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Alcohol ad ban: whose freedom of choice is served by the media industry?

It is a facet of human nature that if we recognise a problem and wish to change it, we wish to do so in a manner that requires as little change and as few sacrifices as possible. The smoker, who starts having trouble breathing, wishes to cut down rather than stop smoking entirely; the man with a heart attack wants to eat less pies rather than none at all; or the new mother, who wants both time with her child yet also her independence.
The degree to which change without sacrifice is possible depends entirely upon the problem at hand. In response to Chris Moerdyk's article "Curbing alcohol abuse by banning ads is like trying to cure Aids with beetroot", I suggest that he consider where on this spectrum of sacrifice-for-change alcohol advertising falls.

Alcohol advertising is effective

First off, we need to acknowledge that alcohol advertising does indeed increase drinking. Multi-billion dollar companies would not be spending hundreds of millions of rands advertising alcohol if it were ineffective.

Indeed, a research review of all longitudinal studies between 1990 and 2008 assessed the impact of advertising on more than 38 000 young people and found that, out of 13 studies, 12 demonstrated that exposure to alcohol advertising is associated with higher initiation of drinking, as well as heavier drinking with risks proportional to the amount of advertising seen.

But does this mean we should ban alcohol advertising?

Until South Africans recognise that alcohol abuse is an important problem in need of urgent change, the need for making any type of sacrifice to address this will not be accepted.

Top five heaviest drinkers in the world

Do most of us know, for example, that South Africans rank amongst the top five heaviest drinkers in the world? Or that we have the highest rates of alcohol-related harm in the world: ten-fold the global average of male violence, double the global average of road deaths and among the highest rates of HIV, TB and fetal alcohol syndrome in the world? Weekend binge drinkers cause most of the harm, not alcoholics.

I am wondering if Mr Moerdyk has fully thought through his own comments before criticising others. In a country where alcohol is one of the top three leading causes of death and disability, what good reasons are there for us promoting drinking so heavily?

His article seems to suggest we should do so to save jobs in the media industry, but should we promote jobs at any cost?

One of the most admirable features of humanity is that we do not knowingly support industries that are harmful. This is why we test consumer products for safety, such as medications or motor vehicles and is why we do not promote tobacco, cocaine or child labour.

Saving lives

Alcohol is a dangerous product, causing the loss of approximately 130 lives per day in SA. Is saving 130 lives a day worth the alleged R3 billion projected loss in advertising (Mr Moerdyk's calculation)?

How does this balance with the further R38 billion rand annual cost of alcohol to our economy incurred through alcohol-related violence, crime, HIV, absenteeism, low productivity, and incarceration, for example?

A recent economic study for the Department of Trade and Industry has indicated very clearly that the economic benefits of the alcohol industry, which tend to accrue to the wealthier sectors of society, are more or less equally matched by the economic costs of alcohol abuse, which tend to accrue to the poorest sectors of society.

Why do South Africans not know these things about alcohol? Why do so many South Africans falsely believe that it is only harmful to drink excessively if you are driving or pregnant?

Alcohol advertising limits our freedom of choice

Most of the messaging we get about alcohol is from the alcohol industry that has a vested interest in selling more alcohol. What gives the liquor industry the right to constantly bombard us (including people under the age of 18) with images and messages about alcohol on radio, billboards, television, sports matches and the Internet?

At the same time, it makes little effort to advertise responsibly or educate people about the harms of alcohol, with budgets for this being less than 10% of that for promoting drinking. The liquor Industry Association for Responsible Advertising (ARA) has a staff of two people and only advertises its advertising complaints hotline on its website*.

It is true that alcohol advertising bans alone are not sufficient to curb alcohol abuse; a global body of evidence has demonstrated that, to be most effective in reducing alcohol-related harm (by up to 44%), one should simultaneously reduce access to alcohol (shorter hours of trade, lower liquor outlet density and/or increase the price of alcohol).

This is, of course, another highly controversial issue - its effectiveness is beyond dispute (to those aware of the evidence), but of course we drinkers do not like the idea of less convenience in a world where we are used to companies ensuring us the easiest possible access to their goods at all times.

If nothing changes, nothing changes

The solution to alcohol abuse that appeals most to people's sense of agency and self-determination is to educate people. Unfortunately, hundreds of research studies show us that just telling people to drink less because alcohol may harm them is about as effective as using beetroots to cure AIDS.

Education is, however, a necessary adjunct to a broader alcohol policy that includes reducing demand for alcohol (through less advertising, for example), as well as reducing the supply of alcohol.

Both of these measures require some sacrifices but we should not forget that there is strong evidence to show that the nett effect will be positive. This is why we make sacrifices because, if nothing changes, nothing changes.

*Readers should be aware that information on the ARA website is not always evidence-based and is provided from the perspective of the liquor industry, which has a vested interest in selling alcohol.

