Alcohol marketing causes harm to children and youth. Alcohol marketing saturates society with alcohol, and perpetuates the harmful alcohol norm. And alcohol marketing prevents evidence-based alcohol industry regulation.
These are the three ways how alcohol marketing causes harm.
In this blog post, Maik provides state of the art analysis of how exactly, using a concrete Heineken example, and the best available scientific evidence.
And he explores the question of what can be done about it. There is a solution and it turns out most people support it.

We all are in agreement that marketing an addictive and toxic product is harmful in its own way. For example, a large majority of EU citizens (77%) supports a ban of alcohol advertising targeting young people, according to a Eurobarometer survey. People in the European Union are not the only ones who are highly aware of the health, economic, and social harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. In my experience travelling through Europe and other parts of the world and talking with people about the work we do in Movendi International, I frequently get the sense that taxi drivers, hairdressers, teachers, construction workers, etc. are troubled by alcohol harm in their communities.

My anecdotal evidence is backed up by survey data:

  • 97% of EU citizens recognise that alcohol causes health harm, such as to the liver.
  • And almost all EU citizens recognize that alcohol causes social harm, such as street violence (96%), or marital difficulties, as well as economic harm, such as loss of productivity at work and underperformance at school (all 94%).

That’s why it’s easy to understand why people support a ban of advertising of a product that causes so much harm – especially concerning the protection of children and youth.

Majority wants alcohol advertising ban
A large majority of EU citizens (77%) supports a ban of alcohol advertising targeting young people, according to a European Commission survey about the attitudes of citizens towards alcohol.

Before we get into the details of how alcohol marketing causes harm, I want to begin by looking at what it actually is. The Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) has a great definition:

Alcohol marketing is any form of commercial communication or message that is designed to increase or has the effect of increasing the recognition, appeal and/or consumption of alcohol products and services through advertising, sponsorship, or any other form of promotion.

This includes the design of alcohol products, brand stretching (using an established brand for a new product in another product category), co-branding (collaboration between different brands with the same advertising goals), depiction of alcohol products and brands in entertainment media, Big Alcohol’s corporate social responsibility activities, and the sale or supply of alcoholic beverages in educational and health settings.

Alcohol marketing is the commercial promotion of alcohol use – as much and as often as possible, by every means possible.”

Maik Dünnbier

So, how can we think about the harm that alcohol marketing causes? I think there are three ways we should consider.

1. Alcohol marketing causes harm to children and youth

Exposure to alcohol marketing directly affects the alcohol consumption behaviour of children and young people. It accelerates the early start of alcohol use among minors. And it drives the amount and the high-risk patterns in which young people consume alcohol, once the alcohol industry convinced them to start.

Science has proven these links repeatedly:

A systematic review of 13 longitudinal studies following more than 38.000 young people, concluded that longitudinal studies consistently suggest that exposure to media and commercial communications on alcohol is associated with the likelihood that adolescents will start to consume alcohol, and with increased alcohol use amongst those that are already consuming alcohol.

Seven longitudinal studies published since 2008 found significant associations between exposure to, awareness of, engagement with, and/or receptivity to alcohol marketing at baseline and initiation of alcohol use, initiation of binge alcohol consumption, alcohol use in the past 30 days, and/or alcohol problems at follow-up.

Alcohol marketing has even more harmful effects on children and youth. Alcohol marketing also shapes young people’s attitudes towards alcohol. And it determines consumption of concrete brands.

For example, the way alcohol is portrayed in popular films affects the attitudes of children and adolescents about using alcohol. In an experimental study, 412 young people (average age 21.8 years) were shown a four-minute movie trailer in which alcohol was portrayed in either a positive situation (in the context of friendship, festivities, etc.) or a negative situation (in the context of dependence, craving, or alcoholism). The results show young people’s attitudes toward alcohol were influenced by the context of the ad:

  • Positive portrayal of alcohol heightened their desire to consume alcohol, and
  • Negative portrayal of alcohol discouraged alcohol consumption.

