Sandra Jones. Don’t worry about the kids: Let’s just protect the alcohol industry

A recent study from Monash University found that a quarter of all alcohol advertising on Australian TV was during televised sports. Importantly, 86% of alcohol advertising between 6.00am and 8.30pm (that is, when kids are most likely to be watching TV) was during sports programming.

The broadcast of alcohol advertisements on commercial television in Australia is restricted in order to limit the exposure of young people to alcohol advertising. Alcohol advertising is only permitted during periods of M (mature classification), MA (mature audience classification) or AV (adult violence classification) programs (which are restricted to between 8:30pm and 5.00am).

The one – completely counter-intuitive – exception to this is that the broadcast of alcohol advertisements is permitted during the live broadcast of sporting events on weekends and public holidays. It is not surprising that this ‘exception’ results in alcohol advertising being shown at the time that children and teenagers are most likely to see it and most likely to be influenced by it.

Free TV, which represents the television networks, wants to bring forward unrestricted viewing hours from 8.30pm to 7.30pm. Conversely, Prof Kerry O’Brien and his team at Monash (like most of us in public health) wants the reverse – moving the kick-off time for alcohol advertising from 8.30 to 9.30pm..

Even more than that, what we’d really like to see is the removal of the ‘exemption’ for live sport; an exemption that FreeTV defends but is unable to justify. An exemption that the rest of us recognize for what it is: a clear message that the money-makers are more interested in protecting alcohol advertisers than protecting kids.

The World Health Organization’s European Charter on Alcohol 1995 asserts that:

“All children and adolescents have the right to grow up in an environment protected from the negative consequences of alcohol consumption and, to the extent possible, from the promotion of alcoholic beverages (and) … no form of advertising is specifically addressed to young people, for instance, through the linking of alcohol to sports.”

In relation to sport, the current iteration of the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) states that a Marketing Communication must NOT show (visibly, audibly or by direct implication) the consumption or presence of an Alcohol Beverage as a cause of or contributing to the achievement of personal, business, social, sporting, sexual or other success.

The previous version of the Code also used to say that alcohol advertisements must NOT “depict any direct association between the consumption of alcohol beverages, other than low alcohol beverages, and the operation of a motor vehicle, boat or aircraft or the engagement in any sport (including swimming and water sports) or potentially hazardous activity” but now it says “before or during any activity that, for safety reasons, requires a high degree of alertness or physical co-ordination, such as the control of a motor vehicle, boat or machinery or swimming”.

Somehow, in its efforts to toughen up the Code and better protect kids from inappropriate messages about alcohol, the ABAC managed to drop the specific reference to sport. Does that make you wonder whose well-being they are protecting?

What is particularly problematic about the ‘exemption’ for alcohol advertising during live sport broadcasts is that it opens up a mammoth marketing opportunity that goes far beyond the commercial breaks.

In a study funded by the Cancer Council Victoria, we analysed the television coverage of the 2012 AFL and NRL finals matches on WIN and Prime (in the Illawarra NSW). The AFL finals averaged three minutes of alcohol commercials and an additional 17 minutes of alcohol marketing per game. The NRL finals averaged just over two minutes of alcohol commercials and an additional 28 minutes of alcohol marketing.

A few years ago we conducted interviews with children aged 10 to 12 years about their engagement with sports. The children associated playing sport with positive life outcomes such as good health, success and maintaining a healthy weight. Watching sport on TV was a regular part of life, especially for boys. The children were also aware of the concept of sponsorship and were able to identify the sponsors of the sporting teams, including the alcohol sponsors. They also remembered and recognized alcohol ads, and expressed strong positive associations between alcohol brands and sport.

Participant: that’s a very good one [VB] because most men drink. . . Especially like when they play sports, and yeah and when they’re tired from sports they might go and then have a drink and stuff.

Public health advocates and organizations focused on the wellbeing of young people are united in their view that alcohol advertising and alcohol sponsorship are harmful to young people.

While the industry would state that they are only targeting those over the age of 18, their messages are clearly being heard, and internalized, by even very young children. Surely it is time for our government to recognize that, even in a country that supports free trade, protecting our children must be a higher priority than protecting the alcohol industry.

Professor Sandra Jones is an ARC Future Fellow and Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research (CHaSR) at the Australian Catholic University (Melbourne).

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