independent advocate reducing alcohol harm

Why aren’t we willing to protect children from profiling and targeting by corporate forces selling harmful products such as alcohol, betting and junk food?

The Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill 2022 (OSMR) is currently making its way through the houses of the Oireachtas. It is a long-awaited piece of legislation that will do much to reduce the exposure of children to harmful online content.  

Alcohol Action Ireland in particular is interested in ensuring that children are protected from digital alcohol advertising and the insidious practices of tracking, profiling and targeting young people to market harmful and addictive products. 

Unfortunately, in this area, the Bill falls short in protecting children from what global children’s rights experts call exploitive marketing of unhealthy commodities and “an important threat to children’s health and futures”. 

Advertising restrictions of alcohol have been assessed as highly cost-effective because they can influence the initiation of alcohol use and risk behaviour at the population level. 

The Joint Committee on Tourism, Culture, Arts, Sport and Media in its report on pre-legislative scrutiny of the general scheme of the bill recommended a ban on advertising to children online, including, at the very minimum, advertising of junk foods, alcohol, foods high in fat, salt or sugar, and gambling. 

The proposed legislation, however, does not reflect this and thus is allowing big business to commodify childhood by allowing young people to fall under the influence of advertisers selling products detrimental to their health and well-being. 

As stated by Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Catherine Martin, at the outset of the debate, the main aim of the OSMR legislation is to “jump-start modernisation of Ireland’s approach to the regulation of content, both for traditional editorial media and the landscape of newer online services fueled by user-generated content.” 

If this is to be the case, then banning alcohol advertising is a must to protect children. 

Digital advertising is far more harmful for children than any other form of advertising. Estimates suggest that by the time a child turns 13, advertisers already hold over 72 million data points about him/her, and the surveillance advertising industry for children is worth in excess of $1 billion. 

 A recent World Health Organization report, noted that: ”Alcohol marketing is adapting to new realities faster than current legal regulations across the region, with industry using opportunities offered by digital platforms to sell their products in a largely unregulated market”. It also contained a stark warning on “the targeting of consumers including children and adolescents to promote drinking.” 

The rapid shift to an online world during COVID-19 has exacerbated matters, resulting in an increase in digital operations from alcohol brands, increasing opportunities for digital marketing of alcohol.   

The Regulatory Impact Analysis for the OSMR stated that alcohol marketing is dealt with under the Public Health (Alcohol) Act 2018 (PHAA) and for this reason will not be assessed as a potential category for inclusion in a definition of “harmful online content” in the Bill. 

This, however, is simply not the case and PHAA does nothing to protect children in the digital realm, something that the Minister now has the chance to remedy in this ground-breaking legislation. 

What PHAA (section 14) does is quite narrow in terms of advertising- it prohibits the advertising of alcohol in certain public spaces only, and also contains restrictions on the content of alcohol advertising. However, the content element of the legislation is a long way from being enacted. Again, even when it is implemented, companies will still be able to track and target children online with their ads. 

By not including a ban on alcohol advertising to children in the OSMR, we are allowing this unacceptable gap in protection to continue. In essence, this infers that in a real-world setting, we must have laws to ensure there are no alcohol ads in proximity to children’s environments such as schools, playgrounds etc. But on the other hand, by not legislating for the digital space, we are allowing the alcohol industry to put ads in the palm of the hands of our children 24/7.  

This position does not make sense and there is a clear gap in how we choose to protect children from harmful advertising. The way to remedy this is by way of an amendment that specifically prohibits the advertising of alcohol in the online spaces that children inhabit. Only by naming alcohol can we ensure that this will be enforced. We know that advertising alcohol to children is wrong – this should not be a battle that needs fighting. We trust that the Minister – and indeed all of our legislators – will recognise this and back a forthcoming amendment that puts an end to the illogical divergence between protecting children in real world spaces and digital ones. 

The fact is, the government’s imperative to protect children’s rights in the digital sphere is even more urgent.   

The United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), new General Comment pertaining to the rights of the child in relation to the digital environment states that “States parties should prohibit by law the profiling or targeting of children of any age for commercial purposes on the basis of a digital record of their actual or inferred characteristics, including group or collective data, targeting by association or affinity”.  

If we do not protect children’s rights, we are not only missing an opportunity, we are ensuring the new law is out of date the minute it is signed.  

Alcohol brands are steadily spending more of their advertising budgets on digital marketing, likely because there’s a younger audience and very little in the way of regulation. This makes keeping pace with the ever-evolving digital marketplace capturing the influence of our children even more urgent.