Alcohol should face same marketing restrictions as high fat and high sugar products, say campaigners

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT


Related tags Alcohol Marketing Uk

The Alcohol Health Alliance wants to see the UK’s Health and Care Bill – which will restrict advertising and promotion on high fat, salt and sugar products – extended to include alcohol.

Furthermore, it wants the country to introduce more comprehensive restrictions to limit exposure to alcohol marketing in line with WHO recommendations.

A report from the organization, released this week, says the ‘constant bombardment’ of alcohol marketing at celebrations such as Christmas and sports events makes it difficult for those in active addiction and recovery; as well as helping normalise alcohol consumption among children and vulnerable people.

Alcohol marketing: 'A complicated system of self and co-regulation'

Alcohol brands rely heavily on TV promotions: devoting almost half of their advertising budgets to this (compared to 24% for the average brand), according to the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) report.

Around 650,000 alcohol adverts are shown on TV a year in the UK. Almost half are broadcast before 9pm – ‘peak viewing hours for children and young people’ – according to the report.

Online advertising, however, is the fastest growing advertising medium in the UK.

In events, alcohol also has a strong presence: the alcohol industry accounts for 20% of all sports sponsorship agreements worldwide. Brands often also sponsor music festivals and cultural events.

While alcohol marketing codes do exist, they are insufficient, says the AHA, which is a coalition of more than 60 organisations working to reduce the harm caused by alcohol.

Alcohol restrictions in other countries

A number of countries have alcohol marketing restrictions, including France, Estonia, Iceland, Lithuania, Norway, Russia, Sweden & Switzerland.

In 2015, Finland became the first country to restrict alcohol marketing on social media. In 2018, Ireland passed the Public Health (Alcohol) Act which includes measures to restrict alcohol marketing, including a 9pm broadcast watershed, banning advertising on public transport, and prohibiting alcohol advertising on the grounds of sporting events and at events aimed mostly at children.

France & Norway also restrict alcohol marketing with sports; while the Scottish Women’s Football refuses alcohol sponsorship.

“Currently, alcohol marketing in the UK is regulated by a complicated system of self and co-regulation with the alcohol and advertising industry,”​ says the AHA. 

“Various codes and different bodies are responsible for different parts of marketing. This has led to an inconsistent and ineffective system, which fails to protect children and vulnerable people.”

The UK plans to introduce advertising restrictions for high fat, salt and sugar food​ (such as a 9pm watershed on TV and prohibition of paid-for advertising online) in April through the Health and Care Bill: but alcohol is not included in these plans.

The AHA – which represents more than 60 non-governmental organisations – is now calling for the UK Government to take urgent action against overexposure to alcohol marketing.

It wants to see alcohol included in the Health and Care Bill; as well as calling for more comprehensive restrictions to limit exposure to alcohol marketing in line with WHO recommendations.

“The World Health Organization recommends restricting alcohol marketing as one of the most effective policies to reduce alcohol harm.

"While comprehensive bans are the most effective, a good place to start to reduce children and vulnerable adults’ exposure to alcohol marketing is to introduce restrictions on alcohol advertising on TV, on-demand services and online alcohol advertising – policies the UK Government is currently proposing for junk food.

“The advertising of tobacco has been severely restricted since the early 2000s and the current Health and Care Bill aims to extend advertising restrictions to unhealthy foods. Yet alcohol, which is a harmful and addictive product, is exempt. Excluding alcohol from the proposed restrictions is a missed opportunity to protect children and vulnerable people from alcohol advertising.”

Industry works on age-gates and opt outs in a digital world

The Portman Group, however, says that alcohol misuse is complex. The group is the industry’s self-regulator: funded by members including AB InBev, Asahi, Bacardi, Diageo, Heineken and Pernod Ricard.

"For 25 years the Portman Group’s Code has ensured that alcohol marketing is responsible, directed only at adults, and in the last revision we extended the remit to ensure that marketing does not particularly appeal to those who are vulnerable,”​ said Matt Lambert, CEO of the Portman Group.

“The reasons that a small minority of people drink at the highest harm levels are particularly complex, so it would be a mistake to say that marketing in and of itself will result in increased drinking when it is targeted support that is required.

“In terms of children’s exposure to alcohol advertising, the evidence is that children are seeing less.

"The Advertising Standards Authority shows that children’s exposure to TV ads for alcohol is falling at a faster rate than their exposure to all TV ads, making up just 0.9% of the adverts seen by children.

"Companies also ensure responsibility in the digital sphere, where the industry have worked closely with social media companies to create Digital Guiding Principles to improve age screening, enabling users to opt out of alcohol marketing, and allowing content creators to age-gate posts.”

Marketing doesn’t stand alone

Tom Harvey, co-founder of drink marketing agency YesMore, agrees with the Alcohol Health Alliance’s finding that many people can be triggered by seeing alcohol marketing.

"Just as the marketing industry has restrictions on targeting children within their advertising, there should be an agreed set of 'do not target' audience groups for things such as paid social media targeting. This could include people who are members of Alcoholics Anonymous, etc. Social platforms should have ‘opt-outs' for anyone that doesn't want to see social content, advertising or programming that could trigger an alcohol relapse. Brands and platforms need to work more closely to ensure age gating is universally implemented too.”

But as with the Portman Group, he notes the issue of alcohol abuse is complex.

“Marketing doesn’t stand alone. TV and film entertainment is terrible for glamourising alcohol abuse and self-medication with alcohol. How many grizzled detectives pour themselves a large whisky? How many frazzled mums ‘need’ a large glass of wine at the end of the day? And it’s not just broadcast media - half the greeting cards in gift shops make jokes about booze, and you can even buy interior decor, soft furnishing and gnomes making jokes about gin and wine. Once you notice it, you realise it’s everywhere.

"My point is that that marketing could be better, yes - but it is improving, and continues to - and we need to hold it to high standards. But it exists in a society where I can struggle to find a greeting card for members of my family that doesn’t make a joke about getting drunk - especially at Christmas. It’s easy to point the finger at marketing. We could fix it completely, but this world would still exist without making changes elsewhere in society too.” 

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