Protecting young people: the case for statutory regulation of alcohol marketing

The Alcohol and Families Alliance | October 2019 | 9 minutes

Policy proposal: Introduce and enforce tighter restrictions on alcohol marketing via statutory regulation, independent of industry, with a particular emphasis on protecting young people from exposure to alcohol marketing.

The Alcohol Charter, produced jointly by the Drugs, Alcohol & Justice Cross-Party Parliamentary Group and the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Alcohol Harm, sets out effective and workable policies to reduce the damage to society caused by alcohol misuse. The proposal above is one of 16 evidence-based policy proposals laid out in the Charter.

The Alcohol and Families Alliance is one of more than 30 organisations that endorse the Alcohol Charter. Here, they outline their reasons for supporting this proposal.

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Why do brands advertise? While I could insert a lengthy quote here about ‘brand-synergy’ and ‘market-penetration’, the short answer is so we buy things. Their things, specifically. So, it follows, if we don’t want children to buy alcohol, we don’t want them to be exposed to alcohol marketing.

Research* has identified that exposure to alcohol advertising is linked to children drinking from an earlier age, more heavily, and in riskier ways than they otherwise would. Whether it be movies, magazines, video games, television, online, sports and music sponsorship, alcohol-branded merchandise, free samples, price promotions, or social media and user-generated content – similar effects have been identified across all of these marketing channels.

It seems there’s an urgent need to protect children from exposure to alcohol advertising. So, what has been done? In reality, very little. Currently, alcohol marketing in the UK is self- and co-regulated, by the Advertising Standards Authority (funded by the advertising industry), Ofcom, and the Portman Group (funded by the alcohol industry). This system has been widely criticised – specifically for its failure to protect children.

When the House of Commons Health Select Committee investigated this system, they discovered internal marketing communications from alcohol producers and their advertising agencies showing that young people are in fact a target of alcohol advertising.

Exposure to alcohol advertising is linked to children drinking from an earlier age, more heavily, and in riskier ways than they otherwise would.

These documents showed that market research data on 15-16 year olds were used to craft campaigns. Prominent UK alcohol brands appeared, with Carling hoping to “become the most respected youth brand...” and Lambrini suggesting TV spots hoped to be “a cross between myspace and High School the Musical [sic]”. More concerningly, one Carling executive went further to suggest “[Young men] think about four things, we brew one and sponsor two of them”. The situation does not seem to have improved with time; only this summer Rita Ora came under fire for promoting a tequila brand to her young Instagram followers – the ASA are yet to investigate.

The UK Government looks set to take bold steps to protect young people from junk food advertising, and we hope they have the same drive to protect children from the harms of alcohol advertising. The Alcohol Charter calls for statutory regulation of this marketing, by a body free from industry influence, similar to that of France’s ‘Loi Evin’ regulation. Loi Evin restricts placement and content of alcohol advertising, making the targeting of young people illegal.

It is not only the Alcohol Charter’s supporters calling for this; the World Health Organisation back this change, and Public Health England have stated that self-regulatory systems, like the one we currently have, fail to meet "their intended goal of protecting vulnerable populations" and that the use of such self-regulatory codes as a route to influence policy “are similar to the strategies used by the tobacco industry".

We need change now.

* See also:
Tucker, J.S., Miles, J.N. and D'Amico, E.J. 2013. Cross-lagged associations between substance use-related media exposure and alcohol use during middle school. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(4), pp.460-464.
Tanski, S.E., McClure, A.C., Li, Z., Jackson, K., Morgenstern, M., Li, Z. and Sargent, J.D. 2015. Cued recall of alcohol advertising on television and underage drinking behavior. JAMA pediatrics, 169(3), pp.264-271.
de Bruijn, A., Tanghe, J., de Leeuw, R., Engels, R., Anderson, P., Beccaria, F., Bujalski, M., Celata, C., Gosselt, J., Schreckenberg, D. and Słodownik, L. 2016. European longitudinal study on the relationship between adolescents’ alcohol marketing exposure and alcohol use. Addiction, 111(10), pp.1774-1783.
Critchlow, N., MacKintosh, A.M., Hooper, L., Thomas, C. and Vohra, J. 2019. Participation with alcohol marketing and user-created promotion on social media, and the association with higher-risk alcohol consumption and brand identification among adolescents in the UK. Addiction Research & Theory, pp.1-12.
Hanewinkel, R., Sargent, J.D., Poelen, E.A., Scholte, R., Florek, E., Sweeting, H., Hunt, K., Karlsdottir, S., Jonsson, S.H., Mathis, F. and Faggiano, F. 2012. Alcohol consumption in movies and adolescent binge drinking in 6 European countries. Pediatrics, pp.peds-2011.
Morgenstern, M., Sargent, J.D., Sweeting, H., Faggiano, F., Mathis, F. and Hanewinkel, R. 2014. Favourite alcohol advertisements and binge drinking among adolescents: a cross‐cultural cohort study. Addiction, 109(12), pp.2005-2015.
Smith, L.A. and Foxcroft, D.R., 2009. The effect of alcohol advertising, marketing and portrayal on drinking behaviour in young people: systematic review of prospective cohort studies. BMC public health, 9(1), p.51.
de Bruijn, A., Tanghe, J., de Leeuw, R., Engels, R., Anderson, P., Beccaria, F., Bujalski, M., Celata, C., Gosselt, J., Schreckenberg, D. and Słodownik, L. 2016. European longitudinal study on the relationship between adolescents’ alcohol marketing exposure and alcohol use. Addiction, 111(10), pp.1774-1783.
Brown, K. 2016. Association between alcohol sports sponsorship and consumption: a systematic review. Alcohol and alcoholism, 51(6), pp.747-755.

Run by Adfam, the Institute of Alcohol Studies and Alcohol Change UK, the Alcohol and Families Alliance is a forum and resource for developing and influencing policy on alcohol and families, forging a consensus across the substance misuse and children and families sectors.

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Join the Institute of Alcohol Studies on 16 October for their conference 'Alcohol marketing: protecting the vulnerable'.

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