Trade hits back at calls for alcohol ad ban

Banning alcohol marketing is not a solution to underage drinking, the Portman Group has stated in response to calls by a worldwide research collective to impose a comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising to protect children.


Guinness’ 1988 surfer TV ad, one of the most memorable alcohol-related adverts of all time.

The calls follow the publication of a collection of 14 research papers in the US-based Addiction Journal, funded by Alcohol Research UK and the Institute of Alcohol Studies, presenting research from around the world. It claims that the wine and spirits industry’s marketing practices encourage young people to drink, and that greater controls on advertising are required, going so far as to suggest a “comprehensive ban” on alcohol advertising worldwide.

“No other legal product with such potential for harm is as widely promoted and advertised in the world as alcohol,” said lead editor Professor Thomas Babor, of the University of Connecticut. “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.”

Claims made by the research collective include the assertion 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.

The research also claims that marketing practices around the 2014 Fifa World Cup appeared to frequently “breach industry voluntary codes of practice”.

In the UK, guidelines for the responsible marketing of alcohol are overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which frequently impose bans and additional requirements on companies found in breach of its guidelines. The ASA states that alcohol ads must not link alcohol with seduction, sex or social success, link alcohol with irresponsible, anti-social, tough or daring behaviour, show alcohol being served irresponsibly or show people drinking and behaving in an adolescent or juvenile way.

Alcohol ads are also prohibited from appearing in or around children’s TV programmes, or programmes likely to have a particular appeal to children.

Banning alcohol marketing is ‘not a solution to underage drinking’

The Portman Group, meanwhile, was formed in 1989 with the sole purpose of advocating responsible drinking and research into UK alcohol consumption, and the responsible marketing of alcohol by the trade.

“In the UK marketing companies abide by strict codes of practice that prohibit marketing alcohol to children,” a spokesperson for the Portman Group said. “Regardless of the rise in online marketing channels, official UK government statistics shows that underage drinking has fallen to the lowest levels ever recorded, whilst in France an alcohol marketing ban has been accompanied by two decades of increasingly harmful drinking among children. Banning alcohol marketing is not a solution to underage drinking.

“Alcohol harms vary across countries, regions and local areas and are linked with a complex range of socio-economic factors, including parental behaviours and peer group type. Tackling underage drinking requires a combination of life skills education, strict enforcement on underage sales and robust  ID schemes – all of which are supported by drinks companies.”

Over the past decade, the UK drinks industry has implemented a number of voluntary initiatives to help tackle alcohol misuse, removing one billion units of alcohol from the market as part of its Responsibility Deal, and including health warnings on 84% of all products.

“Our members take their obligations to protect children from alcohol harm extremely seriously,” said Miles Beale, chief executive of the Wine and Spirit Trade Association.

“It is because of our successful partnership working with government to reduce alcohol harm that underage drinking continues to decline and is now at its lowest recorded level. In a recent annual survey of health trends only 17% of children aged eight to 15 said they had ever drunk alcohol, a fall of two-thirds. This indicates that the combination of the strict self-regulatory approach to alcohol advertising, robust ID schemes like Challenge 25 and local partnership schemes like CAP (Community Alcohol Partnerships) are all having a real impact on underage drinking. This is progress that should be recognised and welcomed – including by the public health community.”

Comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising, promotion and sponsorship 

However the collective has said the most effective response would be a “comprehensive ban on alcohol advertising, promotion and sponsorship, in accordance with each country’s constitution or constitutional principles”, adding that regulations should be statutory, not voluntary, and enforced by an appropriate public health agency of the local or national government, not by the alcohol industry.

“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,” said Chris Brookes of the UK Health Forum. “In a literature review of more than 100 studies, none was identified that supported the effectiveness of industry self-regulation programmes.”

The trade has already hit back at claims that the industry is simply passing judgement on itself, with self regulation in many cases more effective and faster than statutory routes.

“It isn’t, and it shouldn’t be,” said Dave Roberts, director general of the Alcohol Information Partnership, speaking to Marketing Week, and which represents companies such as Pernod Ricard and Diageo.

“There is also a misperception that self-regulation is incapable of moving quickly; in reality, relying on the courts to rule on individual code breaches would be much slower, more expensive and less efficient,”

“Instead of restricting companies’ freedom to operate and compete it would be better for Government to focus on understanding what has worked so well over the past decade and encourage more of the same. Where there are pockets of harm intervention should be directed towards those communities or age groups.”

Calls for greater controls over alcohol advertising pointedly some at a time when research shows that consumption of alcohol is falling, with levels of youth drinking in the UK at their lowest on record. In the last decade, the proportion of children (aged 11-15) who have had an alcoholic drink has declined by 38%, while under 18 alcohol-specific hospital admissions have fallen by 46% since 2008, according to Public Health England.

This is in addition to levels of teen drinking in the US also hitting an all-time low, with drinking rates among 8th, 10th and 12th grade pupils (13-18-year-olds) sinking to their lowest levels in twenty-five years, according to the ‘2016 Monitoring the Future Survey’, which was compiled by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan.

4 Responses to “Trade hits back at calls for alcohol ad ban”

  1. Tom Stevenson says:

    If the lead editor Professor Thomas Babor, of the University of Connecticut, really did claim “No other legal product with such potential for harm is as widely promoted and advertised in the world as alcohol” he is wrong. According to the CDC, excessive consumption of alcohol accounts for 88,000 deaths per year in the US, whereas according to the US Department of Health and Human Services, obesity is responsible for in excess of 300,000. This does not take into account the number of lives saved by the health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, something the US academic establishment is too screwed up to admit. Babor might as well call for a ban on advertising burgers and Betty Crocker’s cup cakes. Or, come to that, the motor car.

  2. john mccheyne says:

    We are used to the claim and counter claim based on the same statistics in politics and business. But Chris Brookes’ (of the UK Health Forum ) comments above require some expansion , I think. In an article full of statistics about the decline in under age drinking , during a period when the Alcohol Industry has been its own policeman , he claims the actions have been ineffective !
    Rather like the Health guidelines on alcohol which are largely ignored because they are so far removed from the real lives of millions, Chris Brookes seems to be ignoring the direction of travel on this issue. If there is genuine concern on Health of alcohol consumption, I think the anti-alcohol lobby need some new faces who have an ability to give it some credibility.

  3. Ashley says:

    Saying that banning alcohol ads will decrease underage drinking; is like deciding that banning auto ads will decrease speeding.

    • Steph says:

      I personally don’t agree. It’s more like the tobacco ad ban which was meant to take tobacco and the allure of smoking out of everyday view, especially out of the view of young people. Change needs to happen in the alcohol advertising industry, I’m not sure a full ban is the most effective approach, but perhaps regulating the content of an ad so that the focus is on the intrinsic values of the alcohol product (such as strength, origin, composition and means of production) would be a good place to start?

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