A new survey commissioned by Systembolaget and conducted by the Central Association for Alcohol and Drug Information (C.A.N.) revealed that Swedes below the legal age limit for alcohol purchasing are getting hold of alcohol products via Instagram and Snapchat.
In Sweden, young people over 18 can legally obtain alcohol products at a pub, bar or restaurant or in the form of light beer at grocery stores. After 20 years they can shop at the government-run alcohol retail monopoly Systembolaget. This leads to the question of how young people below 18 years get hold of alcohol products. The survey commissioned by Systembolaget and conducted by C.A.N. answers the question of how Swedish youth between 16 to 21 years obtain alcohol products, along with other questions.
The survey found that:
- The most common way young people obtained alcohol products were from an adult who was close to them, such as a friend, parent, sibling or partner.
- 28% of the young people surveyed had seen an offer on social media to buy alcohol from a private individual.
- 12% of these young people bought alcohol products via social media accounts, mostly instagram and snapchat.
- More girls were buying alcohol via social media than boys. 14% of girls compared to 10% of boys.
- Buying alcohol via social media was most common among young people in metropolitan municipalities and suburban municipalities.
- Those who have consumed alcohol report seeing even more alcohol product advertisements.
- Among those adolescents who had consumed alcohol 42% stated that they had seen alcohol advertising from a company. This is 10% more advertising exposure than the 32% of those who had never had alcohol that reported seeing alcohol ads.
- Young people who bought alcohol products via social media are at a higher risk of alcohol problems.
- 84% of youth who bought alcohol on social media reported past month alcohol use compared to 71% of youth who did not buy alcohol on social media.
- 77% of youth who bought alcohol on social media reported using alcohol in a high risk way compared to 52% of youth who did not buy alcohol on social media.
Young people are being targeted by alcohol advertising on social media despite it being illegal to target anyone under 25 with alcohol advertising in Sweden. Swedish alcohol marketing laws are very specific and aim to reduce harm to the population and specifically to children and young people.
- The particular moderation clause for permitted advertising for alcohol products with higher alcohol content than 2.25% alcohol by volume posits that any variety of advertising of alcohol directed to consumers may not be intrusive, insistent on or encourage the use of alcohol, nor be aimed at people under the age of 25.
- The advertising of alcohol may furthermore only display the product itself and thus not be linked to individuals, attributes or to a certain lifestyle.
- There is a total ban on advertising alcohol on television and radio, with the exception of advertising that conforms to the ‘country of origin’ principle.
Big Alcohol’s attempt to normalize alcohol in Swedish society
The alcohol industry has been attempting to normalize alcohol use in Sweden. A survey by Novus found that, in Sweden, in 2021, 50% of survey respondents thought weekday alcohol use was normal. This was a 10% increase from 40% in 2015.
The alcohol industry deploys the strategy to normalize alcohol use because alcohol policy solutions are working and alcohol use is declining in the country. C.A.N. analysis shows that self-reported alcohol use declined by 7% in Sweden in 2020, during the ongoing pandemic, compared to 2019. In Sweden, and globally, youth alcohol consumption is on the decline and young people stay alcohol-free longer.
Alcohol marketing harms young people
Big Alcohol is increasingly investing in social media presence to reach youth and to hook Swedish young people on alcohol products as soon as possible.
Alcohol marketing is harmful to young people because it shapes their attitudes towards alcohol, predicting their future consumption and loyalty to alcohol brands.
An experimental study, of 412 young people found that,
- Positive portrayal of alcohol heightened their desire to consume alcohol, and
- Negative portrayal of alcohol discouraged alcohol consumption.
A 2015 study from researchers at Boston University and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore found that,
- 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.
Exposure to alcohol ads is directly linked to subsequent alcohol use by children.
The human brain develops approximately until the age of 25. Alcohol consumption poses a developmental risk to children and youth, concerning the development of cognitive and intellectual capacities.
- The younger children and adolescents are when they start consuming alcohol, the more likely they will engage in behaviors that harm themselves and others. For example, frequent binge alcohol users are more likely to engage in risky behaviors, including using other drugs, having sex with six or more partners, and performing poorly in school.
- Teens hospitalized for alcohol-related injuries are more likely to die within 10 years.
In a nutshell, the harms caused to young people through alcohol marketing include:
- 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 products.
- Determining brand allegiance and loyalty for an entire life.
Big Alcohol profits from underage alcohol use
Big Alcohol does not care about the harm they are causing to young people with their aggressive marketing practices. They only focus on the profits that they can get from under-age alcohol use.
A study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in 2021 found that in the United States alone, the total sales revenue from underage youth consuming alcohol was $17.5 billion (7.4%) out of $237.1 billion in 2016.
Digital alcohol marketing an emerging problem
Even in Sweden with comprehensive and evidence-based alcohol marketing regulations, digital alcohol marketing is becoming a problem as the C.A.N. study illustrates. Data and experiences from other countries reveal that the alcohol industry deploys similar strategies across the world.
Last year several studies in Australia uncovered how data collected by social media companies is used by unhealthy product industries, including Big Alcohol, to target their marketing and push kids to buy their products from a young age. This led to public outcry against social media companies collecting massive amounts of data on people, specifically children.
- A report by VicHealth, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the Obesity Policy Coalition (OPC) uncovered that 940,000 Australian children were profiled as “interested in alcohol” by Facebook in 2018.
- Another report by Reset Australia published soon after exposed how Facebook collects and profiles children’s data for targeted advertising. They found Facebook profiled children as being interested in alcohol, tobacco and gambling. According to their analysis, reaching a thousand kids and teens profiled as interested in alcohol will only cost advertisers around $3.03.
Ultimately, Facebook changed their advertising restrictions. They will not allow advertisers to target children based on their interests anymore. However, Facebook has not committed to stop collecting data and profiling children as interested in harmful products.
Thus, the problem of social media companies colluding with Big Alcohol for profiling children remains. As observed in the C.A.N. report, in Sweden children who had consumed alcohol products saw even more advertisements for these products. The authors say this is partly explained by the social media search algorithms.
There is an urgent need to ensure children remain protected from Big Alcohol and other unhealthy commodity industries’ targeting when they are online. It is unethical to be collecting data on children about risky or unhealthy behaviors. Legally children cannot consume such products hence they should not be considered as “interested” in them.
Swedish law clearly doesn’t allow for targeted advertising to anyone under 25 years of age. More stringent measures must be put in place to protect children and young people from this novel threat.
Accent: “Young people get alcohol via Snapchat and Instagram” [Translated from Swedish]
C.A.N.: “Young people’s alcohol supply via social media“[Translated from Swedish]