Alcohol industry's 'proof' advertising doesn't drive consumption ridiculed

The alcohol industry says new research proves there is no link between booze advertising and consumption levels.

But health campaigners say the claim is based on research that shouldn't be taken seriously.

The Alcohol Beverages Council (ABC) says the Foundation for Advertising Research found alcohol consumption has gone down over the past 30 years, regardless of how much the industry spent on advertising.

ABC spokesman Nick Leggett and Alcohol Healthwatch's Dr Nikki Jackson.
ABC spokesman Nick Leggett and Alcohol Healthwatch's Dr Nikki Jackson. Photo credit: The AM Show

Spokesman Nick Leggett told Newshub the idea that advertising encourages boozing has been "knocked out of the park".

"What we know is that the best way to educate people around alcohol is to give them information, increase their awareness."

The rules around alcohol advertising were loosened in 1992, allowing advertisers to mention brands and prices - but, according to the ABC's data, this had little effect on consumption, which fell during the early- to mid-1990s.

"New Zealand's alcohol drinking limits are heading in the right direction," said Mr Leggett.

But Dr Nicki Jackson of health lobby group Alcohol Healthwatch told Newshub the ABC's findings were "low-level evidence" with no academic validity.

"This is exactly what we expect of the alcohol industry - to put two lines together on a map and try and make some gross assumptions. This is not peer-reviewed, this is not even a study - we cannot locate the study. It hasn't been peer-reviewed."

Newshub was also unable to locate the study, and has asked the ABC to supply a copy.

Dr Jackson says real studies which have followed young people prove advertising leads to consumption.

"The more they're exposed to alcohol advertising the more likely they are to take up drinking, and when they drink, the more likely they are to drink heavily."

The amount spent on advertising is lower now than it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s, according to the ABC. Dr Jackson says this isn't surprising, because the internet has made it much easier to target likely buyers, a better use of money than spending big bucks on outdoor billboards and TV.

"They are using cheap, targeted and sophisticated social media advertising… they spend a lot less money to have a much greater reach."

Spending on adverts vs consumption, according to the Alcohol Beverages Council and  the Foundation for Advertising Research.
Spending on adverts vs consumption, according to the Alcohol Beverages Council and the Foundation for Advertising Research. Photo credit: Foundation for Advertising Research/ABC

And even though consumption is falling, Dr Jackson says the evidence an increasingly large share of it is being consumed by problem drinkers.

"The industry is not an authority on health - they are there to profit from heavy drinkers. Almost half of all alcohol sold in New Zealand is consumed in heavy drinking occasions."

Mr Leggett insists the industry isn't trying to turn teetotallers into drinkers, or drinkers into heavy drinkers - he says advertising is about convincing customers who've already decided to buy some grog to buy a particular brand.

"Seeing a shampoo advertisement does not make you buy more shampoo, but rather influences your choice of shampoo when you are confronted by lots of different brands - so it is for a wine or beer advertisement.

"It's not some nefarious conspiracy to hook non-drinkers onto alcohol, as the anti-alcohol lobby loves to try and make out. If alcohol advertising was about driving volume then it has been absolutely proven to be an abject failure, and the alcohol manufacturers would have given up long ago."

Dr Jackson says the industry fears regulation is "around the corner", and is getting desperate.

"I think that two-thirds of New Zealanders support restrictions on alcohol advertising, and I think they know the public are feeling quite strong about this matter."

The Ministry of Health estimates that over 780,000 adults are hazardous drinkers, including a third of people aged 18-24.