Efforts to water down Alcohol Bill must be resisted to protect children

Delaying experimentation with alcohol is a child protection issue, and reducing exposure to alcohol marketing is a key part of this

Studies clearly show that exposure to alcohol marketing by young people is associated with drinking initiation and with increased consumption amongst those who already drink. Photograph: Jim Varney/Science Photo Library

Studies clearly show that exposure to alcohol marketing by young people is associated with drinking initiation and with increased consumption amongst those who already drink. Photograph: Jim Varney/Science Photo Library

 

The Public Health (Alcohol) Bill is a welcome development and is the first attempt to place restrictions on children’s exposure to alcohol marketing on a statutory footing. Previous governments have made tentative moves in this regard, but have shied away from it under pressure, preferring instead to allow the industry to follow a self-regulatory approach. Self-regulation sounds reasonable in theory, but is much less effective in practice. Recently published research commissioned by Alcohol Action Ireland, and conducted by the Health Promotion Research Centre in NUIG, revealed that significant numbers of young children are exposed to alcohol marketing. More than 90 per cent of children surveyed said they had seen alcohol advertising in the previous week and the majority reported they were exposed to four or more alcohol advertisements a day. On the face of it, the existing system doesn’t seem to be working.

The Bill is likely to encounter stiff opposition from some industry lobby groups. In an age when consumers expect progressive corporate social responsibility, it will reflect badly on the business community, and especially on the marketing profession, if they frustrate this child-protection initiative.

Over the next few weeks we will likely hear opposition to the Bill based around the argument that alcohol marketing is merely designed to encourage brand loyalty among existing customers and brand switching from competitors’ customers. And to an extent this is correct – brand loyalty and switching are central to advertising. But this ignores the impact of advertising on new consumers.

Marketing and drink

Longitudinal studies are important because they test if causal relationships exist between marketing and behaviour. These studies show exposure to alcohol marketing is associated with drinking initiation and with increased consumption among those who already drink. There is also evidence younger adolescents are especially susceptible to the influence of alcohol marketing due to their relative lack of life experience and their ongoing cognitive development.

Early drinking initiation is associated with increased risks of alcohol-related problems in later life. Delaying experimentation with alcohol is a child-protection issue, and reducing exposure to marketing is a key part of this.

There are many positive things one can say about the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill. The introduction of minimum unit pricing is an especially important step. So too are the 9pm watershed for television advertising and new restrictions that limit advertising to messages about the specific products, as opposed to promoting lifestyles. The Bill also limits cinema advertising for alcohol to movies rated 18+, and limits outdoor advertising near schools and playgrounds.

But gaps remain. The Bill does ban alcohol advertising on sports pitches. But it will take more courage to completely break the link between sports and alcohol, and sporting organisations have a role to play in this.

Digital advertising

Dr Patrick Kenny is a lecturer in the school of marketing in the Dublin Institute of Technology

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