Alcohol consumption in the UK has increased rapidly in recent years, not just among young people, but across society. The population is drinking in increasingly harmful ways and the result is a plethora of avoidable medical, psychological and social harm, damaged lives and early deaths. As consumption has increased, so the market for alcohol has grown. In 2007, sales (including supermarket, off-licence, restaurant and bar sales) were high enough to put virtually every British adult over government guideline drinking levels. These sales are driven by vast promotional and marketing campaigns that dwarf health promotion efforts: the UK alcohol industry spends approximately £800m each year encouraging consumption of its wares.
Alcohol marketing communications have a powerful effect on young people and are independently linked with the onset, amount and continuance of their drinking. These come in many forms, from traditional advertisements on television through ubiquitous ambient advertising to new media such as social network sites and viral campaigns. The cumulative effect of this promotion is to reinforce and exaggerate strong pro-alcohol social norms. Current controls on alcohol promotion are completely inadequate because they are based on voluntary agreements and focused on content, rather than the amount of alcohol advertising. Even in their control of content the rules are weak with, for example, prohibitions on advertising which associates drink with youth culture or sporting success sitting alongside alcohol sponsorship of iconic youth events like music festivals and premiership football.
Beyond marketing communications, companies use other integrated consumer marketing strategies including pricing, distribution and product design to develop and manage brands, and these also promote consumption. The unprecedented affordability of alcohol in the UK and anomalies in taxation are compounded by heavy discounting and price promotions, especially in the retail sector, and this encourages over consumption across the population, including by young people. The liberalisation of licensing laws has also contributed to the excessively pro-alcohol social norms in the UK, and resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of venues catering specifically for the young. In addition, recent years have seen the introduction of a range of novel drinks such as alcopops and shooters (cocktails served in a shot glass), many of which have a particular appeal to young people.
Stakeholder marketing by the alcohol industry, including partnership working and industry funded health education, has served the needs of the alcohol industry, not public health. In particular it has focused attention on ineffective educational initiatives and partial solutions, rather than evidence-based population level approaches. The reality is that young people are drinking more because the whole population is drinking more and our society is awash with pro-alcohol messaging, marketing and behaviour.