Ireland needs legislation on all elements of the alcohol marketing mix

From The Irish Medical Times

March 22, 2013

Dara Gantly on calling closing time on our flawed regulation of alcohol promotion.

It seems that the Irish Presidency is determined to work towards agreeing tougher EU rules on cigarette smoking.

While Ireland was the first in Europe to introduce legislation to ban smoking in public places, our current Minister for Health accepts that more needs to be done. Speaking after an informal meeting of EU Health Ministers in Dublin earlier this month (March 5), Dr James Reilly commented: “Smoking is optional ”” breathing is not.   I congratulate the Commissioner on the publication of the proposals for a new Tobacco Products Directive.   It is vital that we progress this important legislation as quickly as possible.”

But what about alcohol? This country’s dysfunctional relationship with alcohol costs us financially more than €3 billion a year, an estimated 2,000 hospital beds a night and millions in lost productivity, as well as the innumerable social and personal costs to both the drinker and those affected by his or her behaviour. And it is often our young people who are suffering the most.

You may not have seen the recent report in the BMJ on the alcohol industry grooming the next generation (BMJ 2013;346:f1227), but it was frightening to discover that children in Britain are actually more exposed to alcohol promotion than adults.   A new analysis conducted by the Rand Corporation for the European Commission shows, for example, that 10- to 15-year-olds in the UK see 10 per cent more alcohol advertising on TV than their parents do. Even more shocking, when it comes to the specific sector of alcopops, they see 50 per cent more.

RAND’s analysis was unable to draw any sensible conclusions about relative exposure via digital and social media. The think-tank did note, however, that young people are the heaviest users, and alcohol marketers are exploiting the opportunities with enormous energy.

That this commercial activity is harming children is beyond dispute, according to Prof Gerard Hastings at the University of Stirling and Dr Nick Sheron at the University of Southampton, whose editorial coincided with the publication of the UK’s first independent alcohol strategy (Health First: an evidence-based alcohol strategy for the UK, Indeed, findings from 13 peer-reviewed studies on the impact of alcohol marketing on young people were absolutely clear cut: “Alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol.” And in Ireland, alcohol is one of the most heavily-marketed products on our shelves, with a total market value of approximately €6 billion each year.

Yet this deeply regrettable state of affairs is completely predictable, the authors of the BMJ article argued. They point to the voluntary commitment made by the drinks industry to restrict its advertising to media that “have a minimum 70 per cent adult audience”. The so-called 70:30 split is based on the share of the US population above the legal drinking age of 21, but has been applied generally around the globe, with a ratio of 75:25 in the UK and indeed here in Ireland.

However, the authors explained that in the UK, only 21 per cent of the population is under 18, and of these, 5 per cent are infants, so the voluntary guidelines allocate these children an audience share of 25 per cent, even though they comprise only 16 per cent of the population. “The RAND study shows that this is delivering exactly the result that would be expected: children are more exposed than adults,” they said. While nearly 28 per cent are aged under 19 in Ireland, infants aged under 5 account for nearly 8 per cent of the total population.

The Rand analysis also suggests two further conclusions. Firstly, the disproportionately high exposure of children to alcopops advertising cannot be explained simply by the regulatory system; deliberate targeting must also be at play. “We have to assume that drink advertisers are not deliberately aiming their campaigns at children, but internal documents do show that they are enthusiastically targeting the profitable group of young people aged between the minimum legal drinking age and 21,” wrote the authors. The danger that “such neatly-targeted campaigns will spill over into younger groups” is clear from the analysis.

Ireland needs legislation on all elements of the marketing mix. The Department of Health’s Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy last year recommended the introduction of statutory codes and legislation, which would phase out drinks industry sponsorship of sport and other events by 2016; reduce the volume, content and placement of all advertising in all media; introduce a 9pm watershed for ads on radio and TV; and ban outdoor advertising. A minimum ’floor’ price beneath which alcohol cannot be sold would also be introduced.

As we recover from the excesses of the St Patrick’s Day weekend (1.5 million Irish drinkers drink in a harmful pattern), we find ourselves in Alcohol Awareness Week (March 18 to 22).

So let’s raise our glasses (of non-alcoholic, recession-hit tap water) to Minister of State at the Department of Health Alex White as he prepares to bring his Alcohol Action Plan to Cabinet. To borrow from the comedian Des Bishop, let’s hope the Government doesn’t ’bottle it’ and end up the biggest drinks cabinet in the country!