Alcohol marketing: the case for action

Cancer Research UK | 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.

Cancer Research UK 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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Advertising is a multi-billion-pound industry in the UK for a reason: it works.

You don’t have to look hard to find alcohol being promoted. There are adverts on your TV, on billboards, in shops, and on social media. While other substances such as tobacco have seen significant restrictions over decades, little progress has been made to protect the vulnerable from alcohol harm. Where governments have a desire to intervene, they can and will. Here’s why they should.

The evidence on alcohol harm in the UK is significant. For Cancer Research UK, it’s a core priority. There is strong evidence it causes seven types of cancer, including breast, mouth and bowel. Our analysis identified that alcohol was the sixth-biggest preventable cause of cancer in the UK – responsible for around 12,000 cases of cancer every year.

We have invested significant resources to build the case for reshaping alcohol policy to protect future generations and deprived groups.

Our Cancer Policy Research Centre (CRPC) has been instrumental in designing, commissioning and analysing the Youth Alcohol Policy Survey (YAPS), the only survey of its kind. It is a biannual, UK-wide survey of 11-19-year-olds which monitors young people’s involvement with alcohol marketing, alongside their alcohol knowledge, attitudes and behaviour. YAPS also tracks the impact over time of policy changes.

The first YAPS ran in 2017 and reported back findings which build the case for government action. A recent report based on YAPS data by the University of Stirling highlighted the impact of alcohol marketing on children and young people. 82% of young people recalled seeing at least one form of alcohol marketing in the month preceding the survey, with at least half estimated to have seen 32 or more instances – one per day. 17% reported owning alcohol-branded merchandise.

A 2018 CPRC report illuminated why this was the case. It found that marketing underpinned familiarity with brands, which in turn influenced attractiveness and eventually consumption. It also found that features like brightly coloured packaging and sweet tasting products were seen as particularly appealing.

The CRPC also undertook qualitative research with academics and public policy specialists. They identified that UK regulation to protect children from alcohol marketing is inadequate. Advertisers were doing more to build brand recognition through means not covered by existing regulations: online marketing, TV sports and music event sponsorship.

UK regulation to protect children from alcohol marketing is inadequate. Advertisers were doing more to build brand recognition through means not covered by existing regulations: online marketing, TV sports and music event sponsorship.

The UK is also lagging behind other leading nations. For example, regulation exists in France that strictly controls what alcohol marketers are allowed to include in their marketing. While such an approach was viewed positively, it is highly unlikely to be introduced in the UK.

So, where do we go next?

The findings of our research point in one direction: children are being exposed to influential alcohol marketing, and more needs to be done to address this. Part of the solution should be for the UK and devolved governments to assess where there are shortcomings in existing marketing and advertising regulations, and how these could be addressed. This should build on existing research by the CPRC on digital marketing. Other solutions should include providing health information on alcoholic products, as well as addressing other areas that affect young people’s purchasing habits e.g. introducing minimum unit pricing in each UK nation.

Until the necessary changes are made, Cancer Research UK will continue building the case for action. We are due to commission the next round of YAPS shortly, providing another rich set of data to assess youth perceptions of alcohol marketing and how these are changing.

Cancer Research UK is the world’s largest independent charity dedicated to saving lives through research. We support research into all aspects of cancer which is achieved through the work of over 4,000 scientists, doctors and nurses. In 2018/19, we committed £546 million to fund and facilitate research in institutes, hospitals and universities across the UK. Thanks to research, survival in the UK has doubled since the 1970s so, today, 2 in 4 people survive their cancer. Our ambition is to accelerate progress and see 3 in 4 patients surviving their cancer by 2034.

Take action

The policies laid out in the Alcohol Charter represent realistic, powerful ways to reduce the harm caused by alcohol. Help make them happen.

Sign up as an organisational supporter of the Charter and help the policies of the Charter become reality.

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