2015 study from researchers at Boston University and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that alcohol advertising influences an important aspect of alcohol consumption behavior – brand choice – among youth who use alcohol.

The study revealed a direct link between underage alcohol consumption and brand-specific advertisements, both on TV and in magazines.

Underage youth were more than five times more likely to consume alcohol brands that advertise on national television and 36% more likely to consume brands that advertise in national magazines.

This type of brand-specific research into alcohol consumption among young people is steadily strengthening the link between marketing exposure and alcohol use behavior among youth. Substantial evidence now shows that judgments and behaviors, including those relating to consumption, can be strongly influenced by implicit associations as well as consciously persuasive information. Contemporary marketing formats – think of the avalanche of alcohol advertising and promotions in the social media or through sports sponsorship – that typically target children are particularly likely to “implicitly persuade” in this way.

Exposure to alcohol ads is directly linked to subsequent alcohol use by children.

  • Nearly half of the 7th grade non-alcohol users became alcohol users by 9th grade, in the U.S.
  • The more alcohol ads kids saw during 8th grade, the greater the likelihood they would take up alcohol use in 9th grade.

And the attitudes and perceptions shaped by alcohol marketing predict young people’s positive expectancies and intentions to consume alcohol.


Early onset of alcohol use, higher amounts of alcohol consumption, more high-risk ways of consuming alcohol, shaping positive attitudes, expectancies, and judgements towards alcohol, and determining brand allegiance and loyalty for an entire life – these are the harmful effects of alcohol marketing on children, adolescents, and youth.

Early alcohol onset, higher amount and high-risk ways of alcohol use, shaping positive attitudes, expectancies, and judgements about alcohol, and determining brand loyalty for an entire life – these are the harmful effects of alcohol marketing on children.”

Maik Dünnbier

How alcohol marketing causes harm to children, adolescents, and youth

Alcohol consumption among youth translates into a substantial burden of disease and death – much of which can be prevented. Also in this case, science is very clear that alcohol use in young people, especially early onset among minors, increases the risk of impeding brain development, developing alcohol use problems later in life, unwanted pregnancies, contracting transmissible diseases, being injured or even killed through violence and road traffic crashes.

The human brain develops until the age of 25. Alcohol consumption poses therefore a developmental risk to children and youth, concerning the development of cognitive and intellectual capacities.

  • Compared to those who take up alcohol use after the age of 21 – the legal age limit in the United States – young people who begin consuming alcohol before age 15 are 12 times more likely to suffer unintentional injuries, 7 times more likely to be in a motor vehicle crash, and 10 times more likely to have been in a physical fight, due to alcohol, according to U.S. data.
  • Teens hospitalized for alcohol-related injuries are more likely to die within 10 years.

Why Big Alcohol targets kids with marketing

But why would the alcohol industry expose children and youth to this type of harm through targeting and exposing kids to their marketing?

The alcohol industry invests aggressively in all kinds of alcohol marketing. Take for instance beer giant AB InBev: It is the ninth largest advertiser in the world. Globally it spent an estimated $6.2 billion on advertising in 2017. This dwarfs the advertising spending of the Coca-Cola Company (spending $4 billion globally in 2017), widely known as a big spender on marketing.

The alcohol industry needs under-age alcohol use for a significant part of their profits. They also need to market their brands to children to maintain and increase alcohol use of young ‘loyal’ consumers, as they enter adult life.”

Maik Dünnbier

For Big Alcohol, this is a great investment.

A study of youth aged 15–26 years in the U.S. found that young people consumed 1% more alcohol for each additional ad seen per month. They consumed 3% more alcohol with each additional dollar spent per capita on alcohol ads in their media market. Youth in markets with more alcohol advertisements showed increased consumption levels into their late 20s. But alcohol use plateaued in the early 20s for youth in markets with fewer advertisements.

That’s why the alcohol industry put children and youth in harm’s way.

The alcohol industry makes a substantial amount of their profits from under-age alcohol use in the U.S. market alone. The total sales revenue from minors consuming alcohol was $17.5 billion (7.4%) out of $237.1 billion in 2016.

