Call for tighter rules around alcohol advertising

The New Zealand medical establishment is calling for an end to industry self-regulation when it comes to the advertising and marketing of alcohol.

The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) this week released its new Alcohol Advertising and Promotion Code, which comes into effect on April 1 next year. Codes Committee chair Malcolm Swan said the ASA "consulted with the public and a wide range of organisations and agencies" in developing the new guidelines, but said it was aware "the new code will go too far for some and not far enough for others".

In the eight years to September 2020, 189 complaints about alcohol adverts and promotions were laid - fewer than half of which were upheld or settled. A third were groundless, in the ASA's view. Only one member of the public made a submission during the code review process, while 29 came from the health sector and 20 from the industry, including advertisers. 

"While the ASA had made it clear the committee was only reviewing its voluntary Code for Advertising and Promotion of Alcohol, many of the health sector submitters sought stronger government-enforced regulation or at least partial regulation, which was outside the scope of the ASA review."

The new code "includes reference to relevant legislation, guidelines on alcohol advertising and promotion and low risk drinking guidelines that advertisers must observe", the ASA said.

"The code provides clear guidance to advertisers that alcohol advertising and promotion must be targeted at adults whilst protecting minors and others who may be vulnerable to alcohol advertising and promotion."

'Nobody trusts alcohol companies'

But health groups say it will do little, if anything, to curb alcohol harms. 

"We continue to surrender responsibility to the alcohol industry and their advertisers to protect us from the harms of alcohol marketing," said Nicki Jackson, director of Alcohol Healthwatch.

"Nobody trusts alcohol companies to protect our children voluntarily. Alcohol marketing will still remain pervasive in everyday settings, particularly digital media... Time and time again, industry actions have been shown to be ineffective."

"We know that tamariki Māori and Pasifika children are disproportionately exposed to alcohol marketing," said Selah Hart, chief executive of Hāpai te Hauora Māori Public Health. "This drives and maintains the substantial inequities in alcohol harm that they experience."

"Independent recommendations for the Government to regulate alcohol marketing have been ignored for a decade," said Lucy Elwood, chief executive of the Cancer Society.

"The 2010 Law Commission review called for stronger action, followed by the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship in 2014, and the Mental Health and Addictions inquiry in 2019. We don't need any more working groups or expert panels to recommend regulating the marketing of alcohol, our most socially acceptable Group 1 carcinogen."

Kate Baddock.
Kate Baddock. Photo credit: Newshub.

Time for action

Kate Baddock, chair of the New Zealand Medical Association (NZMA) told Newshub it was time for the Government to actually do something.

"There have been voluntary standards for a long time, there have been various understandings with the alcohol industry, there have been council recommendations - there have been all kinds of things over the years. 

"But nothing is going to work nearly as well as the Government taking leadership on this issue and actually setting some regulations in place that control how the alcohol industry can advertise, and generally speaking the marketing of alcohol - particularly where children are involved."

It's not just advertising either - the NZMA wants to cut back on the number of off-licences, particularly in lower socio-economic areas where they're common, saying councils appear powerless to stop their spread.

They also want minimum drink pricing, to make RTDs less attractive and more difficult to purchase for younger people, who typically have lower incomes. 

Anything but another taskforce or inquiry.

"No point in setting up a taskforce that looks at all the recommendations that are already out there, agrees with the thrust of them, and goes 'yep - our recommendation to the Government is that we should reduce advertising, increase taxation on cheap alcohol, whatever it is'," said Dr Baddock.

"But those recommendations, unless they're taken up by the Government, will take us nowhere... You actually need the political will for the Government to take them on board and to implement them." 

What the statistics show

Statistics from the Ministry of Health's annual survey suggests youth alcohol use has plummeted in recent years. In 2006/7, three-quarters of all 15- to 17-year-olds reported consuming alcohol at least once in the past year - by 2014/15 that had dropped to 57 percent, and it's remained relatively static since then. 

Amongst all adults, use has dropped from 83.6 percent to 80.3 percent. But use amongst Māori has barely budged, with a rise in use by women offsetting a drop in men. The same goes for Pasifika, where a drop in men's consumption has been more than made up for by women's increased use. 

Pakeha are the nation's biggest drinkers - 85.7 percent - but Māori are far more likely to suffer health-related issues and run-ins with the law thanks to their drinking. 

Newshub has contacted Health Minister Andrew Little and Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi for comment.