Drinks industry has zero interest in answering the real questions

A statement from Drinks Ireland – the alcohol industry’s representative body – in relation to the alcohol marketing of zero products, once again utilizes the well-worn industry tactic of criticising Alcohol Action Ireland rather than focusing on the question at hand.  

The question being – does the marketing of zero alcohol products using all of the attributes of the parent brand, constitute direct or indirect marketing of an alcohol product?

In its statement to the Irish Examiner, Drinks Ireland said that AAI is promoting “a baffling policy” in relation to the marketing of zero alcohol products, somehow implying that AAI is the only group concerned with this issue. 

In fact, in the same week this was claimed, the city of Sheffield announced it is taking the pioneering step of removing harmful adverts from around the city – including alcohol and zero alcohol ads that use the attributes of the parent brand. 

The World Health Organisation recently published guidance on the whole area of zero alcohol products pointing out that they are unsuitable for children, noting concerns about them in relation to people in recovery and the need for strict regulation around their sale and marketing. 

In Australia, research with parents has shown them voicing concerns relating to the current marketing of zero-alcohol drinks and the similarity of branding to their alcohol-containing equivalents, particularly the zero-alcohol drinks produced by major alcohol companies. 

So, in fact, the reality shows that there is widespread global concern about this issue. 

The Drinks Ireland statement also fails to focus on the central point – the way in which zero alcohol drinks are marketed using all of the attributes of the parent brand and how this goes against, at the very least, the spirit of Irish law.  

Does the drinks industry really expect us all to believe that on the very day it stopped being allowed to advertise full strength alcohol on the field of play in sport, it suddenly realised there was a market for choice and moderation that it wants to support? 

Zero alcohol products are indeed a new innovation for the alcohol industry, one that is allowing them to increase profits, market to children, sell their products to people who are actively trying not to drink and to expand their brands into areas where marketing is restricted and drinking isn’t acceptable/lawful. It’s telling that a drinks industry executive said recently: “The dynamic no/low-alcohol category presents opportunities for incremental sales growth as consumers are recruited from drinks categories such as soft drinks and water.” 

The WHO and other public health experts have said that these products are not suitable for people in recovery, pregnant women or children. Yet there are no restrictions on how and where they are sold or marketed. 

A small UK study that was published this week about zero alcohol beers showed that offering alcohol-free beer on draught in pubs led to a reduction in alcoholic beer sold (4-5% lower). This shows that yes, of course, people do value choice and also that they don’t need mass marketing to find it. Furthermore, as evidence-based policy advisors, we must remember that promoting zero alcohol drinks is not a best buy for alcohol policy and we need to remain focused on those aims. 

A central plank of advertising restrictions within the Public Health Alcohol Act is to protect children from growing up in an alcogenic society. Zero alcohol marketing is allowing the industry to advertise its branding in even more places than prior to the restrictions.  

At some point a decision needs to be made in terms of balancing rights and responsibilities to children and indeed the wider population. Do commercial interests always override children’s rights, even when we have brought in clear laws showing intentions that we want to protect people? 

The problem in not tackling this issue, is that industry never stops. No matter what regulation is brought in to try and reduce the harm from alcohol and to ensure informed consent when consuming a dangerous product, industry will always try to find ways around it. 

Another egregious example of industry carrying on regardless came to light also this week when research found that Australia’s online alcohol retailers are failing to protect their customers’ unborn children by not making important health information clearly visible on the main product pages, as mandated by law. The retailers are exploiting the fact that labelling laws are yet to explicitly include making the warning visible in product photography in the online setting. 

The Drinks Ireland statement also states: “Official Irish data continues to show that overall alcohol consumption in Ireland is falling, down by close to a third in the last 20 years. A recent OECD report shows Ireland’s average alcohol consumption now stands below that of the United States, the United Kingdom and 18 other European countries, including Spain, France and Germany.” 

These countries do not have progressive alcohol policies such as in Ireland which have led to Ireland’s improvement, all of which were and are opposed by alcohol industry. 

What must always be remembered and  understood is that the alcohol industry’s sole motivation is to make more profit and ensure future profits for shareholders, while appearing to be well intentioned towards offsetting the harm its product causes whilst doing so. 

The alcohol industry does not want people to drink less after all its profits are highly dependent on heavy drinking. What it wants is less government spotlight and regulation on its activities. 

Whether it’s marketing, health warning labels or anything else, industry will always push back and use every tactic in the corporate playbook to delay, denigrate and override public health measures. 

Leadership from government is needed or else this industry will continue to both set and move the goalposts for alcohol regulation.