Alcohol marketing code failing to protect young people

26 November 2018
The alcohol industry's code of conduct does not adequately protect young people from exposure to alcohol marketing, University of Sydney research reveals.

In a new paper, Dr Belinda Reeve of Sydney Law School and the Charles Perkins Centre calls for greater government intervention to ensure the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) is more effective in protecting minors from alcohol advertising.

“Evidence shows that exposure to alcohol advertising increases the likelihood that young people will begin drinking and that those already drinking will increase their intake and engage in risky drinking – this can have a serious and very harmful effect on a young person’s health over their lifetime,” Dr Reeve said.

“While alcohol advertisements on Australian television have declined since 2005, digital advertising – such as on social media platforms and websites – has increased. This is of particular concern because this kind of advertising can be interactive, targeted and often indistinguishable from user-generated content.”

Founded by four alcohol industry bodies and coming into operation in 1998, the ABAC contains a series of standards on the responsible promotion of alcohol beverages, including prohibiting advertisements that strongly appeal to minors, and rules that prevent alcohol advertisements in media targeted to young people.

The ABAC applies to all ‘marketing and communications’ of alcoholic beverages, including by manufacturers, retailers, breweries, supermarkets and restaurants. The scheme is currently governed by a committee comprised of representatives from the alcohol industry, the marketing communications industry and government.

In the new analysis, Dr Reeve reported “significant gaps and limitations” in the ABAC, despite a number of government reviews and amendments to strengthen the code from 2003 to 2017.

Some of the loopholes in the ABAC’s substantive rules she identified include a failure to regulate alcohol industry sponsorship (particularly of sporting events and teams) and to restrict the placement of some digital alcohol promotions, such as posts about alcohol products by social media influencers.

Dr Reeve’s research found that the regulatory processes established by the ABAC scheme also have significant limitations, including a lack of systematic monitoring, or meaningful sanctions for responding to non-compliance.

One result, said Dr Reeve, is that “it is difficult, if not impossible, to measure any concrete changes in alcohol advertising practices that can be said to flow from compliance with the ABAC.”

In her paper, Dr Reeve outlines an approach to more effectively protect young people from exposure to alcohol marketing.

Her “phased” approach would see government bodies draw on increasingly coercive forms of regulation to close off the loopholes in the ABAC scheme and to progressively tighten restrictions on alcohol marketing. This proposal does permit some degree of industry involvement, but within a framework of much stronger government oversight and intervention.

“This approach would require more meaningful forms of government intervention than is seen in the ABAC at present,” Dr Reeve said.

“In theory, a legislative ban on all forms of alcohol marketing would be the most effective way to protect young people, however I acknowledge that there are practical and political barriers to this option. I hope that my alternative is one that industry and government will consider as a viable solution.” 

Jennifer Peterson-Ward

Senior Manager, Strategic Communications and Engagement

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