Calling last drinks on promoting alcohol to children via sport

Alcohol is part of the fabric of Australian culture but are we doing enough to protect young people from the harmful effects of binge drinking and to help those with an alcohol problem?

During March, the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP) and the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP) released their updated Alcohol Policy. The colleges have undertaken an in-depth review of the evidence on the harms of alcohol to individuals, families and communities and have made important recommendations regarding how the harmful impacts of alcohol can be reduced.

As Drink Tank readers would be aware, there is no easy or immediate fix when it comes to Australia’s risky alcohol consumption. As a nation we need to rethink drinking, and we need to do it now. The Colleges’ policy therefore makes a range of strong recommendations based on policies and strategies that the evidence shows have a real impact. These include addressing alcohol pricing, reducing the availability of alcohol, stopping alcohol promotion to children and ensuring patients have access to effective treatment options.

One part of the policy launch that struck a chord with many, was highlighting the links between sport and alcohol promotion by the alcohol industry. The evidence shows that alcohol promotions are frequently viewed by children and adolescents and this puts them at risk.

Alcohol promotion is everywhere you look when watching Australia’s most popular sports. It is not uncommon to see alcohol brands on playing apparel, on stadium fences, painted on the field itself and as part of the naming rights.

With alcohol television advertisements also commonplace during popular sports like AFL, NRL and cricket, the saturation of alcohol promotion is just as intense at home as it is at the venue.

A regulatory loophole in the new free-to-air Code of Practice, approved by government regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), allows alcohol advertisements during sports programs at any time of the day – including at times when children are most likely to be watching.

It has been long accepted by society and regulators that we shouldn’t be advertising alcohol to minors, so why is sport an exception? It makes no sense and it must cease.

Studies have shown that alcohol marketing strategies result in more children and adolescents starting to drink even if this is not intended. Alcohol advertising increases the risk regular young drinkers will become binge drinkers, and binge drinking damages the developing brains of young people.

Brain development continues into early adulthood, and early drinking can have serious impacts on young people. Current regulations are not protecting young people, but harming them.

Given the prominence of alcohol advertising during sport broadcasts, it wasn’t surprising to us that in recent research we commissioned, more than half of Australians (58%) are concerned about the influence of alcohol in Australian sport.

We’re therefore calling for stronger and more consistent regulatory measures from the ACMA and the removal of alcohol advertisements on television during children’s viewing hours. It’s pretty simple: remove the loophole to protect our kids.

But this is only part of the solution. Sporting codes also need to recognise their role in promoting positive attitudes towards health and the community, and phase out their alcohol sponsorship and promotion.

It is ironic that our children, who are typically encouraged to participate and become involved in sports because of its health benefits, are being exposed to advertising and marketing messages by alcohol companies. It is dangerous and it must stop.

It’s time to rethink drinking. We must have a serious national conversation about Australian alcohol consumption, without being swayed by the influence of the alcohol industry.

Positive change can be made and sports will continue to thrive. We know this for a fact, because we achieved a similar outcome when tobacco advertising ceased in the 1990s.

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Nicholas Talley

Laureate Professor Nicholas J. Talley is President of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), and Pro Vice-Chancellor for Global Research at the University of Newcastle.

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