Charity urges action over alcohol marketing to cut number of deaths

SCOTLAND must go beyond minimum unit pricing (MUP) and introduce comprehensive statutory restrictions on alcohol marketing if it is to turn the tide on drink-related deaths, a charity has said.

Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) has produced a report on how the volume and sophisticated nature of booze adverts is having a detrimental effect on the health of the nation and, in particular, children and people with drinking problems.

Nearly one in every 15 deaths in Scotland is caused by alcohol and it has been proven by research that marketing directly leads to consumption.

AFS is now pushing for the Scottish Government to act and use its powers to limit how much the public is exposed to alcohol brands and the dominant cultural idea that drinking is normal.

Scotland has already begun to tackle alcohol sales with the introduction of MUP in 2018, with retailers now forbidden to sell drink at less than 50p per unit, and it has helped to reduce sales to their lowest level since records began.

But AFS chief executive Alison Douglas said MUP alone will not change drinking culture, with around a quarter of adult Scots still drinking at levels that put their health at risk.

She has insisted swift action must be taken over advertising as part of a recommended three-pronged approach to reducing alcohol harm.

“We’ve always advocated for a multi-faceted approach to tackling alcohol harm and there are three ‘best buys’ for alcohol harm that have been identified by the World Health Organisation: increasing the price, controlling alcohol marketing and controlling sales,” said Douglas.

“If you’re going to have a preventive policy, you need to do all of those things.

“We’re clear MUP is currently too low because of the effects of inflation and on its own it’s not going to change this very dominant culture we have where we see alcohol as a normal, desirable thing.

“If we’re going to challenge that culture, because it’s so deeply embedded, we have to act on all fronts.”

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The report – entitled Realizing Our Rights: How To Protect People From Alcohol Marketing – highlights how alcohol marketing in the UK is governed by a complicated system of self-regulation where industry-funded organizations are responsible for developing codes with the advertising industry about what alcohol promotions should contain.

The UK and Scottish governments have little involvement in regulation, with that essentially delegated to the industry-funded Advertising Standards Authority and the Portman Group – an industry membership body which has assumed the role of encouraging responsible marketing.

And across every code of practice – broadcast, print, digital and sponsorship – they focus mainly on content and don’t place limits on the amount of marketing.

Douglas explains the system has done little to limit the attractiveness of alcohol, unlike how more comprehensive regulation of tobacco advertising has significantly reduced the attraction of smoking. She said self-regulation has also allowed brands to become clever with their methods of advertising.

She added: “Years ago I used to think adverts got a Pavlovian response where you see the ad, and you buy the product. But actually with these bigger brands it’s about building brand awareness so you’re creating this long-term relationship with people, so when they think of an event, they think of your product.

“It’s something which is really difficult for people with alcohol problems because there is such a strong association with socializing and having fun, and it’s like you’re outside of that.”

The Scottish Government – ​​which recognized alcohol harm as a public health emergency last year – has no powers over TV and radio advertising but it can step in when it comes to billboards, bus stops, sports sponsorship, events, print publications and retail displays.

AFS insists regulation in these areas would have a significant impact in reducing Scots’ exposure to adverts and would “disrupt the marketing mix”, with likely knock-on effects for broadcast.

Douglas said: “There are a lot of things that we can do in Scotland. If you were, for example, to do something about sports sponsorship, that will have knock-on effects in areas that are maybe not within Scottish jurisdiction. If you think about TV, a proportion of what we see would be sports-related images, so if Scottish teams can’t be sponsored by alcohol companies then that would reduce the ability of that to be shown on TV.”

Public health minister Maree Todd announced in May that new curbs on alcohol advertising were being considered as she found current levels “deeply troubling”. She said a consultation on a number of proposals would take place in the autumn.

The report also stresses it is a human right for people to be protected from products which harm their health and there is an “inherent conflict” between the commercial goals of businesses selling booze and the protection of health and privacy in society.

It insists the Scottish Government taking urgent action on marketing would be an important way for it to fulfill its human rights obligations.

Douglas added: “The evidence is clear – alcohol marketing is undermining people’s right to health, when you look at the scale of the issues we have with alcohol harm.

“Having a system of self-regulation where you effectively delegate the responsibility for realizing that duty to protect people’s health to industry is not acceptable. The Government has a responsibility to control alcohol marketing in order to ensure people’s right to health and privacy – because of the way marketing invades people’s lives – can be realised.”

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