Alcohol Marketing and Youth Alcohol Use: A Rejoinder to the Alcohol Industry
As societal concern has increased in relation to alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm (Rehm et al., 2009; Nutt et al., 2010), attention on factors potentially influencing alcohol consumption behaviours has grown. One such factor that has been identified is alcohol marketing (Babor et al., 2010).
Recent research has found significant associations between exposure to, awareness of, and involvement with alcohol marketing, and youth alcohol consumption behaviours (Ellickson et al., 2005; Collins et al., 2007; McClure et al., 2009).
Although the majority of these studies have been conducted in the USA, a recent study from the UK published in Alcohol and Alcoholism also suggested that alcohol marketing influences youth alcohol consumption behaviour (Gordon et al., 2010).
Selective use of evidence by the alcohol industry
A briefing note published by the Portman Group (an agency linked to the alcohol beverage industry) presented the argument that alcohol marketing merely encourages brand switching, rather than encouraging consumption (Portman Group, 2010). The note commented that Gordon et al. (2010) found no association between awareness of alcohol marketing and either initiation of drinking or volume of alcohol consumed.
This view was restated, and the topic debated, at the annual conference of Alcohol Concern in London, November 2010.
The briefing note is selective in its reporting of the study of Gordon et al. (2010). While it is true that no association was found between awareness of, or involvement with alcohol marketing at baseline, and ‘amount’ of alcohol in units consumed at follow-up. However, the study found:
- associations between ‘involvement’ with alcohol marketing and both ‘uptake’ of alcohol use and increased ‘frequency’ of alcohol use.
- ‘awareness’ of alcohol marketing at baseline associated with increased ‘frequency’ of alcohol use at follow-up.
These findings offer support to the research hypotheses that awareness of, and involvement with, alcohol marketing would be positively associated with uptake and frequency of alcohol use.
The article discusses how that while limitations exist within studies, these associations are significant despite being disregarded by the alcohol industry. Another argument by the industry is other covariates such as parental and peer influence play a greater role in driving alcohol use behaviours. However the evidence base has highlighted small but statistically significant associations between alcohol marketing and youth drinking behaviour, even after controlling for parental and peer influences, and this cannot be simply ignored (Anderson et al., 2009).
Using policy to control alcohol marketing in UK
The article discusses several policy action which can be taken in controlling alcohol marketing. The author states due to the hesitance of the alcohol industry to accept the evidence on links with alcohol marketing and alcohol use, it casts doubt in giving the industry a lead role in reducing harm of alcohol, as is proposed in the UK Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal (Department of Health, 2011).
Suggestions for a policy response have included calls for a complete ban on some or all forms of alcohol marketing (Anderson, 2009; BMA Board of Science, 2009). Another proposition is that the existing co-regulatory rules and codes be extended to cover all marketing channels including sponsorship and new media, as well as action on price promotions. However, perhaps a workable starting point would be the introduction of a modified version of France’s ‘Loi Evin’ legislation (Rigaud and Craplet, 2004; Hastings and Sheron, 2011).
Under such a statutory regulatory system, only certain forms of alcohol marketing would be permitted. All other forms would be banned.
- Any form of alcohol marketing would only be permitted to refer to the actual characteristics of alcohol products such as its brand name, ingredients and provenance, and how it should be prepared and served
- Marketing in new media channels would be forbidden
- Sponsorship would only be permitted in cases in which the audience or participants are 100% over the age of 18.
- TV alcohol advertising would operate using a 9 pm watershed, to limit exposure for children.
- Limitations on the frequency of advertising across media channels would prevent overexposure to alcohol marketing.
- Billboards and posters would not be permitted within 200 m of schools
- Minimum pricing would be introduced, at a level of £0.50 per unit of alcohol
One of the main advantages of this proposed system is that it makes it clear what alcohol marketing is allowed. Everything else would be banned. This would avoid the current situation in which regulators and monitors of alcohol marketing struggle to keep up with ever-changing commercial marketing activities and new channels of communication that emerge.
For the reduction of alcohol harm in the UK, policy makers and the government needs a focus on alcohol marketing regulation as a part of a broader multi-faceted alcohol intervention strategy.