17.5 billion
Total sales revenue from under-age alcohol use
Big Alcohol generated a total sales revenue from underage alcohol use of $17.5 billion (7.4%) out of a total of $237.1 billion in 2016, in the U.S. market alone.

The alcohol industry needs under-age alcohol use for a significant part of their profits. They also need to market their brands and products to children and youth to maintain and increase alcohol use of young “loyal” consumers, as they enter adult life.

2. Alcohol marketing saturates society with alcohol, perpetuates the harmful alcohol norm

As we can see in the case of children, adolescents, and youth, alcohol marketing is really important for the profit maximization agenda of Big Alcohol. And the alcohol industry is a massive transnational industry.

In 2018, the global retail sales of alcohol were estimated to be worth more than $1.5 trillion. The revenues of the nine largest alcohol producing companies by volume totaled $141.2 billion. Taken together, these companies would be larger than the gross domestic product of all but 54 of the world’s nations, according to a study by David Jernigan and Craig S. Ross.

Big Alcohol’s market and financial power translates directly into marketing spending. In turn, marketing spending fuels the ability of Big Alcohol to dominate the market, and to exert immense political power. A vicious cycle that inundates our societies with alcohol.”

Maik Dünnnbier

They are big and selling alcohol is extremely profitable. Alcoholic beverages were the eighth most profitable sector of 94 global industries. That means Big Alcohol is only slightly less profitable than Big Tobacco (number 3) but much more profitable than the soft drinks industry.

This market and financial power of the alcohol industry translates directly into marketing spending. And in turn marketing spending fuels the ability of alcohol industry giants to dominate the market, and to exert immense political power. A vicious cycle that inundates our societies with alcohol, that perpetuates harmful alcohol norms, and that stifles alcohol policy development.

The most thorough accounting of alcohol companies’ marketing activity came from the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2014, according to Jernigan and Ross. Based on sub-poenaed information from alcohol companies representing 79% of the volume of alcohol sold in the U.S. alcohol market, the FTC estimated total marketing expenditures in one year (2011) for the 14 largest companies at $3.45 billion. To be clear: that is alcohol marketing spending on just one country, for just one year.

Globally, beer giant AB InBev is the ninth largest advertiser in the world, with global spending at $6.2 billion in 2017. And they are not the only alcohol giant among the world’s top-100 advertisers. Five more Big Alcohol giants belong to the 100 multinational companies who spent most on advertising.

  • #25: Suntory Holdings ($3.3 billion in 2017),
  • #40: Diageo ($2.5 billion in 2017),
  • #42: Heineken ($2.4 billion in 2017),
  • #53: Pernod Ricard ($2.0 billion in 2017), and
  • #88: Molson Coors ($1.3 billion in 2017).

Jernigan and Ross explain that none of the global tobacco companies make it into the top-100 advertising spenders, most likely because of existing regulations of tobacco marketing. In fact, a recent The Lancet study showed that alcohol advertising regulation was among the least implemented public health policies in 2020. The absence of common sense rules for alcohol marketing allows the alcohol industry to engage in aggressive, often unethical, harmful marketing practices.

Big Alcohol spends billions of dollars each year on marketing. And their investment in alcohol marketing is growing. A U.S. study exposed that alcohol advertising expenditures for all alcoholic beverages increased by almost 400% between 1972 and 2012. The alcoholic beverages market in Europe is one of the largest in the world, worth more than €450 billion, in 2018, according to Statista.

3.45 billion
Total alcohol marketing spending in one year, in one market
In 2011, 14 alcohol companies representing 79% of the volume of alcohol sold in the U.S., spent $3.45 billion on alcohol marketing.
1.5 trillion
Global retail sales of alcohol in one year
In 2018, the global retail sales of alcohol were estimated to be worth more than $1.5 trillion.
17.7 billion
Advertising spending of 6 top alcohol marketers
Among the 100 largest advertisers in the world, there are six alcohol industry giants. Their total combined advertising spending in 2017 was $17.7 billion.

