WHO 8-12-2021

Only 14 Member States of the WHO European Region indicated that they have a ban on alcohol marketing on the Internet and social media, states a new WHO publication. The report, “Digital marketing of alcohol: Challenges and policy options for better health in the WHO European Region” describes the developing digital ecosystem that is used to promote alcohol consumption and the associated health risks.

The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child proclaims the right to health. This report makes clear that in the digital sphere, this must include protecting children’s health from unsolicited invasion of their digital social spaces by companies promoting alcohol consumption, normalizing drinking culture from a very young age, placing them especially at risk of harm.

The publication lays out a series of policy options for consideration, emphasising the need for a global and comprehensive approach, so as to put in place legislative arrangements that will be robust enough to offer protection in the future not only for children but for all at risk of substance use disorders, wherever businesses are based and wherever content is accessed.

Drinking patterns become digital

Accelerated by COVID-19, many people across the European Region, especially children and young people, increasingly spend leisure time in online/digital spaces. New technologies have benefits to offer but there also new risks, including of exposure to alcohol marketing. We know that such exposure can lead to early onset of alcohol use, as well as dangerous drinking patterns.

By 2025, global digital ad spend is predicted to be over US$ 600 billion, representing 60% of total global ad spend, and mobile advertising spend will reach US$ 360 billion.

The WHO European Region has the highest level of total alcohol consumption of the six WHO regions that causes around 1 million deaths every year.  A higher proportion of alcohol harm occurs in younger age groups, with alcohol causing one in four deaths of people aged 20-24.

According to the new WHO report, fewer than half of the Member States of WHO European Region have indicated whether or not they have a ban on alcohol marketing on the Internet and specifically on social media platforms. Only 14 countries have informed that they have implemented such bans.

Just as with tobacco, a global and comprehensive approach is required to restrict digital marketing of alcohol.

“The vast majority of alcohol advertising online is “dark”

Children and young people are especially at risk from the invasion of their social spaces by communication promoting alcohol consumption, normalising alcohol in all social contexts and linked to development of adult identities.

“Current policies across the WHO European Region are insufficient to protect people from new formats of alcohol marketing. Age verification schemes, where they exist, are usually inadequate to protect minors from exposure to alcohol marketing. The fact that the vast majority of alcohol advertising online is “dark”, in the sense that it is only visible to the consumer to whom it is marketed, is challenging for policy makers thus requiring new mechanisms and a new approach,” said Dr Carina Ferreira-Borges, Acting Director for Noncommunicable Diseases and Programme Manager for Alcohol and Illicit Drugs at WHO/Europe.

How to improve country policies

Restricting marketing of alcohol is a WHO recommended “Best Buy” cost-effective alcohol policy to reduce alcohol consumption and harm.

The new WHO report, created with the support of Government of the Netherlands, makes clear that protecting exploitation of people’s online social lives is key in this context.

In the publication, a number of policy options are discussed, including:

  • Effective age verification systems for use of platforms
  • Clear labelling of advertisements in social media posts
  • Use of algorithm-based processes for alcohol-related brand names, so as to block access
  • Sanctions for inappropriate activities, with robust enforcement

Creating a Region free from alcohol harm

The Regional Director’s Advisory Council on Innovation for Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD Advisory Council) has the intention of inspiring action to implement the ongoing “Action Plan for the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases in the WHO European Region 2016 – 2025”, with a view to achieving concrete results by 2025. The Council has adopted a signature initiative to prioritize actions that will protect children and young people from exposure to unhealthy commodities, including alcohol, in digital contexts.

All of this is within the framework of the European Programme of Work, 2020–2025 – “United Action for Better Health in Europe” and its flagship initiative on empowerment through digital health.

Our vision is of a WHO European Region where everyone has access to better health and has every opportunity to lead a fulfilling life, free from harm due to alcohol.

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