, January 2107) is that marketing of alcohol is out of control and it’s time for us to recognise the harm that’s occurring and to take a sensible approach regarding alcohol marketing,” “That would start with excluding marketing from sporting venues and particularly huge sports events like the cricket, Formula One and the Australian Open.”

Research undertaken by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education has shown 70% of Australians support a ban on alcohol advertising on television before 8.30pm, and 60% support removing alcohol sponsorship from sport. That should be enough for politicians to act as the most vulnerable in our community, young people, must be protected.

Our children have the right to grow up unpressured by commercial inducements.

Ian Webster is Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine, UNSW. 

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Ian W Webster AO is Emeritus Professor of Public Health and Community Medicine of the University of New South Wales. He has worked as a physician in public and regional hospitals in Australia and UK and in NGOs dealing with homelessness, alcohol and drug problems and mental illness.

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