New report into marketing of alcohol criticises parliamentary evidence base

A new study on the impact of marketing on alcohol consumption heavily criticises the evidence base being used to create national health policy and in turn push for further regulation.


‘Public health, advertising and reality’, published in World Economics, directly attacks the British Medical Association’s study – ‘Under the Influence: The Damaging Effect of Alcohol Marketing on Young People’ – arguing that the BMA had simply “picked on” advertising as a key driver of alcohol consumption.

Speaking to Marketing Week, the author of the new study, Tim Ambler, honorary senior research fellow at the London Business School, says that marketing simply makes a useful “scapegoat” for alcohol problems. The Health Committee report was another case in point, he says.

“Advertising is part of the solution, not part of the problem. So, for the Government to use advertising and the media [as a scapegoat] for cutting alcohol consumption just doesn’t add up. There is no evidence that [complete bans] would make any difference.”

Ambler points to evidence from France, where numbers of heavy-drinking teenagers increased by 30% between 1999 and 2007 in spite of a new law, ‘Loi Evin’, which limits alcohol advertising to information only.

The Health Committee’s report on alcohol has come under fire from all angles this week.

The cross-party study called for the regulation of alcohol promotion to be “completely independent of the alcohol and advertising industries”, bringing the role of the ASA – the Advertising Standards Authority – and The Portman Group under scrutiny.

Experts interviewed for the report provided evidence and experience that suggest self-regulation implemented by advertising, media and alcohol producers “does not prevent the types and content of marketing that impact on younger people”.

Some members of the Health Committee last week raised the possibility of blanket bans on alcohol advertising in the UK, with Labour MP and Committee member, Stephen Hesford, predicting that “we’ll be back here in five years’ time and there will be statutory regulation”.

Other members are not so sure a blanket ban would work. Robert Syms, Conservative MP for Poole, says that advertising has an important role to play in providing information. “Banning it would reduce the flow of this information and could lead to worse, rather than better, choices,” he adds. “I think it would be very difficult to target particular audiences [with a ban] given the variety of outlets used in today’s marketing.”

Industry regulators have denied that there is a problem, or the need for a tightening of the currently regulatory system.

“Westminster doesn’t seem to know what the law is,” says Ian Twinn, public affairs director at ISBA. “We go well beyond European law in the UK and are fairly confident that what we do now is very tight. It’s right that we need to keep an eye on the issues … but advertising is already strongly controlled.”

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