Alcohol companies are among the dominant players in the advertising worldwide. And their astronomical advertising spending makes Big Alcohol’s brands, imagery, and slogans ubiquitous. Alcohol is everywhere, all the time. Through TV broadcasts, in sports stadia, in music concerts, on billboards – even right next to schools and kinder gardens, in print outlets, through social media, through product placements in movies and series, through merchandise, alcohol marketing reaches into all corners of society, even into children’s rooms, schools, and playgrounds. Most societies of the world are affected by this avalanche of alcohol promotions because they do not implement common sense rules for alcohol marketing.

The absence of common sense rules for alcohol marketing allows the Big Alcohol to engage in aggressive, often unethical, marketing practices, saturating our environments with alcohol promotions.”

Maik Dünnnnbier

The saturation of our environments, including the most intimate and private ones, by alcohol marketing causes serious harm – even beyond hurting children and youth. One Heineken campaign provides a clear example.

Open your world. It’s not an invitation, but an order.

In 2016, Heineken needed to create a deeper engagement and greater trust with its male target audience. Heineken knew the target demographic tended to perceive the brand as superficial and lacking authenticity. The beer giant hired a PR agency to change the image and help “bring meaning to the Heineken brand”.

The result was the “Open Your World” ad.

For context, 2016 (Brexit vote, Fake News, conspiracy theories, Trump election, multiple acts of terror around the world) was a year with growing polarization in societies around the world. People with differing beliefs seemed to find it increasingly hard to agree a common reality and share a civil, decent way of interacting. It seemed people grew less tolerant of views they don’t share, fueled by increasingly isolated, separate echo chambers.

Heineken and their PR agency Edelman UK connected to this specific cultural moment in order to sell more beer. Their angle: “we are not as open as we think we are, but when we find common ground, over a beer, we are more likely to open up.”

I think this ad is brilliant. For Heineken and the PR company behind, it was hugely successful. For my blog post it serves as important example to illustrate the second way in which alcohol marketing causes harm.

According to Edelman, the results of the campaign were fantastic for Heineken.

  • Over 8 consecutive days the ad generated 15 million organic views even before paid media was turned on;
  • 80% of consumers said Heineken is a brand for them, following exposure to the ad;
  • 78% felt closer affinity to the brand as a result;
  • Trending topic on Twitter with a positive sentiment of 90%; and
  • No. 1 ad on YouTube in April, 2016;
    • Generated 324,000 engagements, 138,000 shares.

For anyone who conducts or has participated in team building activities, it is easy to understand the dynamics depicted in the ad.

People get a chance to solve a practical problem together, relying on cooperation where they reduce physical distance to one another and find easy ways to interact; then the people get a second simple task to describe themselves, helping them to get to know each other without the awkwardness of small talk; after having supported each other, they now have a chance to look at one another and listen to each other in a controlled environment. They bond. And then they finish the project together, which generates the experience of shared success. Beautiful. Teamwork. We all know how this feels. We all know how intoxicating such experiences are. It’s the human condition.

Only then comes the Heineken product into the picture, as the people place the bottles on the bar to watch statements of their project partners that reveal their opposing view points on social issues such as climate crisis, feminism, and transphobia. Once they watched the videos, the people are given the choice to walk away or stay and discuss – over a beer. All three couples stay together to continue talking, two of them reference the product: “I’m having a beer,” as shorthand for I want to stay and talk.

During the 12 week period following the campaign Heineken saw a 7.3% increase in beer sales in the UK, according to Edelman UK.

But was it the beer that facilitated opponents coming together? Is it Heineken that helps bring people together? Obviously no. The bonding took place long before the product was introduced. The connection was created because the people helped each other, saw each other, listened to each other, and experienced success together – before they knew that they held diametrically opposing beliefs about important social issues.

For me, this campaign illustrates why alcohol marketing is harmful in a second sense:

  1. Big Alcohol hijacks positive experiences to attach them to their products.
  2. Big Alcohol undermines self-esteem, replaces human capacity with consumption of their products.
  3. Big Alcohol misrepresents reality fueling a harmful alcohol norm.
  4. Big Alcohol hijacks values to sell their products.
  5. Big Alcohol pushes their products into all aspects of human life.

