Peddling youth booze
A NATION in which alcohol was once the local currency was bound to have problems with the consumption and culture of booze.
We’ve come a lot further than rum and the rebellion it provoked, but the debate over the alcopop tax shows that we are a nation in denial. It skirted the central issues and primarily focused on the effectiveness of taxes, ignoring the elephant in the room.
In a fundamental cultural shift, cigarette smokers are now pariahs, but binge and out-of-control drinkers are often tolerated, to the disadvantage of countless Australians. What is needed is a candid debate about the role alcohol plays in this nation. Without serious intervention, alcohol abuse is not going to fade away. The NSW Government’s 2008 Summary Report on Adult Health from the NSW Population Health Survey revealed that risky drinking has fallen in all age groups since 1997, with the exception of 16 to 24-year-olds. About 50 per cent of young people drink at riskylevels.
In order to change the binge-drinking culture among younger people, we must target the nexus between advertising and sport. Almost on a weekly basis we read about some footballer accused of alcohol-related misdemeanours, from antisocial behaviour to criminal assaults. The self-destruction of Andrew Symonds’s career as a Test cricketer is a jarring example of the synergies between drinking and sport.
There is a huge disconnect between the sophisticated use of alcohol advertising and sponsorship associated with sporting events, and the grim reality of alcohol abuse. Alcohol companies dangerously associate their product with success, athleticism, sexual conquest and popularity. The Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy has attempted to work co-operatively with the alcohol advertising industry during the past five years to improve the system of self-regulation, yet there is little evidence that industry has paid much heed to its recommendations.
Alcohol companies, like the rest of corporate Australia, have the right to advertise and promote legal products in line with agreed standards. But we cannot shy away from the evidence that the alcohol industry has done little to ensure that its advertising is handled responsibly or even complies with its own standards.
The best changes to regulation are always the ones made in consultation with key stakeholders; nevertheless, fundamental change is urgently needed. NSW offers a useful way forward with a national action plan on alcohol advertising. The proposal includes establishing an independent regulatory body with compulsory participation and vetting all alcohol advertising. It would regulate the content, volume and location of advertising.
Until such a body commences work, action needs to be taken to stop poor advertising practices. Interim measures could include targeted bans on billboards near schools, in cinemas that show alcohol advertisements during films certified for under-18s, and in youth magazines.
The complex and contentious issue of sponsorship also needs to be tackled. Restrictions disallowing alcohol advertising on TV between 5am and 8.30pm should be extended to include live sporting broadcasts. Governments need to be careful that any bans do not undermine the capacity of communities to conduct sporting and other events. But there is a justifiable concern that badging or promotion associated with alcohol sponsorship at events for junior sports or young people can be seen to encourage underage and irresponsible drinking.
NSW has this month advocated that the commonwealth could establish a fund to sponsor community organisations that provide sporting and cultural activities as an alternative to alcohol sponsorship. This could be included in the national action plan and be funded from alcohol taxation. Our primary concern should not be a blanket ban on the alcohol industry providing sponsorship. The key issue is what such sponsorship purchases in terms of signage and promotions. The alcohol and advertising industries must agree not to target Australians under the age of 18 and not to send inappropriate messages about the alleged benefits of alcohol consumption, especially to men and women under 24 years of age.
If we are to move to a sustainable approach beyond the alcopops tax, the NSW initiative deserves a closer look.
The Australian July 28, 2009