Kenney, L. J., Cukier, S., Khoury, L., & Steeves, D. (2021). ‘You drink at home so you can go to work safely’: a case study exploring alcohol marketing during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drug and Alcohol Review, 1-4. 10.1111/dar.14474
Alcohol marketing is linked to heavy consumption. Researchers have begun to examine how the alcohol industry has adapted its marketing practices during the 2020 Global COVID-19 pandemic. In Canada, Nova Scotia’s culture of heavy drinking has been identified as a cause for concern by community, health care and government. This case study examines how one alco- hol company coopted the facilities, staff, logos and fundraising efforts of a local health charity to market the sale and home delivery of a 6% alcohol by volume product via social media. This case study details the marketing practices of the alcohol brand, suggests why the marketing practices are problematic and concludes with recommendations for health promotion prac- tice as well as suggestions for future research.
Alcohol consumption is a leading cause of death and disability worldwide and the leading risk factor for pre- mature death for those aged 15–49 years [1–3]. One of the major drivers of alcohol consumption is alcohol marketing . Results of a systematic review demon- strated that increased exposure to alcohol marketing leads to earlier alcohol initiation and increased con- sumption among young people .
Alcohol brand marketing influence, for example, distributing branded beer cans filled with water during disaster relief efforts (e.g. hurricanes and tsunamis) has become more commonplace . Authors of a sys- tematic review found that many beverage alcohol cor- porations participate in corporate social responsibility initiatives aimed at reducing harmful drinking; how- ever, there is emerging evidence to indicate negative results towards this end [6,7]. Instead, corporate social responsibility initiatives have been found to be effective
primarily in improving the public image of corpora- tions [6,8]. Corporate sponsorships and other forms of funding from the alcohol and tobacco industries have been known to be more generous and flexible than government funding , therefore there is often fear that without alcohol funding (and previously what was thought, without tobacco funding), there would be no support for cultural and sporting events, among others . However, after tobacco funding became more restricted , other corporations were able to fill the funding gaps, as would likely be the case should alcohol funding became more tightly restricted .
In Canada, alcohol marketing is regulated federally, by the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommuni- cations Commission; however, these regulations have not been changed since 1996 and therefore do not include guidelines for social media, one of the most prevalent forms of alcohol marketing [2,13]. Provinces do have the power to regulate alcohol marketing and could implement stricter alcohol marketing regula- tions, however few do . There is little information on the evolution or regula- tion of alcohol marketing during a pandemic. In this case study, we present an example of alcohol marketing during the COVID-19 pandemic and investigate the potential for harm and suggested mitigation strategies.
Context and Setting
Nova Scotia’s heavy drinking culture
In Nova Scotia (NS), alcohol is sold via a provincial government monopoly. The Nova Scotia Liquor Cor- poration (NSLC) is a semi-autonomous crown corpo- ration, with the legislative duty to regulate the procurement and promotion of all alcohol products, while at the same time minimising health-related harms . Since 2007, the year of the release of NS’s Provincial Alcohol Strategy , rates of heavy drink- ing have changed little. In 2019, 22.0% of the province reported heavy drinking at least once a month within the last year, from 21.6% reported in 2007 [17,18].
Nova Scotia pandemic response
On 22 March 2020, NS declared a state of emergency that forced non-essential businesses to close , leav- ing only one alcohol retailer in the province open for business: the NSLC . During the first few weeks of the pandemic, the NSLC saw a 216% increase in bulk purchases of alcohol, resulting from rumours of an imminent closure . However, the NSLC remained open and implemented prevention measures, including reducing hours of operation and installing plexiglass at check-outs .
Frontliner: The Story
In the spring of 2020, a local independent microbrew- ery in Halifax, NS, brewed, released and marketed a 6% alcohol by volume beverage they dedicated to front- line health-care workers; it was named ‘Frontliner’. The alcohol company reported that 50% of the Frontliner profits would be donated to a local hospital-based health charity’s COVID-19 fund to purchase urgently needed pandemic medical supplies .
FrontLiner was marketed via social media platforms by the alcohol company as well as the local health charity. One of the social media slogans for the bever- age was: ‘You drink at home so they can go to work safely’. The alcohol company has over 19000
followers on Instagram. Social media platforms, such as Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and the alcohol company website were used to market the beverage and to shine a spotlight ‘on the faces behind the masks’.
In one image description, a nurse shared: ‘Obvi- ously, a drink now and then on our days off never hurt anyone’. However, according to the authors of the 2016 Global Burden of Disease study, there is no safe level of alcohol consumption .
