The Sidney Morning Herald;

The rise of online video gaming or “e-sports” has created an unregulated space for alcohol manufacturers to market their products to young Australians – including through “covert” sponsorship deals – a new study has found.

Lead researcher Sarah Kelly, an associate professor of law and marketing at the University of Queensland, surveyed almost 1000 young gamers and viewers aged 16 to 34, and found that more than half were addicted to the platforms – making them more vulnerable to the marketing.

Online gaming has become a big money spinner.

Online gaming has become a big money spinner. Credit: Sarah Cooper

The study, commissioned by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education, found that heavy gamers are more likely to purchase alcohol brands that sponsor an online game they play or watch, and drink more alcohol when gaming.

Gamer “influencers” with millions of followers are being paid to promote alcohol brands while live streaming their video games on platforms such as YouTube and Twitch – sometimes without disclosing the connection, Associate Professor Kelly said.

Many of those surveyed admitted to using ad blocking software to stop paid advertisements from popping up during their gaming or viewing sessions, she said, making the branded content and product placement within the games and live streams more effective.

Examples range from gamers talking about the brand of alcohol they are drinking during a live stream, to in-game rewards known as “loot boxes” – which a Senate inquiry last year recommended be subject to a “comprehensive review” – containing branded alcohol.

“E-sports is rapidly becoming the largest entertainment industry in the world, with an audience of 500 million globally and more than $1 billion in revenue annually,” Associate Professor Kelly said.

She said a “complete absence of regulation”, combined with high levels of gaming addiction among e-sport fans, created a potent marketing formula for alcohol producers who were diverting a large proportion of their promotional budgets away from traditional advertising to the platforms.

The growing industry has an audience of four million Australians, many of them young people, with e-sports now the most-consumed online content among millennials and Gen Z (under 18 years) Australians.

FARE chief executive Michael Thorn called on the federal government to regulate social media platforms to prevent alcohol advertising to children and young people.

“If it’s good enough that alcohol shouldn’t be advertised on free-to-air television during children’s viewing hours, then online marking should also be restricted,” Mr Thorn said.

“They know how to do it,” he said of the platforms’ ability to tackle illicit advertising.

Mr Thorn said Australia had been “reasonably successful in keeping tobacco advertising” off social media platforms, which took action to avoid breaching the nation’s blanket prohibition on cigarette branding – which has been credited with lowering the smoking rate.

FARE is campaigning to end alcohol advertising in sport and will present the research findings at a forum at Parliament House on Wednesday.

A spokesman for the Health Department said the government was “committed to preventing and reducing the harms associated with alcohol” and was finalising the National Alcohol Strategy

“The strategy will have a focus on social media and digital marketing and consider the potential risks for exposure to alcohol advertising by minors,” the spokesman said.

A spokesman for the Communications Department said any advertising of alcohol “must be conducted in a socially responsible way” and that the industry’s self-regulation regime was “robust”.

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