A special issue on the regulation of alcohol marketing in the journal Addiction has been published, prompting further debate over the adequacy of alcohol marketing rules.
Currently alcohol marketing regulation falls within the industry funded Portman Group’s Code of Practice of the Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks, which exists to 'ensure that alcohol is promoted in a socially responsible manner and only to those aged over 18'. Overall responsibility for marketing adherence is overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) who in 2014 defended the current set-up following calls for tighter restrictions to protect children.
An overview of the key research findings and implications for policy have been covered by Alcohol Research UK, who supported the special issue in conjunction with the Institute of Alcohol Studies. It states:
'The findings largely confirm what much prior research has suggested: that there is a relationship between marketing and consumption, and that existing regulations are often circumvented or are ineffective in achieving their key goals. The latter is especially the case in social media marketing where brand messages and user-generated content often blur, and where large amounts of content simply pass below the regulatory radar.
Among today’s papers, a review of studies published since 2008 finds further evidence that young people who report higher exposure to alcohol brands are more likely to drink, and drink more, than those who report seeing fewer adverts.
Of course, there are many potential causes of youth drinking and brand recognition may reflect, as well as cause, higher consumption. It is, in reality, impossible to provide a ‘smoking gun’ that can isolate the impact of marketing from all the other social and psychological reasons that drive individual drinking behaviours. However, the weight of evidence increasingly points to a tangible relationship between the two'
Again though the ASA hit back at the suggestion that self-regulation was not effective, stating the research did not provide a “useful commentary or reflect accurately” the current system. The Guardian reported comments from Dave Roberts of the industry funded Alcohol Information Partnership, who said underage drinking had been falling and the majority of people drink in moderation. "A self-regulatory framework and a partnership approach have clearly been working", Roberts said, arguing instead for programmes that specifically target harmful drinkers.
Marketing regulation in the UK - will change come?
Calls from health groups to either review marketing regulation, put it onto a statutory footing and restrict it, or to ban it altogether are of course not new. The Alcohol Health Alliance said a total ban similar to that in Norway should be the longer term objective, with restrictions on sports and pre-watershed advertising in the interim as with France's tighter 'Loi evin' approach. In 2014 an Alcohol Concern report called for statutory regulation of alcohol marketing as 'big alcohol companies cannot be trusted to promote moderate drinking', and also warned over the impact of alcohol 'brand stretching' on children.
There is however little evidence of any interest in staturory regulation by the current Government which has broadly endorsed the principle of industry involvement, such as through partnership and voluntary schemes. Health groups may also consider that seeking minimum unit pricing should be the key policy priority for now, particularly with Scotland potentially being close to overcoming long running efforts by sections of the alcohol industry to block it.
The IAS have updated its Marketing and Alcohol Factsheet. See here for the full Addiction special issue on alcohol and marketing regulation which is open access, or here for a detailed 2012 ADHS blog 'The drip feed'.