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Top cop takes aim at alcohol in sport

Western Australia’s Police Commissioner Karl O’Callaghan delivered the keynote address at the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol (NAAA) Forum at Parliament House, Canberra.

A vocal proponent of effective measures to tackle the growing alcohol toll in his home state, Commissioner O’Callaghan took to the national stage to express his concerns about the way in which alcohol is marketed to young people in Australia.

I want to not sound like a Commissioner of Police here.  I am worried about young children and alcohol…I am worried about the messages we are sending them as a community.  I am worried about the way the alcohol industry targets young people and unless we sort this out we have little hope of changing culture and police have little choice but to devote 60% of their budget to these issues.  I have many concerns and there are many issues but today I will focus on advertising.

If ever there was a glaring example of twisted logic it has to be alcohol advertising during live sport.  Wherever you look there are examples of doublespeak and contradiction.

Take the current debate about betting advertising during “Live” sport.  Clearly the public are concerned about it but even if we disregard opinion research surely we must all agree that it is inherently a bad thing for the community.  It is simply commonsense or (let me put it another way) it offends our sense of common decency.  We don’t need research to give us the answers.  It seems to me, however, that common decency and commonsense is time and time again overridden by the business dollar.

No one would doubt that the promotion of a gambling culture is not in the interests of our community and we ought to do something about it.  But no police officer has ever been assaulted on the streets because the perpetrator had a gambling addiction.  We can’t link 40% of all domestic violence to gambling.  We can’t link brain damage and high risk behaviour in our teenagers to gambling…we can’t link 30% of all fatal and serious crashes to a gambling addiction and we can’t link increases in the intensity of violence on our streets like one punch attacks to gambling…but we can link it to alcohol.

Our children are exposed to sustained alcohol advertising through live sport all year round…we are all aware of the problems it is causing in our young people and the propensity to (what I call) determined drunkenness…yet we are too concerned about commercial profit to do something about it.

I am not going to quote every body of research. There is a large body of evidence which shows that being exposed to alcohol marketing at an early age can shape attitudes, beliefs and behaviours towards drinking. We know the more a child is exposed to alcohol marketing, the earlier they will initiate drinking, and will drink more in the long term.  But even if we discount the research because someone can always find an opposing finding…surely, just like gambling, it offends our sense of common decency to advertise alcohol to children.  What ever happened to making a decision based on what feels like the right thing to do?  Isn’t that how we bring up our children?

Research highlights how embedded alcohol marketing is in live football and rugby league broadcasts. Only 5% of the marketing identified was commercials in breaks, while 95% of the marketing was inserted within the live game such as fixed stadium signage, electronic banners, live announcements, pop-ups on scores, and logos on players’ uniforms.

“What is concerning about the saturation of alcohol promotion in sport is the number of children watching live sport. The dominance of integrated alcohol marketing (such as on field signage, pop-ups, voiceovers) is of concern to me because it juxtaposes what is an essentially health and wholesome pastime that we encourage our children to develop an interest in, against something which we are trying to shield our children from.

The 2012 AFL and NRL grand finals attracted 3.196 million and 2.424 million viewers respectively and both broadcasts are extremely popular with children; the AFL grand final for example, is often in the top 5 most watched television programs for children. The NRL grand final broadcast was the second highest rated program with children under 12, in the period 30 September – 20 October 2013.

Although alcohol consumption rates have levelled out, risky drinking in young people continues to rise, as the age of first drink continues to fall. Childhood and adolescence are critical times for brain development, and the brain is more susceptible to alcohol-induced damage during these times; at the same time, children are particularly vulnerable to advertising messages, especially integrated advertising.

Sensibly, the community has set limits around alcohol advertising on television.  Generally it cannot be advertised before 8.30pm at night and for good reason. But we need to address the loophole in the Commercial Television Industry Code of Practice because currently alcohol advertising can be shown before 8:30pm on weekends and public holidays as an accompaniment to live sporting events. This is problematic because these are the times when children and young people may be exposed to advertising and sponsorship.

In both 2011 and 2012, a vast majority of people agreed that alcohol advertising and promotion influences the behaviours of young people and supported a ban on alcohol advertising on television on weekend and weekdays before 8.30pm. This consistent finding demonstrates that Australians are largely supportive of such measures.

Greater control over alcohol advertising is not, in itself the silver bullet but cultural change has to start a long way back from regulation and punishment.

This is an edited extract of the keynote address delivered by Karl O’Callaghan at the NAAA Forum, Parliament House Canberra on Wednesday 19 June 2013

 Image courtesy of Joseph Lafferty, Photographer

Karl O'Callaghan

Karl O'Callaghan

Karl O'Callaghan joined the Western Australia Police as a 17-year-old Police Cadet in December 1973. He graduated as Dux of the Police Academy in January 1976.

In 2004 he was appointed Police Commissioner and given the special additional task of implementing the reforms of the Kennedy Royal Commission. Since that time he has overseen and implemented widespread cultural, business and process change in the Western Australia Police. He has also championed the Frontline First policing direction and has reintroduced a 'back to basics' reassurance style of policing.

Commissioner O'Callaghan has a Bachelor of Education with 1st Class Honours and in 1998 he became the first police officer in the history of the Western Australia Police to complete a PhD.

3 comments

  • Alcohol advertising associated with sport has become an insidious movement from the alcohol industry designed to saturate our minds and influence our choices. Children are particularly vulnerable. Our community needs to understand the only people who benefit from this is the alcohol industry with the fortune they make in money!

    Commissioner O’Callaghan you are right on the ball. Thank you so much for making a stand and getting it out there.

  • 16 March 2012: The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) has applauded today’s launch of the Alcohol Advertising Review Board, a new independent body established to police alcohol advertising in Australia.

  • Western Australian (WA) Commissioner of Police Karl O’Callaghan says alcohol advertising should be banned during sport broadcasts because they cause “far more harm” than betting promotion.

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