Trouble at the forum

Posted 30 January 2015.

By Paul Head, CEO, CAANZ

​Just before Christmas, the Government released a report drafted by the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship. The Forum was established early in 2014 to review what changes, if any, might be necessary to current practice around alcohol advertising and sponsorship.

The report, entitled “Recommendations on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship” makes some extreme, and in my opinion, ill-founded recommendations.
In essence the report advocates the phased implementation of a total ban on sponsorship by alcohol brands and increased restrictions on alcohol advertising on broadcast media, including moving the watershed.

The rationale for these recommendations boils down to the Forum’s view (albeit not a unanimous view) that sponsorship, and to a lesser degree advertising, are significant contributors to youth alcohol consumption and in particular, the age of initiation.

This is despite the fact that the report’s authors recognise the fact that “the evidence for the effectiveness of restrictions on advertising and sponsorship is mixed” and that “overall rates of hazardous drinking (in NZ) have declined”

The report also recognises “the importance of developing evidence-informed policy and note that our challenge has been to understand and respond to research about the relationship between advertising and sponsorship and alcohol-related harm that is interpreted differently by stakeholders with divergent views. However, we note that the majority of submitters indicated their overall support for the objectives of reducing alcohol-related harm and changing harmful alcohol consumption patterns despite differing ideas about how this might be achieved”.

But notwithstanding the noble intention, which no-one would dispute, and despite wading through huge amounts of international and local research and opinion, the report fails to identify any clear causal link between alcohol related harm and alcohol sponsorship or advertising, yet recommends a set of draconian restrictions on both forms of legitimate marketing.

In fact there is significant evidence in support of the contrary view, for example, there is little or no link between advertising, sponsorship and alcohol consumption.

Firstly, there is no correlation between alcohol ad spend and consumption in New Zealand. Over nearly three decades both ad spend and consumption have varied widely but independently of each other – indeed 1998 was the year of the highest ad spend and lowest consumption. This is one of the key conclusions from an annual analysis of alcohol ad spend and consumption in New Zealand undertaken by the Foundation for Advertising Research. The data goes back to 1987 and records Nielsen alcohol Ad spend and NZ Statistics per capita consumption of persons 15+.

Secondly, the trends around youth drinking in New Zealand are all moving in the right direction according to data provided by ALAC. The percentage of youth drinking and the frequency of binge drinking amongst youth are both decreasing while the average age of initiation (first drink) is increasing.

Thirdly, alcohol advertising does not target young people. New Zealand’s co-regulatory framework, that combines legislation together with the Advertising Standards Authority’s Codes, means that alcohol advertising is already heavily curtailed. Legally it can only show responsible drinking and target adult audiences. Reinforcing sociable and responsible approaches to drinking is an important part of role-modelling a positive drinking culture.

Inevitably though, some young people will be allowed to watch TV after the watershed and will be exposed to alcohol ads.

However, we would argue that young people are far more likely be exposed to alcohol on TV as part of regular programming showing people consuming alcohol in social settings, and either using it responsibly or irresponsibly. Alcohol portrayals are relatively common on television, in film, and in music and music videos. These portrayals are largely positive or neutral, often associating drinking with positive consequences or desirable attributes. Negative consequences of drinking are rarely portrayed and only a few studies have investigated the effects of exposure to alcohol portrayals in popular media, with once again, inconclusive findings.

In summary, we believe the Forum’s recommendations are a poorly targeted blunt instrument that will not have the desired effect and may in fact have unexpected negative consequences.
Few people would disagree that inappropriate or underage alcohol is harmful. However, sound government policy should be based on evidence. Anything less risks being labelled political dogma.
The simple fact in this case is that there is no compelling evidence to support the Forum’s recommendations for change.