New research on alcohol marketing suggests current regulations don’t work

Research published today in the journal Addiction provides new insights into global alcohol marketing, its regulation and its potential impacts on youth consumption. The journal supplement, supported with funding from Alcohol Research UK and the Institute of Alcohol Studies, analyses the effectiveness of existing regulations and voluntary codes, especially in preventing young people from being exposed to alcohol brands and adverts. It also contains further evidence linking exposure to alcohol marketing with alcohol use.

The findings largely confirm what much prior research has suggested: that there is a relationship between marketing and consumption, and that existing regulations are often circumvented or are ineffective in achieving their key goals. The latter is especially the case in social media marketing where brand messages and user-generated content often blur, and where large amounts of content simply pass below the regulatory radar.

Among today’s papers, a review of studies published since 2008 finds further evidence that young people who report higher exposure to alcohol brands are more likely to drink, and drink more, than those who report seeing fewer adverts.

Of course, there are many potential causes of youth drinking and brand recognition may reflect, as well as cause, higher consumption. It is, in reality, impossible to provide a ‘smoking gun’ that can isolate the impact of marketing from all the other social and psychological reasons that drive individual drinking behaviours. However, the weight of evidence increasingly points to a tangible relationship between the two.

Opponents of stricter marketing controls often argue that marketing exists solely to influence brand loyalty, rather than to encourage alcohol consumption per se. There may be some truth in this in ‘mature’ markets – though less so in the developing world where alcohol brands are working both to increase the number of consumers and the amount those drinkers purchase, even where strict controls are in place.

However, even in high-drinking markets such as Britain alcohol is not like toothpaste, with consumers simply switching one brand for another: consumers don’t give up toothpaste for whole months (as many drinkers are currently doing for Dry January), nor do toothpaste companies fear cultural trends in which generations of young people will lose their taste for dental hygiene. In 1933, launching a multi-million pound marketing campaign in the face of declining youth consumption, the then Chair of the Brewers Society stated the campaign should ‘get the beer-drinking habit instilled into thousands, almost millions, of young men who do not at present know the taste of beer’ (a campaign that triggered calls for advertising restrictions in its own time…). Something similar may be happening today. After almost of decade of declining youth alcohol consumption in the UK and many other developed countries, alcohol marketing undoubtedly aims to maintain the place of drinking in youth culture, even if it does so brand by brand.

The editors of the Addiction supplement argue that the most effective way to curb the potentially harmful influences of alcohol marketing is through a comprehensive ban. Whether that is practical or politically viable is a question for policymakers and regulators. However, understanding how alcohol marketing affects behavior, and whether existing regulations and codes adequately control the drip feed of marketing in social media and the pervasive (some might say inescapable) sponsorship of sports and cultural events, remains of pressing importance.

The research papers published today provide a major contribution to the evidence base. They will hopefully stimulate more serious debate on what role alcohol marketing should play in our everyday lives and what kinds of regulation are appropriate and effective.