FrontLiner posts were shared numerous times and received over 1200 likes on Instagram (counted by authors). The posts never accompanied a mention of Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines [Note: Canada’s Low Risk Drinking Guidelines suggests no more than 2/3 drinks per day for women/men and other situations where not drinking is the safest option], the risks of alcohol consumption or alcohol consumption impacts on COVID-19 (e.g. weakened immune system) [23,24].
Upon learning about Frontliner marketing efforts, Nova Scotia Health Authority (NSHA) Mental Health and Addictions health promoters engaged in conversa- tions with leaders and communications staff of the health charity regarding the appropriateness of the union of a hospital charity with a product that causes harm. To guide conversations, health promoters used examples of local and national alcohol marketing poli- cies, such as Halifax Administrative Order 53: a city- wide policy that restricts certain alcohol marketing (e.g. sponsorships) for city-run events . In addi- tion, health promoters used the lessons learned from work on the control of other harmful substances (e.g. tobacco) to emphasise the role that institutional health policy can have on influencing the health behav- iours of communities. For example, the NSHA Smoke-Free Places policy promotes clean air for all staff by making all facilities smoke-free .
On 19 May 2020, the Nova Scotia Health Authority sent a message to all employees via companywide email:
‘Nova Scotia Health Authority’s Emergency Operations Centre reminds everyone that using staff and space within our facilities to promote commercial products, spe- cifically alcohol, is not appropriate. This is not permitted at any time including during the COVID-19 pandemic.’
After the all-staff announcement, the alcohol comp- any’s Frontliner marketing posts were deleted from social media, except for one post thanking customers for their purchases and support.
FrontLiner is one example of an alcohol company using the conditions of a pandemic to broker partner- ships with health charities to coopt health-care brand elements like trust, reputation and good will in an effort to market alcohol. Social media posts encourag- ing the purchase of a 6% alcohol by volume beverage as a means of supporting health care were liked over a thousand times, during a period when provincial alco- hol control regulations were weakened, institutional policies non-existent and people reported an increase in heavy drinking .
Most forms of alcohol marketing in NS are regu- lated by the NSLC, the same entity responsible for selling and regulating the sale of alcohol in the prov- ince. This presents an inherent conflict of interest, as restricting marketing could potentially reduce sales.
The partnership between Frontliner and the health charity is problematic in that it bridges a charity that promotes health and wellness, with a substance that is a significant driver of health-care harms and cost. This partnership was forged when alcohol regulations were relaxed and health-care systems were stretched; this partnership does not represent a best practice approach. Instead, institutions are encouraged by the World Health Organization to adopt policies that restrict alcohol marketing, to avoid taking funds from alcohol companies, given that alcohol is a large driver of health-care costs .
COVID-19 has highlighted the alcohol marketing policy gap and presents policymakers with an opportu- nity to craft policies governing alcohol marketing, spe- cifically during times of crisis. One reason organisations accept industry funding is the prioritisation of their specific mission over public health . COVID presented health charities with an immediate need for resources and a specific mission to raise the funds for these items. Industry sponsorships provide charities with relief to address immediate issues, but at what cost? Partnering with the alcohol industry likely compromises the image, mission and values of the charity, suggesting that the charity sup- ports the products of these industries . The part- nership may also work in favour of the alcohol industry, providing goodwill to the alcohol company as a result of its partnership with a charity .
At local levels, institutions and charities can adopt their own marketing practices, to decide when and from whom to take money. Under its Framework Con- vention on Tobacco Control, the World Health
Organization ‘urges’ participating countries to ban tobacco sponsorship ; this recommendation invokes action at all levels of institutions, especially health organisations, most of whom no longer accept tobacco industry funding (for example, see the corpo- rate sponsorship policy of the Canadian Public Health Association) . Parallels can be drawn between the alcohol and tobacco industries, both of whom pro- duce, distribute and market commodities internation- ally, that are harmful to health, especially among youth [33,34]. As such, a framework convention on alcohol control is similarly warranted.
Conclusion and Recommendations
COVID-19 has provided a unique opportunity for alcohol companies to market their products in new ways, highlighting the critical importance of institu- tional health-care policies that restrict alcohol market- ing. Health promoters must first get to decision- making tables by being evidence-informed, approach- able and relevant. Health promoters need to approach the dilemmas faced by these organisations with engagement and discussion, rather than critique . There continues to be a research gap for the impact of COVID-19 on alcohol marketing; therefore, future research can continue to explore the impacts of COVID-19 on short- and long-term changes in drink- ing behaviours and the age of first drink.
Link to the article: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/dar.13374.