MICHAEL THORN,- The cricket trifecta-booze,junk food and betting.

Cricket Australia’s gift to fans this Christmas was an unhealthy serving of booze, betting and junk food ads.

After taking a bit of break from the booze following the end of the long-standing sponsorship agreement with Carlton United Breweries, the Test series was once again full of alcohol ads, product placements and sponsor logos. Cricket Australia was clearly off the wagon.

The new booze deal with Japanese-owned brewer Lion saw a wall of XXXX beer ads adorning the MCG, SCG and other venues around the country, advertisements playing on free-to-air and pay TV and on digital platforms, be this on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter or CA’s own site. Remember digital marketing is ‘below the line’ and mostly not visible at a population level, so who knows how prolific this advertising might have been.

Ongoing relationships with gambling brands have seen these promoted even more heavily and as egregiously as the alcohol brands. Junk food got in on the caper too.

Australia long ago adopted a policy principle that children should not be exposed alcohol advertising on our TV screens. However, over time these statutory controls have been undermined and eroded by exceptions, relaxations or simply not imposed in the case of pay TV and digital platforms. The industry’s voluntary codes are weakly applied or simply ignored by brands who are not party to these so-called ‘co-regulatory’ schemes.

Australians find this advertising abhorrent, particularly when it is associated with sport and targets children and young people.

Surveys by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and others show more than 90 per cent of parents don’t want alcohol advertising on television during kids’ viewing times. In fact, that’s the law for alcohol advertising on free-to-air TV, unless it’s a sport broadcast!

The alcohol industry likes to argue that its advertising does not target kids. Research suggests otherwise. In the United States in 2016 Professor David Jernigan and colleagues found that under-age drinkers prefer the most recognisable brands and among other things they found:

youth brand preferences differ from those of adult drinkers; …underage drinkers are not opportunistic in their alcohol consumption, but instead consume a very specific set of brands…the brands that youth are heavily exposed to in magazines and television advertising correspond to the brands they most often report consuming and…youth consume more of the alcohol brands to whose advertising they are most heavily exposed.

Alcohol brands claim their advertising and marketing is aimed at securing market share and that consequently this advertising is aimed at existing drinkers. This may well be partly true, but critically the form, placement and creative of the advertising suggests other reasons.

The close marketing relationships alcohol brands have with major professional sports are a vital part of Big Alcohol’s marketing goal to cement the consumption of alcohol as a central feature of Australian culture and, as Jernigan’s research shows, to recruit new drinkers. The appropriation of the sports, the players and the venues are all part of this marketing effort.

Sadly, all these sports are complicit. Cricket Australia, the AFL, NRL and Tennis Australia are at the centre of this steaming pile – driven largely by the lucrative multi-billion dollar broadcast deals which have reached astronomical prices.

Australians can easily comprehend the purpose of these relationships. When surveyed they repeatedly signal their preference for an end to the advertising of alcohol brands in sport (see FARE annual polling).

Given this overwhelming support for action, it is surprising that the recently announced National Alcohol Strategy 2019-2028 proposes not one single action to rid sport of alcohol advertising.

The truth is the strategy is a weak and pointless product – reflective of the appalling state of public policy making in this country. And it was nearly a decade in the making. Heaven help us!

The NAS should be the place for a definite commitment on alcohol policy reform, especially on restricting advertising and marketing. Instead it is a mere recital of policy options that Commonwealth, State, Territory or local governments may have recourse to in the event they are inclined to act, possibly sometime in the future. There is not a single pledge to do anything. It is a disgrace and it’s reprehensible that any jurisdiction chose to put their name to it – yet they all did.

Testament to this disgrace is that on the day Health Minister Greg Hunt announced the new strategy he simultaneously ruled out acting on the single most important policy option in the strategy – alcohol taxation reform. A few days earlier NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian announced the end of Sydney’s controversial, but life-saving lockout laws, and extended across the state bottle shop trading hours. No government pledged to do anything.

The contempt for the agreed strategy was gobsmacking and demonstrates that governments have little credibility on alcohol policy making if they can act so contemptuously of their own strategy.

The problem of the NAS, particularly after years of interference by the industry in its drafting, has been extensively explored by public health researchers and the media alike. The ABC’s Background Briefing investigated this in August 2019 and reported on analysis undertaken by FARE of a leaked draft of the strategy showing how Hunt had removed vital sections from the public consultation draft, including references to alcohol advertising and sport.

So it is no surprise that the result of years spent developing the NAS has amounted to so little.

This is shocking because the NAS identifies young people are particularly vulnerable, as statistics show that the consumption of alcohol contributes to the three leading causes of death among adolescents: unintentional injuries, homicide and suicide.

Anyone who works in public policy knows that change ordinarily comes slowly and after much deliberation. The Grattan Institute’s John Daley, (Good policy making is a game of inches, not kneejerk reactions, SMH, 8 January 2020), explores this in the context of this summer’s horrific bushfires. It applies equally to alcohol policy making.

The End Alcohol Advertising in Sport campaign instigated by FARE and backed by more than a dozen community, health and medical organisations was established to bring pressure to bear on Australian governments to rein in pernicious alcohol advertising, beginning with ending the exemption that allows the television advertising of alcohol during kids’ viewing times. The campaign, which now has more than 15,000 signed-up supporters, was seen as necessary because of the intransigence of politicians to act on this clear need and the ever-growing body of evidence that shows how harmful it is.

Perhaps the public’s reaction to the bushfire crisis will be instructive to the political class. Perhaps the costs of the denialism endemic in government will be realised by our leaders and we can begin to act more rationally and on the evidence of the threats in our communities, including alcohol.

We can only hope.

Michael Thorn is the former Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Advertising and Research.

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