Few complaints about alcohol advertising are upheld, study finds

Pressure is mounting on the Government to intervene in the alcohol industry and regulate advertisements.

Data published in the New Zealand Medical Journal this week found fewer than a quarter of recent complaints were upheld, and 40 percent settled.

Nicki Jackson of Alcohol Healthwatch, which conducted the research, says the Advertising Standards Authority's (ASA) voluntary code is failing New Zealand - and it has been for a while.

"It's the alcohol advertisers writing their own rules and marking themselves. The evidence is clear, the science is clear - voluntary codes do not work. They're vague, they're permissive... they're basically too weak to be effective." 

More than half of the complaints - 58 percent - relate to social and digital media advertisements. Dr Jackson says web users are being exploited by their own data, and there's no limit to the number of ads for alcohol that might show up in their social media feeds. 

"We've seen a real growth in the alcohol industry moving towards digital media. They were one of the first industries to start partnering with social media platforms... They're uniquely targeted, they're harvesting your data, your emotions, to target you when you're at your most vulnerable, excited, whatever. Nowadays your social media feeds can just be saturated with alcohol advertising, and codes like this can't do anything about that. 

"My Facebook feed thinks I have serious issues with alcohol - and eight of 10 ads in my social media feed are now for alcohol. These codes are more irrelevant than ever before." 

Broadcasting Minister Kris Faafoi last year said he had noticed an increase in the number of social media adverts for alcohol, but wouldn't commit to any changes.

"This would be looked at as part of any review of the legislation to make sure it is fit for purpose," he told Newshub in December.

"The Government expects people licensed to sell alcohol to know and abide by their obligations... The Government has many pressing priorities and work on alcohol laws would need to fit in with these."

The last major update to New Zealand's alcohol laws was in 2012. 

New code

A new code is set to come into force from April 1, written after consultation with the industry and health groups. Dr Jackson, Kate Baddock - chair of the New Zealand Medical Association - and Lucy Elwood, chief executive of the Cancer Society,  in December told Newshub it wouldn't achieve anything, as it was still voluntary.  

"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," said Elwood. "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."

Nicki Jackson.
Nicki Jackson. Photo credit: The AM Show

The alcohol industry in December said there was no evidence advertising actually increases consumption - they are simply fighting for market share. 

"Many people think that advertising increases consumption, but this is simply not true. The fact is consumption in New Zealand has been steadily falling over the past decade or so," said NZ Alcohol Beverages Council executive director Bridget McDonald.

"Advertising is all about brand promotion and tends to influence a consumer's brand preferences or strengthens a company's brand positioning rather than increasing consumption."


David Ratuu, a Maori warden who has in the past taken his complaints about alcohol laws to the Waitangi Tribunal, said the current advertising code was "racist". 

"The current system reflects a failure of the Crown's responsibility to protect Maaori health. The ASA has failed and continues to fail to protect Maori from the harms of alcohol advertising and sponsorship. Evidence is clear that Maori rangatahi, tamariki and mokopuna are more exposed to harmful alcohol advertising than any other demographic and yet, they continue to persist with a failing system."

Maori and Pasifika kids were three to five times more likely to be exposed to alcohol advertising that other kids, the research found. 

'Most harmful drug by far'

Dr Jackson said some repeat offenders have made it their brand to repeatedly break the rules. 

"We've had one alcohol company that's had seven complaints in recent times and continues to breach the rules. We've had billboards placed near schools. We've had alcohol ads claiming alcohol is therapeutic, that it's needed to wind down, that it has health properties. There's use of heroes of the young, targeting to young people."  

And by the time a complaint has made it through the ASA complaint process, the campaigns are usually over rendering the outcome moot, said Dr Jackson. 

"We prohibit advertising of tobacco and vaping, and we were going to look at restrictions around cannabis - alcohol's our most harmful drug by far, yet it's the most weakly regulated." 

Alcohol consumption has actually fallen over the past 20 years, data shows, but there's evidence an increasingly large share of it is being consumed by problem drinkers.