advocating to reduce alcohol harm

Marketing alcohol – children under the influence

Alcohol marketing including advertising, sponsorship and other forms of promotion, increases the likelihood that adolescents will start to use alcohol, and to drink more if they are already using alcohol.[ii]

Yet every day, in numerous ways and through numerous media, children and young people are continuously exposed to positive, risk-free images of alcohol and its use.

Due to lack of effective regulations and legislation, young people are poorly protected from these sophisticated and powerful influences on their drinking behaviour and expectations. They are bombarded with positive images of alcohol through marketing of brands and products – in effect, the alcohol industry is a child’s primary educator on alcohol. Marketing can shape youth culture by creating and sustaining expectations and norms about how to achieve social, sporting or sexual success, how to celebrate, how to relax and how to belong.

Young people are more vulnerable when it comes to the effects of alcohol use – alcohol use by children and young people carries an increased risk of harm compared to alcohol use by adults. A range of harms are associated with starting to drink at a young age: from the psychological, such as depression and anxiety, to the behavioural – involvement in violence and public order offences both as perpetrator and victim, through to risky sexual behaviour.

More recently, neuro-scientific evidence has revealed that early and repeated alcohol use can lead to significant brain chemistry changes such as establishing addictive patterns and reducing critical faculties including impulse control and memory. Young people’s drinking patterns have a direct effect on their health, development and welfare.

From an alcohol marketing perspective, Irish 16 and 17-year-olds are significant contributors to alcohol profits in Ireland spending an estimated €145m on alcohol each year.[iii]

To say that children and young people are not influenced by alcohol marketing is equivalent to saying that young people suddenly begin to see and hear on their 18th birthday. Children and young people are constantly absorbing information and are the primary users of social and digital media including social networking sites. A recent EU funded assessment of young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing in audiovisual and online media found that the alcohol brands they reviewed all had a considerable online media presence featuring both marketer-generated and user-generated content. [iv]

Regulating Alcohol Marketing

In Ireland there is no statutory regulation of alcohol marketing, only voluntary Codes – Alcohol Marketing, Communications and Sponsorship Codes of Practice – and they do not cover all aspects of integrated marketing, that is, using the marketing methods of product, price, place and promotion to complement and reinforce each other [v].

The Codes pertaining to digital media and sponsorship are poorly developed and inadequate. Alcohol marketing has colonised many of the worlds in which young people spend their time – the worlds of music, sport and the Internet. And it often seeks out and finds young people in these worlds, uninvited. In a nationally representative survey of Irish 16 and 17-year-olds commissioned by Alcohol Action Ireland, 83% said they had a Facebook or social networking page – and 30% of those had received an alcohol-related ad or pop-up on that page.

Even the established media channels, such as television, are inadequately covered by the Codes. For example, alcohol is not to be advertised during programmes that have a viewership of greater than 25% under the age of 18. Reliance on audience profiling allows alcohol marketing to continue to reach a significant number of children and young people.

For example, programmes such as Fair City and Eastenders attract about 500,000 viewers with major sports events attracting upwards of 600,000 viewers. Applying the 25% rule, it means that 125,000 to 150,000 children and young people could be watching these programmes featuring alcohol advertising without any breach of the Codes. Recent research has shown that children aged 10-15 years in the UK are more likely than adults to be exposed to alcohol advertising on television. [vi]

In addition to advertising, children are target marketed through sponsorship of sporting and music events, promotions or offers of alcohol brand-related merchandise, and product placement in popular entertainment.[vii] Product placement alongside food is another way of marketing alcohol. Children growing up today have come to accept alcohol as a normal part of the shopping trolley along with milk, juice or water. Alcohol is sold side by side with a whole range of familiar products in supermarkets, petrol stations and newsagents creating the impression that it is no different to any other product or grocery.

A number of criticisms have been made in relation to the Codes which have been in place since October 2008:

  • Alcohol adverts can be broadcast on TV and radio as long as the child audience profile is 25% or less. A sports or soap opera which regularly attracts at least 600,000 viewers will be able to feature alcohol advertising even if the viewership consists of up to 150,000 children and young people
  • The Codes themselves do not adequately address digital marketing –  one of the most potent channels for target marketing to young people. Neither do the Codes address alcohol marketing such as Arthur’s Day or experiential marketing events where potential customers are invited (usually online, on social networking sites) to ’experience’ the alcohol product and personally connect with the brand, increasing its image and awareness
  • There are no fines or repercussions for drinks companies failing to comply with the restrictions
  • The development of the Codes did not take account of the views of organisations representing children and young people, nor did it take account of the views of public health organisations. Instead, the Government chose to work with the alcohol and advertising industries whose primary interests are to increase market share and stakeholder profit as opposed to promoting public health interests

As previously stated, the constant, intense and at times subtle forms of marketing cannot simply be ignored by children and young people until they reach 18 – the legal age for purchasing alcohol.

