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World-first alternative alcohol ad review system: one year on

What could possibly go wrong when an industry which seeks to sell as much of its potentially harmful product as possible is also responsible for regulating the promotion of that very product?

Here’s what happens: you get voluntary regulatory codes which don’t cover the whole industry, with no power to penalise advertisers who breach the codes, which exclude major forms of promotion, don’t keep pace with technologies available to advertisers, largely ignore the placement of advertising, are totally reliant on complaints from the community yet keep a low profile, and often pass judgement only after the ad in question has finished its run.

Alcohol advertising in Australia is subject to the voluntary Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme, with formal governance overseen solely by alcohol interests and a management committee which almost exclusively represents alcohol and advertising interests. The ABAC Scheme has failed to ensure alcohol advertising and promotion is socially responsible and to prevent young people’s exposure.

A new approach to regulating alcohol advertising is needed. The Alcohol Advertising Review Board (AARB) was developed by the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth and Cancer Council WA, with support from health organisations around Australia, in response to the weaknesses of the current self-regulatory advertising system. Its role is to review community complaints about alcohol advertising and deliver rational and considered determinations, free of industry influence.

The AARB’s first annual report was released this week.

In its first year, the AARB received 200 complaints and produced 145 determination reports; 104 determinations upheld complaints, 32 upheld complaints in part (meaning that the panel believed an ad breached some but not all of the provisions identified in the complaint) and 9 dismissed complaints. Complaints were most likely to relate to ads for beer products, followed by spirit products and liquor retailers. Online alcohol ads, including social media, email content and iPhone apps, were the most likely to attract complaints, followed by television ads and sponsorship of sport and music events.

The AARB nominated the Top 10 Alcohol Advertising Shockers of 2012-13. These include sponsorship of major sporting events, alcohol company-branded clothing for four-year-olds, a liquor retailer promotion for cask wine equivalent to $2 a litre, ads placed outside a school, sponsorship of music festivals popular with young people, disguised alcohol advertising in cricket commentary, product packaging likely to appeal to young people, and promotion of excessive alcohol consumption via Facebook.

The number of complaints received and determinations made by the AARB far exceeds those made through the alcohol industry’s voluntary processes – the ABAC Scheme – in a similar time frame. While the AARB received 200 complaints in its first year, ABAC received only 98 in 2012. The AARB Panel produced 145 determinations, compared to only 36 by ABAC in 2012 (and only 7 complaints were upheld at least in part by ABAC). This is likely to reflect both the level of community concern about alcohol advertising and support for an independent system of review.

The industry response to the AARB’s annual report has been more of the same. Despite all evidence to the contrary, the Chair of the voluntary ABAC Scheme, Denita Wawn, said on ABC News, “We believe that we’re a robust scheme that is world’s best practice”. The bar has obviously been set far too low. A CUB spokesperson was reported as saying Australian alcohol advertising is among the most widely regulated and scrutinised in the world, and represents less than 1.5 per cent of all complaints to the Advertising Standards Bureau. Could it be because almost nobody knows who to complain to? (see FARE’s Alcohol Poll 2012) Or that few have faith in an alcohol advertising complaint review system run by the alcohol and advertising industries?

The AARB has made a considerable impact in its first year and will continue to provide the community with an avenue to voice their concerns about alcohol advertising and to advocate for strong, independent, legislated controls on all forms of alcohol advertising and promotion.

If you see an alcohol ad that concerns you, contact the Alcohol Advertising Review Board – making a complaint is quick and simple! To stay up-to-date on AARB activity, follow @AlcoholAdReview on Twitter.

Julia Stafford

Julia Stafford is the Alcohol Program Manager at Cancer Council Western Australia.


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