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Advertising’s role in how young people interact with alcohol

Efforts to reduce young people’s reliance on alcohol face a huge obstacle in the form of alcohol advertising. Lala Roe

The most recent guidelines on appropriate alcohol consumption from the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) are a hard sell to a hard-drinking public. And this is despite growing concerns about alcohol-fuelled violence in the community and a swelling evidence base demonstrating the nature and extent of alcohol-related harms, especially among young people.

Consider the NHMRC’s guideline on youth consumption:

For children and young people under 18 years of age, not drinking alcohol is the safest option.

This guideline is in stark contrast to the reality of the ubiquitous use of alcohol as a rite of passage and as a tool to assist young people interact with their peers. Indeed, the all-important task of establishing one’s persona takes predominance during these years, and alcohol has become intricately involved in this process.

And anyway, efforts to reduce young people’s reliance on alcohol face a huge obstacle in the form of alcohol advertising. The heavy promotion of alcoholic beverages normalises their consumption in general and excessive consumption in particular.

Alcohol advertising occurs across numerous media platforms, and regulation is woefully inadequate. While young people are supposedly protected from television advertisements by a combination of mandatory and voluntary codes, studies consistently show they are exposed to a large number and variety of advertisements that encourage and glorify alcohol consumption.

Our recent work at the University of Western Australia analysed television alcohol advertisements from around the country. We found that of the 2,810 alcohol advertisements aired over a two-month period, half were shown at times classified as popular children’s viewing times. Around three-quarters of the advertisements were for beer, followed by spirits, wine, then pre-mixed drinks.

The themes of the advertisements were especially attractive to children, and this is something that has been found in previous research. The themes included humour, friendship or mateship, animals and sport. Of particular concern was the heavy emphasis on value for money and the benefits of buying alcoholic products in bulk.

Young people tend to have limited financial resources so highlighting the affordability of alcoholic beverages increases their attractiveness. What’s more, encouraging the purchase of multiple units in a single purchase is highly problematic among a group that’s likely to avoid taking leftovers home to be spotted by parents. So when more alcohol is purchased, more is consumed during that drinking occasion.

Overall, the study concluded that current regulations are failing to protect children from alcohol advertising and need urgent revision. This becomes even more evident when the lack of coverage of sponsorship arrangements and the internet environment in existing regulations is taken into consideration.

Another concern is music video clips aired in general viewing times that frequently depict alcohol consumption. It’s little wonder that alcohol continues to be venerated by younger and older Australians alike.

So what counter-messages are out there for young people? They may see industry-generated messages advising people to “drink responsibly”. While ostensibly representing efforts to reduce youth drinking, a more cynical interpretation is that such messages actually constitute an instruction to drink.

Many schools are actively addressing the problem by introducing drug awareness programs into the curriculum, but these can’t be expected to neutralise the numerous pro-drinking messages young people encounter in daily life.

A critical first step for addressing youth drinking is to limit the extent to which young people are exposed to advertising that extols the virtues of alcohol consumption. The failure of existing advertising regulations indicates the need for a more comprehensive and restrictive approach.

A promising initiative is the new Alcohol Advertising Review Board Code, which has been implemented by health groups as an alternative to the patently ineffective industry-led Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC). A world first, this community initiative covers alcohol advertising in all media, and complaints can be lodged here.

Given the amount of alcohol-related harm being experienced by young people in Australia, there is serious cause for concern. It is time to re-think current regulatory protections that are not adequately preventing children from extensive exposure to alcohol advertising.

This is the sixth part of our series looking at alcohol and the drinking culture in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other articles:

Part One: A brief history of alcohol consumption in Australia

Part Two: Social acceptance of alcohol allows us to ignore its harms

Part Three: My drinking, your problem: alcohol hurts non-drinkers too

Part Four: Alcohol-fuelled violence on the rise despite falling consumption

Part Five: ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve got it now’: alcohol advertising and sport

Part Seven: Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco – boozem buddies?

Part Eight: Explainer: foetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Part Nine: ‘Valuable label real estate’ and alcohol warning labels

Part Ten: Forbidden fruit: are children tricked into wanting alcohol?

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