In this video, Professor Joe Barry, Head of the Department of Public Health and Primary Care , Trinity College for Health Sciences, and Board Member of Alcohol Action Ireland, provides an overview of alcohol marketing regulation and looks at ways forward.

Why children and young people need to be protected from alcohol marketing

  • Alcohol marketing increases the likelihood that children and young people will start drinking, and if already drinking, that they will drink more
  • Young people’s drinking patterns have a direct effect on their health, development and welfare both in the short and long term
  • Young people are more vulnerable when it comes to the effects of alcohol use – alcohol use by children and young people carries an increased risk of harm compared to alcohol use by adults
  • People who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence than those who start at age 20 or older.[viii] Those who drink heavily in their mid-teens are also more likely to experience alcohol-related harms as young adults[ix]
  • Drinking alcohol in large amounts causes the dopamine pleasure system in the growing brain to develop in a way that associates pleasure with alcohol. In essence, the brain’s pleasure system gets triggered by alcohol and becomes more ’hooked’ the earlier a child starts drinking. The brain does not become mature until about age 20[x]
  • Young people aged 14-17 with alcohol use disorders showed substantially greater levels of brain activity when shown pictures of alcoholic drinks than young people without such disorders. The parts of the brain activated were those areas linked with reward, desire and positive affect[xi]

In this video, James Doorley, Assistant Director of the National Youth Council of Ireland, talks about the Get ’Em Young research mapping young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing in Ireland.

What  needs to happen?

The Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy makes a number of recommendations which would reduce the harms caused by alcohol. Alcohol Action Ireland calls for the recommendations of the Steering Group to be implemented in full.

The Report makes a number of recommendations in relation to alcohol marketing, with a view to impacting on the age at which young people start drinking alcohol, as well as the consumption levels of under18s. These recommendations need be implemented without delay if we are serious about protecting children and young people from the impact of alcohol marketing. They are

  1. Introduce a statutory framework with respect to the volume, content, and placement of all alcohol advertising in all media in Ireland (including the advertising of pubs or clubs). This will involve the utilisation of existing legislation (such as the Broadcasting Act 2009) as well as the development of new legislation. Regard should be made to the impact of any statutory framework containing the provisions immediately below on Irish industry vis-á-vis firms from other jurisdictions.
  2. At a minimum the legislation and statutory codes should provide for: a 9.00 p.m. watershed for alcohol advertising on television and radio; alcohol advertising in cinemas to only be associated with films classified as being suitable for over-18s; prohibition of all outdoor advertising of alcohol; and all alcohol advertising in the print media to be subject to stringent codes, enshrined in legislation and independently monitored.
  3. Introduce mandatory age authentication controls on the advertising of alcohol on websites hosted in Ireland
  4. Investigate feasible approaches to, and subsequently implement controls on, the volume, content and placement of all alcohol marketing in digital media.
  5. Drinks industry sponsorship of sport and other large public events in Ireland should be phased out through legislation by 2016. In the intervening time, it should not be increased.
  6. Commence Section 9 of the Intoxicating Liquor Act 2008 (separates alcohol from other goods in mixed trade premises)

Alcohol Action Ireland address to European Parliament on the need to protect teenagers from alcohol marketing:

Follow this link to find out about our campaign on alcohol marketing and young people.



[ii] Scientific Opinion of the Science Group of the European Alcohol and Health Forum (2009) Does marketing communication impact on the volume and patterns of consumption of alcoholic beverages, especially by young people? – a review of the longitudinal studies Anderson, P. et al (2009) Impact of Alcohol Advertising and Media Exposure on Adolescent Alcohol Use: A Systematic Review of Longitudinal Studies. Alcohol and Alcoholism, pp.1-15, 2009

[iii] Office of Tobacco Control (2006) Children, Youth and Tobacco: Behaviour, Perceptions and Public Attitudes

[iv] RAND Europe (2012) Assessment of Young People’s Exposure to Alcohol Marketing in Audiovisual and Online Media

[v] The Codes were developed and agreed on by the Department of Health and Children, the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland (DIGI), the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland (ABFI), the Association of Advertisers in Ireland (AAI) and the Institute of Advertising Practitioners in Ireland (IAPI)

[vi] See iv

[vii] Hope A (2009)   Get ’Em Young: Mapping Young People’s Exposure to Alcohol Marketing in Ireland. Dublin: National Youth Council of Ireland

[viii] Grant et al (1997) cited in Mongan et al (2007) Health Related Consequences of Problem Alcohol Use. Overview 6. Dublin: Health Research Board

[ix] Anderson, P. (2009)

[x] Dr Harold Barry, (23/12/08) There’s been a sea change in teenage drinking, Medical Matters, Irish Times

[xi] Tapert cited in Anderson (2009)