Monash University, Australia; 9 June 2020

Kerry O’Brien and Brian Vandenberg

When the 2020 footy season restarts this week, the stadiums will be a very different place. No crowds, no meat pies, and no beer.

But we can be sure to see the return of alcohol advertising at every game. An avalanche of it. On the talk shows, on the telecasts, and online.

This comes at a time when a new report shows that Australian children are exposed to enormous volumes of alcohol advertising each year, and there’s little protection from it.

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The report by Dr Brian Vandenberg and Professor Kerry O’Brien in the Behavioural Sciences Research Lab in Monash University’s Faculty of Arts examines the extent, nature, and consequences of children and young people’s exposure to alcohol advertising and sponsorship.

It was commissioned by the Commonwealth Department of Health, on behalf of the Australian National Advisory Council on Alcohol and Drugs (ANACAD), a relatively new national body that reports directly to the Australian minister responsible for drugs and alcohol policy.

How does it affect young people?

The report distils evidence from 30 years of research involving tens of thousands of young people showing that greater exposure to alcohol advertising and sponsorship leads to earlier alcohol initiation, and more harmful drinking. In short, there’s a dose response.

According to report co-author Professor O’Brien, “sport is the leading single entertainment genre for marketing alcohol to children and young people, and research shows advertising and sponsorship in sport is highly effective in influencing children and young people’s attitudes toward alcohol, and their drinking”.

While the impacts on health from allowing exposure to alcohol marketing and sponsorship are quite clear, the impact of preventing exposure is equally clear. In countries with strong laws and regulations to restrict alcohol marketing, there are lower rates of harmful alcohol use.

The public health rationale for protecting children and young people from alcohol advertising is simple, but often ignored. Drinking at a young age poses short-term risks to their health (for example, injury, and accidental death), as well as serious long-term consequences (such as brain damage and developmental problems).

How much alcohol advertising are young people exposed to?

Tobacco advertising was banned in Australia decades ago, but alcohol advertising has continued unfettered.

Australian children’s exposure to alcohol advertising through online and digital media is rapidly increasing, but exposure remains highest through traditional media such as television, and sport sponsorship.

In a single year, Australia’s children and adolescents experience more than 50 million exposures to alcohol advertising through telecasts of the three major national sporting codes (AFL, NRL, cricket). Alcohol advertisements within these three sports represent 60 per cent of all alcohol advertising in televised sport.

What’s wrong with the current self-regulatory system?

The industry’s self-regulatory codes in Australia, like elsewhere in the world, do little to shield young people from exposure to alcohol advertising.

Studies show they are completely ineffective in achieving their stated intent of protecting children (0-17 years) from exposure to alcohol advertising and sponsorship during their peak TV viewing times, or from exposures via other media use (online).

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This is largely due to the wide timeslots during which the commercial TV code allows alcohol advertising to be shown (that is, anytime after 8.30pm), and by permitting alcohol advertising and sponsorship to be shown at any time if within a weekend sports program (including live sport, replays or talk shows).

Alcohol sponsorship of sport in Australia is, in effect, unregulated. This is problematic given the popularity of sport with young people, and the pervasiveness of alcohol sponsorship in the major sporting codes.

There are also glaring gaps in the regulation of digital and online advertising, raising fresh concerns about the increasingly targeted exposure of young people via these platforms.

None of this is surprising considering that the advertising and alcohol industries’ peak bodies write their own rules for advertising, handle any complaints themselves, and quietly work at blocking stricter rules from government or other concerned groups.

How can Australia protect young people from alcohol advertising?

Australia urgently needs stronger restrictions on alcohol advertising and sponsorship to protect children and young people. Internationally, our regulatory controls on alcohol marketing are among the weakest.

The majority of Australians (approximately 70 per cent), and particularly parents (80 per cent), support stronger restrictions on alcohol advertising and sponsorship. Hence, policymakers should anticipate a substantial amount of public support if stronger restrictions were implemented.

The evidence base suggests that there are several effective ways for protecting children and young people from exposure to alcohol advertising, two of which stand out as the most obvious and practical next steps for Australia.

First, we need bans on TV alcohol advertising at times when children are known to be watching, especially during sports programs, where alcohol ads are currently permitted at any time on weekends (including Friday evenings).

Second, we need to get alcohol sponsorship out of sport. There are good examples to follow from other countries (such as France and Ireland), as well as Australia’s own success in removing tobacco sponsorship from sport.

Alcohol sponsorship in sport: it’s time for a buy-out

Breaking the alcohol/sport nexus will face strong opposition from vested interests. Sport is a favourite marketing vehicle for industries that want to attract young people to products such as alcohol, unhealthy food, and gambling; products that would otherwise struggle to be associated with feelings of pride, health, and success if it were not for marketing them within sport.

For the 2020 season, the AFL’s major sponsorship partners include Carlton Draught, McDonald’s, and Coca-Cola. The picture is similar for the NRL in 2020, with its major sponsorship partners including Victoria Bitter, KFC, and SportsBet.

Purchasing the naming rights for individual sporting events are a key marketing tactic used by alcohol brands to recruit new drinkers from the audience of young spectators. The final-round game in this year’s NRL season between Brisbane and North Queensland on 24 September is already being marketed as the “XXXX Derby”.

While the precise dollar value of these sponsorship deals is rarely disclosed, they represent a tightly held source of funding for sport. However, even a modestly-funded $25 million Australian trial of buying out alcohol sponsorship from national sports in 2012 has shown that it is possible to bring about change. While the largest sports (AFL, NRL, cricket) didn’t join the trial, 12 major national sports very willingly dropped their alcohol sponsorship in exchange for alternative funding and a healthier brand image.

The solution

A key learning from that trial, according to report co-author Dr Brian Vandenberg, is that “in order to attract and retain the largest sporting codes in a buy-out of alcohol sponsorship, securing a sustainable alternative source of funding is critical. The solution is a no-brainer – introduce a small levy on alcohol sales, with the proceeds earmarked for buying out alcohol sponsorship in sport”.

“This is precisely how Victoria funded the world’s first buy-out of tobacco advertising in sport three decades ago. Major sports did not collapse in the state. On the contrary, Victoria has remained as the nation’s sporting capital,” Dr Vandenberg said.

Professor O’Brien also added that: “Funding sport in Australia from a small levy on alcohol is a win-win. It would provide funding certainty and sustainability for all sports, and support better health and wellbeing in the community through greater participation in sport. And by removing alcohol sponsorship from sport, it would protect children and young people from relentless exposure to alcohol marketing.

“In addition, sports will enjoy a healthier image, and we’ll be taking an important step in preventing the uptake of drinking and alcohol-related harm among young people,” Professor O’Brien said.

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