Current Alcohol Marketing Controls Don’t Protect Youth

UConn Health researcher Thomas Babor led a global review of youth exposure to alcohol advertising that concludes with a recommendation for statutory controls. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images)
UConn Health researcher Thomas Babor led a global review of youth exposure to alcohol advertising that concludes with a recommendation for statutory controls. (KatarzynaBialasiewicz/Getty Images)

SHARELINES

Public health experts from around the globe are urging their governments to strengthen alcohol marketing regulations to better protect the world’s youth.

No other legal product with such potential for harm is as widely promoted and advertised in the world as alcohol. — Thomas Babor

Their call coincides with a series of research reports in a special issue of the scientific journal Addiction presenting the latest evidence on alcohol marketing and its impact on children.

“Governments are responsible for the health of their citizens,” says Thomas Babor, the journal’s lead editor and professor and Health Net Inc. Endowed Chair in Community Medicine and Public Health at the UConn School of Medicine. “No other legal product with such potential for harm is as widely promoted and advertised in the world as alcohol.”

According to experts, youth around the world are exposed to extensive alcohol marketing, and current controls are ineffective in blocking the association between youth exposure and subsequent drinking. Alcohol is the leading cause of death and disability for young males aged 15-24 in nearly every region of the world, and young females of the same age in the wealthy countries and the Americas.

Key findings reported in the journal’s 14 research studies show that exposure to alcohol marketing is associated with youth alcohol consumption, and that the alcohol industry’s self-regulatory codes do not sufficiently protect children and adolescents from exposure to alcohol promotions, especially through social media. In addition, a case study of alcohol promotion during the 2014 FIFA World Cup indicates alcohol marketing practices frequently appeared to breach the industry’s voluntary codes of practice.

Says Babor, “These papers provide a wealth of information to support governments in their efforts to protect children and other vulnerable populations from exposure to alcohol marketing.”

We can no longer say that [self-regulatory measures on alcohol advertising] might work to protect our young people – they don’t. — Chris Brookes

According to Chris Brookes of the UK Health Forum, where the research study project originated following efforts to bring the alcohol policy leads of the European Union and United States together, “Governments have previously approved self-regulatory measures on alcohol advertising; however, we can no longer say that they might work to protect our young people – they don’t. In a literature review of more than 100 studies, none was identified that supported the effectiveness of industry self-regulation programs.”

The researchers offer governments the following guidelines for the development of more effective alcohol marketing regulations:

  • The most effective response to alcohol marketing is likely to be a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising, promotion, and sponsorship, in accordance with each country’s constitution or constitutional principles.
  • Regulations should be statutory, and enforced by an appropriate public health agency of the local or national government, not by the alcohol industry.
  • Regulations should be independent of the alcohol industry, whose primary interest lies in growing its markets and maximizing profits.
  • A global agreement on the marketing of alcoholic beverages would support country efforts to move towards a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising, promotion, and sponsorship.
  • Collaboration with other population-level efforts to restrict marketing of potentially harmful products, such as ultra-processed food, sugary beverages, tobacco, and breast-milk substitutes, should be encouraged and supported.

The research papers in Addiction represent the highest level of scholarly attention ever devoted to the issue of alcohol marketing in one scientific journal. The journal’s special issue is funded by Alcohol Research UK, a charity that tackles alcohol-related harms, and the Institute of Alcohol Studies, a charity focused on scientific understanding of alcohol and prevention of alcohol-related problems. The authors and editors of the special issue donated their time for free to produce these research papers.