The “common ground” is not the Heineken product but the human connection people made before they were able to label each other. The bonding took place over solving a problem together, not over the beer. But the alcohol industry is able to convince people after the fact, that their positive experiences are due to the Heineken product, instead of their own abilities, their compassion and social skills to interact with other humans.

This is serious because the alcohol industry is undermining and eroding the self-esteem of people to sell their products. As the Heineken bottle moves into the center of attention, people forget that it is them who made the connection, who navigated a social context and how managed it successfully. But Big Alcohol doesn’t want us to focus on our ability to be compassionate and to connect to other humans. They want to teach us that we need their products to do so.

The ad campaign is about tolerance and diversity. But it is striking that 100% of the people in the ad want to consume beer. There’s no question about it. That’s the world of Heineken. But it is not reality. More than a quarter of the UK adult population lives free from alcohol, according to the World Health Organization (2018). If the ad would portray reality, at least one person would not have beer. Of course, the point is to sell Heineken, not to develop a really inclusive depiction of society. Depictions like this fuel the expectation that everyone, everywhere, even very different people, likes alcohol and wants to consume alcohol all the time. It’s a harmful alcohol norm, that actually excludes people. Many people do not want to be part of social contexts where alcohol is present.

This brings me to the fourth point. Through alcohol marketing, the alcohol industry hijacks important discussions of social issues to drive consumption of their products. We are not more likely to “open up over a beer”. We do not become more tolerant and understanding because we consume alcohol. We are more likely to bond and connect when we get the chance to be human with each other, when we see one another and listen to each other. The Heineken ad is a grotesque simplification that erodes understanding of what our communities and societies really need. over a beer, we are more likely to open up.

With this ad campaign Big Alcohol inserted itself into an important discussion about how to create a more decent, less polarized public discourse and atmosphere in society. Heineken did this to sell beer and improve its image among its target group. The alcohol industry pushes their products into all aspects of our societies, even if they have no place there. Their take on overcoming differences is not a sincere contribution to the societal discussion because it is not inclusive itself and because it grotesquely simplifies the issue.


Alcohol advertising and marketing is a massive and expanding phenomenon. Global companies spend billions of dollars each year on marketing.

Big Alcohol dollars enable the major companies to use a wide range of marketing strategies, including target marketing focused on special populations such as women, racial and ethnic minorities, young adults, older adults, adherents of particular sports, and so on.

The last decade has seen a shift from traditional marketing to digital landscapes. The new merged marketing channels, techniques and platforms make alcohol advertising an even more ubiquitous phenomenon with multiple forms of expression. The mantra is “open your world” and it is an order because Big Alcohol wants in on our values, desires, hopes and dreams and they want to reach us at any time, anywhere they can.

Alcohol marketing perpetuates a norm that makes social environments about alcohol, not people.”

Maik Dünnbier

Alcohol marketing hijacks positive experiences to attach them to their products. It undermines self-esteem and replaces human capacity with consumption of alcohol products. Alcohol marketing misrepresents reality, excluding people from that reality, conditioning expectations about social environments and the role of alcohol in them. This is fueling and perpetuating a harmful alcohol norm that excludes people and harms people. Alcohol marketing also hijacks values and social issues to sell alcohol products. And alcohol marketing pushes the presence of alcohol into all aspects of human life.

