February 2023; blog from Dr Richard I. Purves, Senior Research Fellow, Institute for Social Marketing and Health, University of Stirling.

In 2021, Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) commissioned the Institute for Social Marketing and Health (ISMH) to develop a series of case studies based on a number of European countries with existing alcohol marketing restrictions. This research sought to learn from implementation successes and challenges that might be relevant to Scotland should the Scottish Government seek to implement mandatory restrictions on alcohol advertising. The report, ‘Alcohol Marketing Restrictions: Learning from International Implementation’, was published in 2022 and helped inform many of the recommendations in the Alcohol Marketing Expert Network Report ‘Realising Our Rights’, published by Alcohol Focus Scotland in 2022.

The Scottish Government is currently consulting on a range of measures to restrict alcohol advertising and promotion with the aim of reducing the overall Scottish population’s exposure to alcohol marketing. The reason for this is that research has shown that awareness, recall of or exposure to alcohol marketing is associated with increased likelihood of alcohol consumption amongst young people and an increased risk of relapse for those in recovery from alcohol problems.

Across our case study countries, we found that alcohol marketing restrictions were generally put in place to support broader alcohol control and public health policies, to protect children and young people from exposure to alcohol marketing, and to ‘de-normalise’ alcohol products. This is in line with the Scottish Government’s aim of reducing alcohol related harm across the whole population.

Arguments made for legislation in our case study countries tended to focus on social justice or national pride, framing the high levels of alcohol harms as a source of national embarrassment. The Scottish Government has frequently referenced alcohol-related harm as one of the most pressing public health concerns facing Scotland, with an average of 700 people hospitalised and 24 people dying each week from illnesses caused by drinking alcohol. This type of framing is important in gaining public and political support which is key to taking any measures forward.

We also found that restrictions on alcohol marketing were successfully implemented due to strong political support or by utilising a window of opportunity (change in political leadership, introduction of other measures such as taxation). The Scottish Government has shown strong political support for whole population approaches to tackling alcohol harm over the past ten years or so through their 2009 and 2018 alcohol strategies. Scotland became the first country in the world to legislate for minimum unit pricing for alcohol and has committed to restricting alcohol marketing in the next few years, depending on the outcome of the current consultation.  

All countries included in our case studies faced opposition and challenges from alcohol industry bodies, who continually test the boundaries of the legislation and challenge the proportionality of any restrictions and their effectiveness. Arguments made against restrictions have included: economic and cultural impacts and freedom of speech. Recent weeks have seen the Scottish Government come under increasing pressure from various industry bodies who have argued that any restrictions on alcohol advertising will result in job losses across the sector, will have a negative impact on the Scottish economy and that any changes to alcohol marketing will be difficult to implement. However, learning from other countries challenges this, with no evidence of job losses and any difficulties regarding implementation proven to be minor or non-existent. Indeed, recent research by the Social Market Foundation and Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) found that the alcohol industry costs the economy roughly the same amount as it generates for the economy, and that restricting marketing is unlikely to have any impact on the Scottish economy.

One of the most important lessons learned from our research was that any restrictions on alcohol marketing need to be as comprehensive as possible. A comprehensive ban on alcohol marketing was frequently cited as the most straightforward and effective measure to limit exposure. The Scottish Government is consulting on a raft of measures including advertising on TV, on billboards outdoors, through sports and events sponsorship as well as through branded merchandise and online. Although some of these measures are out with the Scottish Government’s power to legislate, they have been included in the consultation based on the view that a comprehensive approach to restricting advertising is more effective than partial bans.

Importantly, having straightforward and clear regulations were key to implementation and enforcement. Restrictions should be designed so that they can be easily monitored and enforced, and definitions need to be clear and definitive with no room for misinterpretation or subjective application. We have seen that industry bodies will continually test the boundaries of any legislation and will also utilise technological advancements in their marketing campaigns. Therefore, it is important to adopt a ‘positive legislation’ approach where you specifically state any communications which should not be treated as marketing for the purposes of the legislation, with everything else being illegal. This was believed to be the easiest way to ensure implementation. Keeping the regulations ‘media and method neutral’ helps to future-proof restrictions so that emerging new technologies which policymakers cannot currently anticipate are still covered.

If the Scottish Government is to move ahead with restricting alcohol advertising and promotion, these important considerations should help when it comes to monitoring and enforcing compliance. Consideration should be given to proactive rather than reactive systems for approving and monitoring advertisements, and sufficient resources should be allocated to enforcement and compliance, with capacity also increased to cope with the extra demands.

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