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To accompany his editorial in the British Medical Journal, one of our researchers – Professor Gerard Hastings – outlines his support  for tougher controls on alcohol marketing.

Professor Hastings is a world expert in his field and has acted as an advisor to the World Health Organisation on tobacco and alcohol marketing, and as well as a Special Advisor to the House of Commons Health Select Committee on tobacco and food advertising.

Based at the University of Stirling, his argument makes for compelling reading.

Prof Gerard Hastings

Prof Gerard Hastings

This week, Sarah Wollaston MP will introduce a private member’s bill on alcohol marketing, which will address the excessive drinking of our young people and their massive exposure to alcohol advertising.

The bill is both welcome and long over-due.

There’s little doubt that drinking among our nation’s teens is a cause for concern.  The associated problems of anti-social behaviour, and high rates of unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease in Britain are well-documented in the press, but the extent of the health harms is even more chilling.

In 2008 there were 2843 deaths among 15-24 year-olds in England and Wales, and almost one in four (23 per cent) of these are attributable to alcohol.

To put it simply, every day two UK youngsters are killed by their drinking.

What’s more, our young people are drinking more than most of their European counterparts. A recent survey of 35 European countries, shows that only Denmark and the Isle of Man have higher levels of binge drinking and drunkenness among their schoolchildren than the UK.

There’s also a clear link between alcohol consumption and an increased cancer risk. The more you drink the more you increase your risk, and it’s estimated that alcohol is responsible for around 9000 cancer deaths in the UK each year.

So what’s behind these high levels of drinking?

The alcohol industry currently spends around £800m each year on marketing their products.  Research suggests that this is money well-spent by the alcohol companies: a recent study showed that in the UK almost all (96 per cent) of 13 year olds were aware of alcohol advertising and had – on average – come across it in more than five different media.

The evidence base clearly shows that alcohol promotion encourages children to drink at an earlier age and in greater quantities than they otherwise would. Restricting children’s exposure to this unhealthy influence will in the long term change youth drinking behaviour and is therefore a public health priority.

The sheer scale of alcohol marketing also stops the health warnings about excessive alcohol consumption getting through. The Drink Aware Trust – the UK’s biggest alcohol education initiative – had a budget of just £2.6m in 2010.  So for every £1 spent advising young people about the downsides of drinking, £307 was spent encouraging them to drink more.  It’s perhaps no surprise then that UK schoolchildren, despite suffering some of its worst effects, have the most positive expectations of alcohol anywhere in Europe.

Of course, alcohol is a legal product that if consumed in moderation poses little harm to adults.  So how do we protect our young people from exposure to alcohol marketing whilst ensuring the commercial freedom of the alcohol industry?

Across the Channel, the French squared this circle twenty years ago with a measure called the Loi Evin – legislation which allows alcohol advertising in media that adults consume, but children do not; and ensures that promotional messages are both factual and verifiable.

It protects French children by ensuring that their media and cultural environment is alcohol-free.  It is also a key plank in France’s successful strategic effort to reduce its alcohol problems: in contrast to the UK, consumption there has been falling consistently since 1960.

Sarah Wollaston’s Bill aims to adapt the Loi Evin for the UK context and update it for the digital age.  In practical terms it will allow alcohol advertising in media that adults use, including press, radio stations, and cinema with an adult audience and at point of sale in licensed premises and at local producer events (e.g. real ale festivals and distillery visitor centres). It will remove it from media children enjoy – including television, social media, youth-certificated films and cultural/sporting events with youth appeal.

Simple, clear and effective.

Let’s just recap and reflect on that statistic: every day two UK youngsters are killed by their drinking. The evidence is clear; to help stop this we need to protect our children from the draw of alcohol marketing.

It’s time we called time on alcohol advertising to children.

Gerard Hastings