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Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Calling time on alcohol promotion

The BMA has launched a new report today looking at the effects of drinks promotions, particularly amongst young people.

We’re calling for a total ban on alcohol advertising, including sports events and music festival sponsorship as well as promotional deals like happy hours, two-for-one purchases and ladies’ free entry nights.

“Under the Influence”, also renews the call for other tough measures such as a minimum price on alcoholic drinks and for them to be taxed higher than the rate of inflation.

Over the centuries, alcohol has become established as the country’s favourite drug. But the reality is that young people are drinking more because the whole population is drinking more and we now see pro-alcohol messaging, marketing and behaviour everywhere. In treating the issues around drink, we need to look beyond just young people and at society as a whole.

According to the World Health Organisation, alcohol is the leading risk factor for premature death and disability in developed countries, after tobacco and blood pressure. It’s related to over 60 medical conditions, costs the NHS millions of pounds every year and is also linked to crime and domestic abuse.

Alcohol consumption in the UK has increased rapidly in recent years. Household expenditure on all alcoholic drinks increased by 81 per cent between 1992 and 2006. At the same, never before has it been so heavily promoted.

The drinks industry spends £800 million a year in promoting alcohol in the UK. So it’s little wonder that we see it everywhere – on TV, in magazines, on billboards, as part of music festival or football sponsorship deals, on internet pop-ups and social networking sites. Given that teens often don’t like the taste of alcohol, new products like alcopops and toffee vodka are developed and promoted because they have greater appeal to young people.

The BMA is not calling for a ban on alcohol. As doctors, our focus is to ensure that individuals drink sensibly, so they don’t put their health and lives in danger.

There was a time when it was regarded the norm to see cigarette adverts and people smoking on buses, trains, airplanes and in restaurants. When the BMA initially called for a ban on smoking in all enclosed public places, there was a general outcry about it. But I doubt most people would want to return to the days of smoky pubs now. There has been a cultural change for the better and this now needs to happen with alcohol.

As this report points out, it would seem that brand development and stakeholder marketing by the alcohol industry, including partnership working and industry funded health education, have served the needs of the alcohol industry, not public health.

We have a perverse situation where the alcohol industry is advising our governments about alcohol reduction policies. As with tobacco, putting the fox in charge of the chicken coop – or at least putting him on a par with the farmer – is a dangerous idea. Politicians showed courage before by not bowing to the tobacco industry, they need to do the same now and make tough decisions that will not please alcohol companies.

Key recommendations from the report include:

• There should be a ban on all alcohol marketing and promotion
• UK governments should establish minimum price levels for the sale of alcoholic products
• Tax increases on alcohol should be set above the rate of inflation and be linked to the alcoholic strength of products
• A reduction in licensing hours for on- and off-licensed premises should be introduced

Read the report in full - “Under the Influence – the damaging effect of alcohol marketing on young people”

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