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Through children’s eyes: Reducing children’s exposure to alcohol advertising during sports programs

Like most Australians, I remember watching sport as a kid. I recall alcohol company logos plastered across stadiums and players’ uniforms and singing along in the ad breaks to the jingle ‘I feel like a Tooheys or two’.

At the time I didn’t know this exposure to alcohol advertising would stick with me for the rest of my life, but it has. And it’s the same for kids today.

The only difference between then and now is that we now know there are real harms that come from bombarding children with alcohol advertising when they are watching sport and yet the sporting industry, along with our Government and its media regulator allow it to happen.

At the Global Alcohol Policy Conference in early October I gave a presentation on behalf of the Royal Australasian College of Physicians (RACP), outlining the harmful effect alcohol advertising has on young kids and what the RACP is doing about it.

In March 2016, the RACP published its updated Alcohol Policy which was jointly developed with the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists (RANZCP). Among the many concerns and recommendations presented in the document, was the need to take decisive action to reduce children’s exposure to alcohol advertising during sport.

You may wonder why it is such an issue.

It’s been shown that alcohol advertising leads to kids starting to drink at a younger age than they otherwise might have, and a greater likelihood that they will become prone to binge drinking throughout their teenage years. Both of these are seriously concerning as we know that alcohol can permanently affect brain development during adolescence. By the end of their teenage years, we see these kids developing what we doctors refer to as ‘alcohol use disorders’. While awful, it is sadly not surprising that, in Australia today, the peak age for developing a problem with alcohol is only 18 years old.

The link between seeing an ad on TV and poor health outcomes can sometimes seem difficult to understand. However, when you see the numbers, the scale of the problem becomes evident.

For example, during the 2012 NRL State of Origin series there were a total of 4,062 episodes of alcohol marketing. This equated to a total of 198.88 minutes of visible alcohol promotion in 10 on-field and 11 off-field locations. Around 300,000 children aged between 5 and 17 watched these games.[1]

Associate Professor Kerry O’Brien from Monash University has researched this problem extensively, and found that AFL broadcasts showed a total of 16 hours of alcohol advertising in just one season. Cricket and NRL placed a distant second, showing approximately six hours of alcohol advertising each.

Why aren’t we doing everything we can to protect our kids from this bombardment with alcohol advertising? Shouldn’t we be looking for any way to reduce harm to our kids?

There’s an obvious starting point. A loophole in the Commercial Television Code of Practice that allows alcohol ads to be shown during sports programs broadcast before 8.30pm on weekends and public holidays – the time when children are most likely to be watching.

Closing this loophole would be a good first step towards ending the toxic relationship between alcohol and sport.

We need strong action from our political leaders to fully address the social, economic, and personal costs of alcohol-related harms in our society – like protecting kids from alcohol advertising on social media and in other digital forms where very little regulation exists; fixing our illogical alcohol taxation system; implementing pricing measures to reduce risky levels of alcohol consumption; and investing much more in alcohol treatment services for the many people who are in desperate need but cannot access them.

[1] Eat, drink and gamble: marketing messages about ‘risky’ products in an Australian major sporting series. Lindsay S, Thomas S, Lewis S, et al. BMC Public Health 2013, 13:719.

Paul Haber

Addiction specialist Paul Haber MBBS, MD, RACP, FAChAM, is a Senior Staff Specialist and Professor and Medical Director, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital Drug Health Services, Sydney, New South Wales.

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