How alcohol marketing causes harm to vulnerable groups and society at large

  1. The concept that everyone likes alcohol, all the time, everywhere; that everyone enjoys the effects of alcohol; and that everyone welcomes the ubiquity of alcohol is harmful. It eliminates legitimate preferences and concepts of social interaction that do not include alcohol. People feel compelled to consume alcohol, even if they do not like it or just do not want to in a specific context.
  2. Alcohol marketing also harms people who want to reduce or quit alcohol consumption. And it harms those who want to live alcohol free because they are in recovery from alcohol use disorder (AUD) or because they have any other health condition. Being compelled to navigate environments that literally push alcohol, a health harmful and addictive substance, on people increases the risk of relapse or to succumb to the pressure of the alcohol norm and in this way to aggravate a health condition.
  3. Alcohol marketing is harmful to people with an AUD in another way: they get stigmatized for the health problem they have. Alcohol marketing perpetuates the misconception that alcohol use problems are rare and only affect people who do not know how to use alcohol “responsibly”. But AUD, like other alcohol harms are determined by the environment where people live. And alcohol marketing shapes these environments, creating positive attitudes to alcohol, promoting brands, shaping values and concepts of a good life and making alcohol available and desirable.
  4. Alcohol marketing is disproportionately present in vulnerable communities and neighborhoods with lower socio-economic status. And the alcohol industry has developed specific marketing strategies to target vulnerable groups, such as children, women through appropriating feminism, ethnic minorities (for instance in the U.S.).

The alcohol industry uses their marketing activity, in the form of both product development and promotion, to segment and target groups that have historically lived free from alcohol consumption. In many low- and middle-income countries this includes women.

A case study of alcohol marketing in Estonia found intentional alcohol industry efforts to increase alcohol use among women.

In India, Diageo, a London-based global alcohol industry giant, has explicitly targeted marketing toward women. But more than 98% of women live free from alcohol.

These examples point to the possible impact of increased resources for marketing on alcohol use in specific groups, other than youth.

The alcohol industry is also using the pandemic with specific marketing campaigns.

  • Big Alcohol is promoting alcohol use as the way to catch up socially online, exploiting people’s need for social connection to sell their products.
  • Big Alcohol is encouraging alcohol consumption as a way to cope with boredom, stress and anxiety. The alcohol industry wants everyone to think their products will help. But this is a very unethical strategy because alcohol consumption to cope with mental health problems increases the risk of addiction.
  • Big Alcohol is using ‘healthy’ words to describe their products. Describing alcohol products with words like ‘natural’ and ‘organic’ is a deliberate tactic to make them seem healthier – called a ‘health halo’ – when in reality there are no healthy alcohol product options.

An Australian report from April 2020 showed the extent to which the alcohol industry is using the COVID-19 pandemic to market their products.

  • In just one hour on a Friday night, 107 sponsored alcohol advertisements were displayed on a person’s Facebook and Instagram accounts, which equates to approximately one alcohol advertisement every 35 seconds.

“With phrases like ‘wine from home’, ‘Stay in. Drink up’, and ‘confinement sale’, it’s evident the alcohol industry is using a global health crisis to its advantage,” said Cancer Council WA Alcohol Program Manager Julia Stafford.

It is one dimension of alcohol marketing that most clearly illustrates the exploitative business practices of the alcohol industry – especially during a global public health crisis.

Alcohol marketing fuels and perpetuates the pervasive and harmful alcohol norm. It’s a norm that allows for social transgressions that are otherwise not acceptable: sexism, racism, even rape and other forms of violence. Alcohol marketing drives harmful expectations, for example through a century of advertising that has objectified and sexualized women. Alcohol marketing promotes unfair privileges for alcohol users and thus drives harmful behavior. And alcohol marketing perpetuates a norm that makes social environments about alcohol, not people.

3. Alcohol marketing prevents evidence-based alcohol industry regulation

The alcohol marketing landscape is increasingly dominated by just a few global alcohol producers. This domination allows alcohol giants to extract significant profits. In turn, this is then used to protect and increase market domination. Marketing spending plays a fundamental role in this Big Alcohol strategy because it helps erecting high barriers to entry for new firms. They would also have to spend gigantic sums for advertising in order to compete with the alcohol market dominators.

In this way, a small number of transnational alcohol corporations has amassed the financial and political powers to shape our environments, values, attitudes, and expectations. They also shape our societies through their political power. And that is the third way alcohol marketing causes harm.

The retail, pricing and marketing of alcohol drive the psychological, physical, social and financial availability of alcohol. They create “alcohol environments” that also affect law makers and other political leaders.”

Maik Dünnbier

In addition, Big Alcohol invests in stakeholder marketing to maintaining policy environments that are permissive of their alcohol marketing activities, explain Jernigan and Ross.

