Relying on the alcohol industry to regulate alcohol marketing does not work. It’s time for a new approach, writes Rebecca Johnson, policy advisor with Cancer Council Western Australia.

She invites Croakey readers to contribute to the Alcohol Advertising Review Board (AARB), which was launched last week.

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Alcohol marketers now face scrutiny by an independent watchdog 

Rebecca Johnson writes:

Alcohol companies spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year saturating our information environment with booze advertising – it’s on jerseys and screens at the footy, on bus shelters and billboards near schools, in magazines, at the movies, on the internet and even in the music videos aired on Saturday morning TV.

The ads work, especially on young people. Research shows that alcohol advertising affects drinking behaviours: it normalises alcohol consumption, changes young people’s attitudes towards drinking, and is linked to early drinking initiation and risky drinking.

Alcohol-related harm to health and community is well documented.  However, in Australia, alcohol advertising – which persuades us to drink more and more often – is governed by the same industries that profit from alcohol sales.  Our alcohol-specific advertising scheme is managed by alcohol and advertising industry representatives.

The scheme’s code of practice, the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC), is rife with loopholes.  It only covers the content of alcohol ads, ignoring where they are placed, allowing booze ads to show up on all-ages websites or at your child’s school bus stop.  Compared with international codes such as Canada’s, it fails to adequately handle advertising that appeals to young people. 

The Code is silent on many common marketing techniques, including point-of-sale promotions, and viral and emerging media. Indeed, the Code doesn’t even define ‘alcohol advertising’, which allows the panel that judges ads to conveniently ignore promotions that are clearly advertising, such as overt product placement.

If you think the code of practice sounds weak, the scheme that administers it is worse.  It is entirely voluntary, and so it simply does not apply to non-signatories, such as in this determination, and this one.  Lodging a complaint is a protracted process, and often ad campaigns have well and truly run their course by the time the ABAC panel makes a determination.  There are no penalties for breach of the code of practice – none.

The scheme, as any industry-managed scheme can be expected to be, is geared to come down on the industry’s side.  Time and time again, ads that offend, appeal to children, or inappropriately associate drinking booze with being sexier, smarter or sportier, are allowed through the loopholes and cracks in the system.

Enter the Alcohol Advertising Review Board (AARB), an innovative new project announced last week by Professor Mike Daube from the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth in collaboration with Cancer Council Western Australia.  The AARB will adjudicate community complaints about alcohol advertising and will deliver rational, considered and consistent determinations, free of industry influence.

Two Codes underpin the AARB; a Placement Code and a Content Code.  The Placement Code is a set of ideal provisions about where alcohol advertising should appear in the physical and online environments, so as to protect young people from excessive exposure.  The Content Code is constructed using provisions from existing alcohol advertising codes from jurisdictions with self- or quasi-regulatory systems similar to Australia’s, such as New Zealand, the UK and Canada.  In each jurisdiction, the alcohol and advertising industries have accepted and supported the application of the codes to their advertising.

The AARB is Chaired by Professor Fiona Stanley, and its Panellists are respected Australians, known for their community contributions in the fields of health, policing, politics, religion, indigenous affairs and youth.

The Panellists will judge alcohol advertising for what it really is, without the industry interest.  The Panel will independently interpret the industry’s own provisions and endeavour to reach commonsense outcomes, revealing the flaws in the ABAC adjudication process along the way.

Although the Panel cannot penalise advertisers outright, determinations will be offered up to the media, and advertisers that breach the AARB Codes  will be judged in the court of public opinion.

The McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth and Cancer Council WA believe the AARB fills an urgent need for an independent, innovative alternative to the existing self-regulated alcohol complaints system.  In other words – we’ll keep ‘em honest.

We invite Croakey readers to participate in this important project.  Explore the AARB Codes, here.   Tell us about an alcohol ad that doesn’t sit right with you here.  Be heard and spread the word.

• Rebecca Johnson is Policy Advisor, Cancer Council Western Australia

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