In: Croakey Health Media
Introduction by Croakey: Cancer Council WA says a review of the Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code overseen by the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) scheme is ineffective and only underscores the failures of the voluntary and industry-led approach which seems to even confuse its own independent panel. ABAC last month announced the results of the review, saying the Code had been strengthened to include changes to further protect children from exposure to alcohol advertising and to keep pace with changing marketing and advertising methods on social and digital marketing.
However, Devorah Riesenberg, Alcohol Policy and Research Coordinator at Cancer Council Western Australia, writes below that the changes are “superficial, addressed non-issues, and didn’t meaningfully address important forms of marketing that the community is concerned about”.
Leading public health advocates refused to be involved in the review, amid long-standing criticisms that public health cannot be served by voluntary industry-led codes that are “designed to put the profits of alcohol companies ahead of the health and wellbeing of the community”.
Devorah Riesenberg writes:
All Australians should be free to walk the streets, watch television and use their phones free from harmful alcohol advertising. However, with the current systems in place, this seems impossible. In Australia, alcohol companies have largely been left to manage their own marketing through industry codes and initiatives. Through the alcohol-industry Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme, alcohol companies write and administer their own rules for how and where alcohol is marketed. In an effort to appear to alleviate growing communities’ concern about alcohol marketing, the ABAC Scheme conducted a review of the Code and released the review report and updated Code recently. The changes announced were superficial, addressed non-issues, and didn’t meaningfully address important forms of marketing that the community is concerned about, including sport sponsorship.
Despite strong community concern about digital alcohol marketing and alcohol ads on streamed TV content, the report found that the Code does not have the ability to stop alcohol advertisements while children are watching live or streamed TV content. Importantly, the report highlighted that the Code has limited scope and that replacing the voluntary nature of the Code with an enforceable standard is a “a matter for Australian governments and out of the scope of this Review”.
Last year, public health advocates refused to participate in the review as no changes to the unenforceable Code will put the health of the public before the profits of their shareholders. Public health organisations have long criticised the ABAC Scheme. Conflicts of interest are abundant, the Code provisions are narrowly worded, important forms of marketing are not covered, and decisions are not enforceable or penalised.
The system is reliant on community complaints. Once a complaint is submitted to ABAC, the adjudication panel will use a ‘reasonable person test’ to interpret the Code and assess it against the complaint, often dismissing the complaint. The updated Code and review report do not address these important concerns.
For over 20 years, alcohol companies have been given the opportunity to set higher standards for alcohol marketing. Yet, the people tasked with applying and interpreting the Code, the ABAC Adjudication Panel, continue to highlight that even they find the Code difficult to interpret, leaving the community confused with the decision and how it was reached. Below are just a few examples of the inconsistencies in how the Code is interpreted and applied; there are many more.
The panel contradicts itself
Over the summer of 2022-2023, ABAC received two complaints (here and here) related to a Thirsty Camel radio ad that concluded with “hydrate responsibly”. You may be more familiar with “drink responsibly” at the end of alcohol ads, an industry tactic used to persuade the community that they are acting responsibly. The community member was concerned that the use of “hydrate” implies that alcohol has therapeutic benefits, like water, giving the body the fluids it needs. The panel dismissed the complaint on the basis that “a listener will take “hydrate” and “drink” as interchangeable terms in the context of the ad.”
The panel however recognised the inappropriateness of the phrase “hydrate responsibly” being used, and in dismissing the complaint, concluded “while not finding a breach of the standard, the Panel strongly recommends that the Company cease using the phrase “hydrate responsibly” and simply use “drink responsibly”.” The panel was clearly concerned about the phrase enough to recommend the advertiser change it, yet the complaint was still dismissed.
In the lead up to Christmas 2022, Bridge Road Brewing released an advert calendar, a popular gimmick that acts as countdown to Christmas. For the 24 days prior to Christmas, a daily ‘door’ can be opened to find a nice surprise: in this case 24 bottles of beer. A community member was concerned that Bridge Road Brewing calendar shows irresponsible drinking behaviour, including drinking while engaging in swimming activities (see here).
The packaging of the advent calendar appeared to show a Santa holding a glass of beer on an inflatable raft in the stream. Despite the Code clearly stating that alcohol and swimming activities should not mix, the ABAC panel dismissed the complaint.
The panel clearly made note of the Code, which states that “any activity that involves swimming or involves a person in a swimming pool or the ocean or a river/stream should not be undertaken with alcohol.” This seems to be exactly what Santa is doing, yet the complaint was dismissed on the basis that “it is not likely that a reasonable person would take the image in the context of the busy and elaborate individual scenes shown on the packaging as a serious endorsement of consuming alcohol and undertaking an inherently dangerous activity.”
The panel concludes with, “Accordingly, it would be far preferable that the packaging did not contain the image of a character consuming alcohol while on the lounge.” The panel agrees it would be better if the Santa character with a glass beer was not featured, but there is no breach.
The Code has no teeth
There is no monitoring of alcohol marketing, and there are no sanctions or penalties for breaches under the voluntary Code. The adjudication panel has had several complaints (for example here and here) where a breach in the Code was determined. However, within the same complaint the panel clearly highlighted that their decision has no ramifications and is not enforceable, “The Company is not a signatory to the ABAC Scheme and has not made any prior commitment to market consistently with the ABAC standards nor to comply with the outcome of the public complaints process.” The panel’s decisions are not enforceable and have no penalties, regardless of whether the company is a signatory or not.
Change is needed
These are just a few recent examples of ABAC’s failures to protect the community from the impacts of alcohol marketing. Others have been well documented. Clearly, the system is designed to put the profits of alcohol companies ahead of the health and wellbeing of the community. We need to step away from voluntary industry-led codes and develop an independent system with legislative controls that reduce community exposure to alcohol marketing. Only then will we see a future that is free from the harmful effects of alcohol marketing.
Devorah Riesenberg is an Alcohol Policy and Research Coordinator at Cancer Council Western Australia and an Accredited Practicing Dietitian. Her work focuses on raising awareness of the harms from alcohol and advocating for higher standards for regulating alcohol marketing.