“Stakeholder marketing” and corporate social responsibility activities are other strategies of significant alcohol marketing activity. Stakeholder marketing has been defined as “activities and processes within a system of social institutions that facilitate and maintain value through exchange relationships with multiple stakeholders”. In practice, this often includes lobbying, campaign contributions, and other activities designed to influence policy makers and to maintain a policy environment conducive to increasing corporate sales and profits. 

Alcohol companies fund corporate social responsibility programs all over the world, with stated public health and philanthropic objectives. However, analysis shows that 55% of the 215 activities analyzed had a marketing potential, whereas only 3% were based on scientific evidence of effectively reducing alcohol harm.

Both the major alcohol companies themselves and surrogate organizations, conduct corporate social responsibility campaigns.

Internal company documents revealed why Big Alcohol invests in such surrogate organizations: “[This is] the latest initiative in managing worldwide issues, and assisting our sales and marketing group in an increasingly competitive marketplace”.

Stakeholder marketing and corporate social responsibility campaigns assist in maintaining a policy environment conducive to extensive alcohol marketing activity.

The most common regulatory response has been alcohol industry self-regulation; statutory public health responses have made little progress in recent years and have lagged behind alcohol industry innovation in digital and social marketing. In fact, a recent The Lancet study showed that alcohol advertising regulation was among the least implemented public health policies in 2020.

A systematic review of industry self-regulation of alcohol marketing that may put vulnerable populations at risk revealed that self-regulatory regimes were not meeting their own goals of protecting vulnerable groups, due to conflicts of interest that compromise the effectiveness.

Alcohol marketing in the United States is primarily self-regulated. But U.S. youth are exposed to a substantial amount of alcohol ads. From 2005 to 2012, under-age youth were exposed to more than 15 billion advertising impressions that were not in compliance with the alcohol industry’s own self-regulation code.

The retail, pricing and marketing of alcohol drive the psychological, physical, social and financial availability of alcohol. They create “alcohol environments” that also affect law makers and other political leaders.

Alcohol marketing is harmful because it helps the alcohol industry to delay and avoid regulation that would threaten its profits. Weak alcohol regulatory systems provide economic opportunities for the alcohol industry to continue to maximize profits.

The one effective solution

The global nature of alcohol marketing, and the ease with which it transcends national borders, are serious reasons to prioritize national, regional, and even global action to develop comprehensive, statutory regulations restricting or banning alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion to protect people and vulnerable groups.

When scientists modeled the potential impact of a complete ban on alcohol marketing in the United States they found it would lead to a 16% reduction in alcohol-related years of life lost among young adults who were 20 years old in the year 2000. A partial ban would be associated with a 4% reduction in alcohol-related years of life lost in the same population.

A 16% reduction of years of life lost due to alcohol is a remarkable impact of just one alcohol policy solution. This illustrates the potential of one effective solution to prevent harm and promote healthier communities.

The World Health Organization reccommends to our governments to “Enforce bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion”

Bans and comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship and promotion are impactful and cost-effective measures. Enacting and enforcing bans or comprehensive restrictions on exposure to them in the digital world will bring public health benefits and help protect children, adolescents and abstainers from the pressure to start consuming alcohol.”

WHO SAFER Technical Package

Bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising are one of the top three most impactful and cost–effective solutions to prevent and reduce the harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. Of course, digital marketing should be included in such regulatory frameworks.

Public health researchers have recently called for global action to prevent the exposure of vulnerable populations to alcohol marketing. They emphasize that “the most effective response to alcohol marketing is a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising, promotion, and sponsorship”. 

The underlying principle for action on alcohol marketing should be that children adolescents, and adults who choose not to consume alcohol should be protected from exposure to alcohol marketing and that they have a right to go about their lives in environments free from alcohol promotions.

The solution to protecting people from commercial pressure to start consuming and to consume more and more alcohol has large support among the public. Therefore, it is important that policymakers break the cycle of heavy alcohol marketing, pervasive alcohol environments, and policy inaction. It’s time to hear the people and put the public interest first.