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Happy 21st birthday ABAC: Here’s twenty-one times you’ve been labelled a failure

This week marks the 21st birthday of the Alcohol Beverage Advertising Code (ABAC). That’s 21 years of alcohol marketing being self-regulated by the alcohol and advertising industries in Australia. Enough time, you would think, for ABAC to grow up and develop into a system that effectively protects children and young people from exposure to alcohol marketing.

Unfortunately, the evidence demonstrates this is not the case. As a 21st birthday present to ABAC, we’ve compiled a list of 21 times researchers, independent inquiries, or government reviews found the system to be ineffective:

  1. In a 2000 study, expert judges found a number of ads that had been dismissed by ABAC depicted irresponsible or socially offensive behaviour, suggesting that the system showed a pro-advertiser bias.
  2. In a 2002 study, student and expert judges were shown alcohol ads and asked to consider if they breached Australia’s self-regulatory codes. The majority of both groups perceived breaches of the codes, leading the authors to conclude that the self-regulatory system may lack objectivity or expertise in their assessments of complaints.
  3. A 2003 report to the Ministerial Council of Drug Strategy reviewing the self-regulatory system found it did not address public health concerns, lacked transparency, and did not apply to all forms of advertising.
  4. Despite ABAC introducing some reforms in response to the Ministerial Council of Drug Strategy report, a paper published in 2008 found a number of ads that had been dismissed by ABAC contained elements that would breach its code.
  5. Yet another paper published in 2009 found decisions made by ABAC were inconsistent with its own code and suggested that self-regulation was “ineffective in protecting young people from messages that alcohol consumption leads to social and other success, increases confidence and attractiveness, and other messages that the self-regulatory code was designed to prevent.”
  6. Australian Ministers attending the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy meeting in April 2009 agreed that ABAC had “significant shortcomings” and needed to be reformed.
  7. A 2009 study examining alcohol advertising in magazines popular with young people found over half the ads appeared to contravene the ABAC code.
  8. In 2009, the National Preventative Health Taskforce recommended alcohol promotions be phased out from times and places which have high exposure to young people. The report noted that independent regulation through legislation should be introduced if the co-regulatory approaches were not effective in phasing out alcohol promotions.
  9. A 2010 study found three-quarters of Australian children recognised Bundy Bear, leading to questions about the effectiveness of the self-regulatory system in preventing children and young people’s exposure to alcohol advertising.
  10. A 2011 study found the majority of Australians aged 12 – 17 years are exposed to at least some form of alcohol advertising, much of which is subject to limited, if any, regulation.
  11. The final report from the Education and Health Standing Committee’s 2011 Inquiry into the Adequacy and Appropriateness of Prevention and Treatment Services for Alcohol and Illicit Drug Problems in Western Australia recognised the flaws of self-regulation, and recommended the introduction of legislated controls.
  12. In 2012 the Australian Medical Association released a report recommending that regulation of alcohol marketing be statutory and independent of the alcohol and advertising industries, as ABAC fails to protect young people from continuous exposure to alcohol marketing.
  13. A 2012 paper found half of all alcohol advertising aired on Australian television appears during children’s popular viewing times, and children and young people are regularly exposed to ads depicting alcohol consumption as fun, social and inexpensive.
  14. The 2013 Alcohol Action Plan from the Australian National Council on Drugs recommended regulating alcohol marketing by giving consideration to establishing an independent or government body to review, adjudicate, and regulate alcohol advertising and promotions.
  15. The final report from the Australian National Preventative Health Agency (released through Freedom of Information in 2014) found the self-regulatory arrangements covering the placement and content of alcohol advertising were failing to sufficiently protect children and young people.
  16. A 2015 analysis of Facebook content posted by alcohol brands found brands were not complying with their current self-regulatory advertising codes, with many provisions being regularly breached.
  17. An analysis of a Vodka Cruiser advertising campaign published in 2017 found that young women identified the main message of the ad campaign as encouraging pre-drinking, inconsistent with the ABAC code.
  18. The 2017 Northern Territory Alcohol Policies and Legislation Review found there were numerous shortcomings with the self-regulatory system, and recognised the need for independent, legislated controls on the content, placement, and volume of all forms of alcohol advertising and promotion.
  19. A 2017 NSW inquiry questioned the adequacy of the self-regulatory system and expressed concern that the system was insufficient and failing to protect children and young people.
  20. A 2018 review of the substantive codes and regulatory processes of the ABAC Scheme found the system contained a number of significant loopholes, and lacked independent administration, monitoring, or meaningful sanctions for breaches.
  21. A 2018 review of ABAC’s new ‘placement rules’ found they were unlikely to reduce young people’s exposure to alcohol marketing.


Sadly, this list could be even longer. We could also compile a list of 21 questionable decisions by the ABAC Adjudication Panel, but it would be difficult to narrow it down to just 21. Like the time they decided that alcohol ads were allowed to be placed outside a kindergarten, because kindy isn’t considered to be a primary or secondary school. Or the time they dismissed an alcohol ad seen on a school bus, because there are no provisions restricting the placement of alcohol ads on public transport vehicles. Or even the time … we think you get the point.

Happy birthday ABAC, we hope you enjoy reminiscing on all the times you’ve been found to be ineffective. Given the long history of failing to protect children and young people from exposure to alcohol ads, here’s hoping next year we’re celebrating the introduction of independent, legislated controls on alcohol marketing in Australia.

Hannah Pierce

Hannah Pierce is the Alcohol Policy and Research Coordinator at Cancer Council Western Australia.

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