A COUPLE of weeks ago a report by a ‘virtual expert group’ published by Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) reignited demands for severe restrictions on alcohol advertising and marketing.
Called ‘Promoting good health from childhood’, it proposes an outright ban on alcohol advertising in public places; curbs on television advertising; and an end to alcohol companies’ sponsorship of sporting, musical and cultural events.
But rules enforced by the Advertising Standards Authority – among the tightest in the world – place particular weight on the protection of young people and other vulnerable groups.
All licence holders are prohibited from promoting products likely to appeal largely to persons under 18. There’s a ban on alcohol promotions within 200 metres of off-sales outlets.
High-strength products favoured by young drinkers – such as white cider sold at ‘pocket-money’ prices – are, according to my observations, rarely if ever advertised.
Of course, if minimum pricing legislation crosses the finishing line some of these products will in all probability be priced out of the market.
And, most significantly, the report’s bald assertion that “exposure to alcohol marketing reduces the age at which young people start to drink” just doesn’t square with unimpeachable evidence that teen drinking is in significant long-term decline.
So, for those waging all-out war on alcohol, these are very inconvenient facts.
The solution, it seems, is two-fold.
Firstly, an attempt to create the impression that the wicked alcohol barons’ efforts to draw in underage consumers is a matter of public concern.
The “virtual expert group” which developed the report is, we’re told, “responding to current concerns about children being exposed to large volumes of marketing for health-harming products”.
It’s also suggested that there’s a “broad consensus in support of action on alcohol marketing in Scotland”.
But, in truth, there is no upsurge in public opinion calling for bans of the sort proposed in this campaign.
We now live in a society whose citizens frequently ventilate strong opinions on a whole range of issues – but no one has yet taken to the streets to protest against a brewery’s sponsorship of a music festival.
The second line of attack is the familiar conflation of alcohol and tobacco misuse.
It’s pretty clear that AFS and others are using the path to plain cigarette packaging as a campaigning template – but now with a very disturbing twist.
According to Balance North East, an English alcohol charity, “alcohol marketing is recruiting our kids as the next generation of problem drinkers”.
That claim is as startling as it’s objectionable, but there are signs that it forms a new strand in the anti-alcohol crusade.
A ‘point of view’ article by Ruth Wishart appearing in the Helensburgh Advertiser ramped up the expert group’s allegations: according to Wishart, they “outlined the ways in which children were actively encouraged to imbibe through the ingenious use of marketing and sponsorship”.
There follows a contrived reference to the ongoing challenge to minimum pricing. And finally the article reaches an astonishing crescendo, comparing the litigation instigated by the Scotch Whisky Association with the tobacco industry’s attempts to fend off a ban on “sexy packaging, sports sponsorship and advertising” despite “incontrovertible evidence about how it [the industry] encouraged young smokers”.
So there you have it.
An argument that alcohol producers are promoting a dangerous product to children that’s designed to create a resonance with claims that ‘Big Tobacco’ has actively sought to compensate for a diminishing market by targeting youngsters, particularly in Third World countries.
The protection of children from harm is a major societal priority, as well as a licensing objective, but I don’t imagine for a moment that anyone with a grain of common sense would buy the hypothesis that ‘Big Alcohol’ is intent on creating a generation of alcohol abusers.
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