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Alcohol advertising has no place on our kids’ screens

Research shows children who are exposed to alcohol advertising are more likely to start drinking earlier and to drink more.

But Australian regulations are inadequate to protect children and adolescents from such advertising. That’s the finding of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency (ANPHA) review of alcohol advertising.

Importantly, it makes 30 recommendations to fix the problem.

But 18 months after ANPHA passed the report to government, the Coalition is yet to formally release it, or act on the recommendations. The Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education (FARE) obtained the report under FOI and posted it online.

Placement of alcohol advertising

Research from the United States shows sixth graders’ exposure to outdoor ads such as billboards and bus stops predicts their alcohol attitudes and intentions at eighth grade.

In Australia, the Outdoor Media Association requires its members not to advertise alcohol on billboards or fixed signs within 150 metres of a primary or secondary school, except where the school is near a club, pub or bottle shop.

ANPHA describes this as a token gesture. It recommends:

  • the distance be increased to 500m
  • loopholes, such as the exemption for retail ads, be closed
  • a system be established to monitor compliance with the rules.

Free TV Australia allows alcohol ads only during periods of M, MA or AV programming, except during the live broadcast of sporting events on weekends and public holidays.

Research released last month found that, due to the sporting “loophole”, children aged under 18 years were exposed to a cumulative total of 51 million alcohol ads in 2012.

ANPHA recommends the code of practice be revised to remove the exclusions for sports broadcasts and school days between 12pm and 3pm.

The report notes that children are increasingly exposed to alcohol advertising on the internet.

Our research found that Australian alcohol brand websites typically had poor filter systems for preventing access by children. Only half required the user to provide a date of birth. None had any means of preventing users from trying again.

ANPHA recommends that:

  • alcohol companies use adequate age checks on their own websites
  • social media providers (such as YouTube and Facebook) implement age-gating tools to reduce access by children.

The report notes there are currently no restrictions on sponsorship of sport by alcohol companies in Australia. Children are therefore increasingly exposed to alcohol brands in sporting environments.

Researchers in Western Australia found that children as young as ten can recall which sponsors are associated with sporting teams. And our research found that children associate these products with sport and with positive personal characteristics and outcomes.

The report also recommends restrictions on alcohol-branded merchandise and on alcohol advertising on subscription television and in cinemas between 5am and 8.30pm.

Content of alcohol advertising

The content of alcohol advertising is covered by the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme. The report notes that ministerial reviews of the scheme in 2003 and 2009 found that:

the system of self-regulation of alcohol advertising exhibited serious deficiencies and required much improvement.”

Problems with the system include the narrow interpretation of the code in the adjudication of complaints, the lack of clear provisions regarding advertising that appeals to children, the lack of monitoring of compliance with the code, and the absence of penalties for breaching the code.

The report notes that there have been several improvements following the reviews, but makes a total of 15 recommendations in relation to the scheme, including improving the review processes.

There is substantial research evidence to show the code is ineffective. We, like many others, reported on some of the problems with the system before the 2003 review of the ABAC Scheme; and after the revisions made in response to the review.

Improving transparency

So, why is the government sitting on the report? There may be a number of legitimate reasons behind the government’s failure to release the report. Perhaps they forgot. Perhaps they were too busy.

However, the sceptic in me wonders whether part of the reason relates to recommendations 11a and 11b:

  • 11a recommends monitoring and reporting on children’s and adolescents’ exposure to alcohol advertising and the effectiveness (or otherwise) of current measures to reduce this exposure.
  • 11b recommends the government review progress against the recommendations in 2015. If the recommendations regarding the ABAC Scheme have not progressed and/or little headway has been made on removing the live sports broadcast exemption, “then governments should proceed to legislate to control alcohol advertising and marketing”.

Perhaps the delay will give industry an opportunity to address some of the concerns raised in the report.

However, proposed revisions to the Free TV Code would increase children’s exposure by allowing alcohol advertising from the earlier time of 7.30pm.

Based on past evidence, it’s not surprising that our government is reluctant to step in and regulate alcohol advertising.

It’s not surprising that our government is reluctant to release a report that recommends greater controls on alcohol advertising.

And it’s not surprising that our government continues to allow self-regulatory and quasi-regulatory codes that serve to protect the alcohol industry and fail to protect our children and adolescents.

This post originally appeared on The Conversation on 23 October 2015.

Sandra Jones

Professor Sandra Jones is an ARC Future Fellow and the Director of the Centre for Health and Social Research at the Australian Catholic University in Melbourne. From 2001 to 2014 she was the Founding Director of the Centre for Health Initiatives at the University of Wollongong. Her research focuses on the relationship between media and health, including the impacts of advertising in the print and electronic media on health behaviour, and the use of social marketing to improve population health. She also conducts research in the area of advertising and marketing regulation, particularly in relation to alcohol marketing. Sandra has published more than 150 refereed papers and been awarded in excess of $8 million in research funding. Sandra is also a member of numerous alcohol-related policy and advocacy bodies, and a Director of Amaze (Autism Victoria).

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