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Free blue VB cans are a new low for State of Origin’s partnership with alcohol

Since my days proudly representing New South Wales (NSW) in the State of Origin I have become increasingly dismayed as the Blues have become ever more saturated with alcohol sponsorship.

Sadly, it has become increasingly difficult to know where the game ends and alcohol advertising begins.

Today, the game I love is awash with alcohol promotion and on Saturday the line got blurred even further.

In their combined infinite wisdom the National Rugby League, The Daily Telegraph, Carton United Breweries, Woolworths BWS and my beloved Blues saw fit to produce a limited-edition commemorative blue Victoria Bitter can, based on the NSW Blues’ team jersey, and then proceeded to give them away for free, via a token in Saturday’s Daily Telegraph.

Thanks to alcohol logos emblazoned on team jerseys, our players were already walking-talking beer billboards. Now, with those same Blue jerseys front and centre on the VB can, beer and the Blues are ever more intertwined.

And that’s a problem.

A problem because of the false connection such promotion attempts to establish between alcohol, sport and success.

And a problem because of the serious consequences it has on young people and sports fans of all ages.

On this particular issue I have a front row seat.

I played in the Blues for four consecutive years – 1983, 1984, 1985 and 1986. But since then, I have worked on the frontline in the alcohol and other drugs sector for more than 19 years.

I’ve witnessed first-hand the harm from alcohol.

Every day in NSW alone, alcohol is responsible for 32 emergency department presentations, 149 hospitalisations and four deaths. The harm go deeper still. Beyond the drinker, others suffer violence, abuse, maltreatment and neglect.

The impact of alcohol is particularly evident among Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people where the burden of injury, chronic disease, disability and death is high.

Young people, too, are also disproportionately affected by alcohol in sport.

People should be looking to sports like the NRL for role models, not unwelcome booze advertisements.

All the evidence tells us that exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with young people starting to drink earlier in life and encourages those already drinking to consume even more.

On Friday I wrote to Todd Greenberg, chief executive of the NRL, to express my concerns.

It’s fair to say the NRL finds itself increasingly out of step with community expectations.

Recent polling by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education found that 60 per cent of Australians think alcohol sponsorship should be banned from sport, while 70 per cent of Australians believe alcohol advertising should be banned on TV before 8.30pm.

Yet inexplicably, the NRL seems hell bent on doubling down on alcohol marketing.

This promotion is not only irresponsible, it is also in breach of NSW liquor laws.

FARE has lodged a formal complaint against the free VB NSW Blues can promotion with the Director-General of the NSW Department of Justice, Andrew Cappie-Wood, on the grounds that the promotion breaches three separate sections of the NSW Liquor Act 2007.

FARE argues that the release of limited-edition blue VB cans based on the NSW Blues team jersey are likely to have special appeal to minors, particularly young Blues’ supporters and as such breaches section 102(2)(a) of the Act.

That in allowing for the provision of up to 260,000 cans of free beer, the promotion also breaches section 102(2)(d) of the Act by giving away free alcohol.

And thirdly, that by promoting alcohol in relation to a high-profile family sporting event and in a newspaper read by families across NSW, the promotion also breaches section 102(2)(f) of the Act which states promotions can be prohibited if found to be “otherwise in the public interest”.

If our liquor laws cannot stop a giveaway of more than 250,000 cans of free beer, emblazoned with the Blues branding that would appeal to young people, then we need to question whether they are fit for purpose.

Certainly, it is important for the NSW Department of Justice to exercise its authority to prevent these types of promotions.

Ultimately however, it is incumbent on the NRL to rethink its toxic association with alcohol and get on with playing the game that we love.

This post first appeared in The Sydney Morning Herald.

Visit FARE’s Alcohol Truth page for more coverage – including the media release, Steve Ella’s letter to the NRL, and FARE’s formal complaint to the NSW Department of Justice.

Steve Ella

Steve Ella is a former rugby player, and represented the NSW Blues in State of Origin in 1983, 1984, 1985, and 1986. He is the Manager of the Aboriginal Health Service at the Central Coast Local Health District, and a Director of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education.


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