Sweden might be next in line to restrict alcohol marketing online. On 15 January 2018, a white paper on alcohol marketing in digital media was presented to the Swedish government. The white paper proposes a ban on alcohol advertising on social media.
Most countries in Europe have some statutory limits to alcohol advertising due to the effect that it has on drinking behaviours. However, few countries regulate alcohol marketing online. This is despite the fact that youth exposure to online marketing is growing quickly and online ads easily can be made appealing to a young audience through interactive elements.
Norway was for a long time the only European country with a serious restriction on alcohol marketing online. Thanks to their comprehensive ban, they never had to draw up new rules to include digital media. In 2015, Finland banned certain aspects of online alcohol marketing: games, lotteries, contests, using user-created content as well as content intended to be shared by users. The Finnish law sounded the start of a new wave of common-sense public health legislation in the Nordic-Baltic region. Since 2018, Lithuania has a comprehensive alcohol advertising ban that includes digital media and Estonia is well under way of also heavily restricting alcohol advertising online. Now Sweden has taken the first steps towards joining them.
Swedish public white papers, shortened SOU, normally precede any legislative proposal and carry a lot of clout in the legislative process. The white paper on alcohol marketing in digital media had the specific tasks of investigating how children and young people could be better protected from alcohol marketing online. It was carried out by a government appointed committee of specialists on public health and media law, led by Ingeborg Simonsson, District Court Judge and one of Sweden’s leading experts on competition law
The white paper cites the strong scientific evidence of the negative effects of alcohol marketing on drinking behaviours, especially for children and young people. It also looks into the specificities of online alcohol marketing on the Swedish market. Although it does not find examples of more predatory types of advertising, it recognises that online alcohol marketing is nonetheless very prevalent. According to numbers cited in the paper, 68 percent of 16-24 year-olds had been exposed to alcohol advertising online in 2013, a higher exposure rate than those aged 25-34. The white paper thereby concludes that there is a need for statutory restrictions to alcohol marketing online and puts forward the proposal to ban commercial advertising on social media.
The proposal is a definitive reason to be cheerful and would come a long way in protecting young people in Sweden against alcohol marketing. It also goes further than the Finnish legislation, which, after a rather complicated legal interpretative procedure, was declared to not constitute a complete ban. Nonetheless, it is also important to bear in mind that the Swedish proposal also comes with several limitations. Limitations which the white paper is open about.
Firstly, the proposal only targets commercial alcohol advertising, which is less encompassing than simply saying alcohol marketing. It also only takes aim at advertising of alcoholic products and not, for example, the activity of producers – who would still be able to purchase ads showing, for example, production or traditional brewing techniques. Secondly, the proposal would only apply to social media, defined as “internet-based services for social interaction”, and not for the internet as a whole.
“IOGT-NTO welcomes the proposal to ban alcohol advertising on social media. It is a step in the right direction, even if the scope of the proposal needs to be extended further” – says Johnny Mostacero, President of IOGT-NTO, a Swedish organisation working on alcohol policy, in reaction to the white paper.
The pre-determined scope of the white paper means that its proposals were restricted to the digital sphere. However, the paper does include a section on Swedish alcohol marketing legislation more broadly under a section on how to achieve technology neutral legislation. Interestingly, the paper points to a complete alcohol marketing ban as being the only feasible way to achieve such neutrality. In view of that, the white paper encourages the government to revisit Swedish alcohol marketing legislation more comprehensively. This is also something Swedish NGOs have long called for.
Following its publication, the white paper will be sent out for consultation by interested parties before the government is expected to make a decision on whether to move forward with a legislative proposal or not. Due to the Swedish election in September 2018, the future of the proposal will not be known for some time to come. The white paper is nonetheless further proof of the existence of a positive trend when it comes to regulating alcohol marketing online. Hopefully the trend continues into 2018 and beyond.
The white paper can be found here (In Swedish but with a summary in English)
A translation of the Swedish government press release commenting on the white paper can be found here
January 31, 2018
European Policy Officer