Ireland needs to call time on alcohol marketing and sports sponsorship
Published 22/04/2015 | 02:30
Alcohol is no ordinary commodity. Since the Code of Hammurabi in Ancient Mesopotamia more than 25 centuries ago, alcohol has been regulated in the interests of health and safety.
The World Health Organization has recommended comprehensive restrictions on alcohol marketing to address alcohol's role in accidents, injuries and chronic diseases. Given the heavy toll of alcohol-related harm, and on young people in particular, it is time for serious policy conversations about reducing the exposure of young people to alcohol marketing and sports sponsorship.
Alcohol marketing and sponsorship have become pervasive and insidious with the recent concentration of the alcohol industry into transnational corporations that have incorporated former national breweries like Guinness and Budweiser into globalised portfolios.
Drinking patterns are no longer taught by the family and the community, but are now inculcated through sophisticated marketing strategies that associate alcohol with sex, romance, success and an affluent lifestyle that is often beyond the reach of most people.
Alcohol marketing, in addition to appearing in movies and television commercials, frequently airs during sporting events.
Researchers in Britain found that on average 111 visual references and two verbal references to alcohol occurred per hour of televised English professional football. In televised international football, they found an average of 1.24 references to alcohol per minute. During the World Cup games, the exposure of young persons to alcohol marketing reached unprecedented levels, with millions of children and young adults exposed to sophisticated images of alcohol-related themes and branding through TV ads and sideboard postings of company names and logos.
There is a growing body of scientific research about the impact of alcohol advertising and marketing exposure on young people. When exposed to repeated, almost constant episodes of television ads, billboards, company logos during sporting events, popular music concerts, supermarket displays, etc, young people begin to view alcohol as an ordinary consumer product that is acceptable to purchase and consume anytime and anywhere, with the expectation that intoxication and heavy drinking are signs of virility, fun and status. The more young people are exposed to alcohol marketing of various kinds, the more likely they are to start drinking or, if already drinking, to drink more.
The strongest evidence of the health impact of all this advertising and sponsorship is on the athletes themselves.
In Britain, researchers found that university athletes who were part of a team or club that received alcohol industry sponsorship, or who received that sponsorship as individuals, were significantly more likely to be hazardous drinkers than athletes playing without alcohol sponsorship.
Researchers in New Zealand found that adult participants in social/club sports whose teams received alcohol sponsorship were more likely to be hazardous drinkers.
Research on the effects of alcohol marketing is difficult to conduct and interpret because simple cause-and-effect reasoning does not apply to complex interactions among exposures, attitudes, learned expectations, personality factors, drinking behaviours and alcohol-related problems.
Nevertheless, the growing evidence suggests that aggressive alcohol marketing is incompatible with healthy adolescent development. The alcohol industry has recognized this fundamental principle in adopting voluntary self-regulatory codes that are supposed to restrict exposures of young audiences to images, symbols and themes promoting alcohol consumption. Systematic research from more than 100 studies published in scientific journals shows unequivocally that the alcohol industry's self-regulation codes are not protecting young persons as intended.
Closing time has arrived. It is time to bring statutory regulation to alcohol marketing in Ireland and other countries. The Royal College of Physicians of Ireland has endorsed the Public Health (Alcohol) Bill, which includes reasonable restrictions on alcohol marketing and sports sponsorship.
As American social scientists working in the field of alcohol policy, we believe that this kind of legislation will return Ireland to a time when parents and communities were responsible for alcohol education, not the marketing departments of multinational corporations.
Thomas Babor is Professor and Health Net Inc. Endowed Chair in Community Medicine and Public Health at the University of Connecticut. David Jernigan is Associate Professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
Both are speaking at the Alcohol Forum Conference in Croke Park today, April 22.