20th December 2022 | Jem Roberts, Institute of Alcohol Studies, UK

The Scottish Government has launched a consultation on ‘Restricting alcohol advertising and promotion’, which proposes restricting advertising of alcohol on television, outdoor billboards, through sports and events sponsorship, and through branded merchandise and online. The aim is to reduce alcohol consumption across the population, in order to reduce the risk of alcohol-related harms.

Following the launch of the consultation, opposition to the proposals from industry voices has been vocal:

  • The Portman Group’s CEO said: “These recommendations are entirely disproportionate and inhibit consumers’ ability to make informed choices”
  • A prominent nightlife promotor argued it is “control for control’s sake” and penalises “the vast majority of the public, who consume drink in moderation, and also vast swathes of our struggling business community”
  • A licensing lawyer dramatically stated: “The level of prohibition proposed goes further than anything ever seen before”

This framing of alcohol control policies – in this case bans on alcohol advertising – as ‘nanny-statism’ and not allowing individual choice and freedom is not new.

Considering the number of articles in the media that criticise the proposed restrictions, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the general public is also against a ban.

They’re not. A 2021 survey found 77% of Brits support controls on alcohol advertising to limit exposure to children. And 57% support a ban on alcohol advertising in outdoor and public spaces.

To understand the approach of different groups to the proposals, all that you need to consider are intentions: what are the intentions of the people commenting on either side of the debate? While the Scottish Government aims to reduce alcohol harm and the risk of alcohol advertising to children and vulnerable people, alcohol industry representatives aim to further their commercial interests and sell more of their product.

Alcohol advertising acts to remove our choice

The most deceptive framing from these industry bodies is that somehow banning advertising is ‘prohibitionist’ and unfair on moderate drinkers as advertising allows them to be informed about different drinks.

Well, as a moderate drinker, I find that both offensive and extremely patronising, as if I need alcohol advertising in my life to help me make decisions about what to drink. Along with many other people who drink, I want to make my decisions based on whether I like the taste of a particular product. I don’t want to be told what to drink, on which occasion, or to be targeted by sophisticated advertising campaigns by companies who disproportionately profit from harmful alcohol consumption. Perhaps I don’t even want an alcoholic drink, but I’m being constantly ‘nudged’ by advertising into drinking one for any and all occasions.

The whole point of advertising campaigns is to influence consumer behaviour, and we rarely get to choose not to see it when it’s plastered across billboards and on every ad break at the World Cup. In this way, alcohol advertising can act to restrict and remove our choice by targeting and influencing drinkers, and future drinkers such as children.

If alcohol producers were truly interested in informing consumers, they would dramatically improve the information on labels. Only 20% of product labels provide a full list of ingredients and a third don’t even have the up-to-date Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines, introduced six years ago.

A ban on alcohol advertising would increase freedom of choice for drinkers. It would also benefit social norms on alcohol use and protect young people and other vulnerable groups, such as people who drink harmfully or are in recovery.

So it isn’t a case of either ‘nanny-statism’ or individual freedom. The choice is: governments trying to reduce harm with evidence-based policies, or us continuing to be targeted and influenced by the marketing of a drug which directly killed 9,641 people in the UK last year, a 27% increase from 2019. I know what I would choose.

Written by Jem Roberts, Communications Manager, Institute of Alcohol Studies.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.

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