About the author

Dr Joanne Corrigall is a senior public health specialist in the Western Cape Department of Health and an honorary research associate at the School of Public Health, University of Cape Town. Her work includes developing alcohol policy, legislation and media advocacy. She recently completed a six-part TV series on alcohol called Booza TV for use in counter-messaging campaigns. Email Joanne at .
Rob Campbell
Posted on 20 May 2011 15:58
Chris Moerdyk
There is no evidence whatsoever that advertising of alcohol promotes alcohol abuse. What worries me is that Government will use the banning of advertising to show that it is taking action. That is my objection because there is no evidence anywhere that banning advertising will solve even in the tiniest way the dreadful level of alcohol abuse in South Africa. Advertising is just a convenient scapegoat the authorities target to avoid having to invest seriously in curbing alcohol abuse. Banning advertising is like trying to cure cancer with a bandaid. I have done enougn research into the impact of advertising to know that it has no effect whatsoever on curbing abuse.
Posted on 20 May 2011 17:48
Chris Brewer
The problem with academics becoming involved in discussions like this is that they so easily become side-tracked and wander off the point. Joanne Corrigall is no different.Firstly they completely miss the humour of 'beetroot and AIDS' which Moerdyk mentioned in his article. It was a light-hearted comment Joanne but perhaps you're right in ignoring it because alcohol abuse is, after all, a serious subject.Secondly they make spurious assertions based on 'studies'. As any competent researcher will ask, before believing any study, is 'show me the questionnaire' – you can make numbers say anything.Thirdly they introduce unqualified inflammatory 'facts' such as 'South Africans rank amongst the top five heaviest drinkers in the world' – remarks like these are designed only to promote angry and unqualified response. In fact that statement is not true. SA is NOT in the top five – we're way behind France, Luxembourg, Russia, Ireland, Hungary, Britain, Portugal and dozens of other countries.Fourthly they concentrate on a tiny portion of our population and tell us that restricting, limiting or banning alcohol will 'save lives'. Well, of course that's true – but only in small numbers. If you apply the same logic to controlling speed limits or eating too much junk food you'll get even more impressive 'findings'.Lastly, as academics, they spend days, months and years desperately trying to discover something controversial – and get a paper published on it. When they fail, or reach highly suspect conclusions, they try and confuse everyone by misrepresentation – otherwise they've wasted their time.Personally Joanne, I think you should pour yourself a glass of wine and calm down a bit. Find something else to investigate – but do it properly.
Posted on 21 May 2011 08:49
Robyn Saul
A recent TED talk highlighted how the increased taxation on cigarettes in Europe has led to a thriving black market and plenty of profits for organised crime. Much the same (and worse) happened in prohibition America. Any addictive substance has a low elasticity of demand, so people will pay what it takes to get it, and if the price or access through official channels becomes prohibitive, then they'll turn to the black market. With alcohol there's the added issue of unregulated 'micro-breweries' selling contaminated products with high levels of methanol or harmful chemicals.So while you can remove R38 billion from our economy, you will never claim that back on the health bill or save all of those 130 lives per day. And what will those workers now out of a job do to cope? Well, probably the same thing that that most of our county's unemployed turn to - drinking.It will take a change in society to change demand for alcohol, and that's not going to happen by pulling the plug on all alcohol advertising. Perhaps we'd be better off starting with changing the attitude of characters on TV as a form of education? Maybe a more worthwhile idea is challenging alcohol producers to sponsor a portion of soap-opera's budgets, and stipulating to the writers that all characters must be seen to drink only in moderation, and drunkenness and binge drinking is to be removed or shown in an extremely negative light? Anyone from SAB reading this?Oh, and to Warren: it is proven that addiction is largely cause by genetics. So perhaps you'd be better off expending your energies campaigning for research into the human genome and 'designer babies', or convincing AA members not to have children, rather than libelling journalists on an forum?
Posted on 21 May 2011 19:01
The Question
It's the social attitude and view regarding the need for such artificial stimulants that needs to change and the need for responsible advertising. I'm not against advertising to sell a product, but there are products that carry with it considerable potential risks that should not be overlooked and ignored in favour of maximising profits. You have the right to sell and buy a product but products with an age restriction, have the restriction for a reason and responsibility must fall on the decisions the various companies make on how they choose to advertise such products. Let’s take the extreme example of pornography... it’s clearly only for adults and shares the same age restriction as alcohol but we don’t see the same level of advertising being used on television as with drink ads.
Posted on 23 May 2011 19:13
The Question
Trends handed down socially (without any major objection or opposition) do over time become viewed as the norm. If risks are later identified and attempts made to positively change such a trend or introduce the need for responsibility, such attempts can sometimes be met with such a level of outrage and limited view that the original message regarding the consequences quickly becomes lost or overshadowed by arguments that don’t really have anything to do with the original intent.With the alcohol advertising argument, the point behind the campaign can quickly turn into a ‘rights’ argument instead of addressing the true intent of how we portray drinking in a social context and the image current advertising is perpetuating. The drinking advertising ban should be seen as more of an argument of social responsibility rather than one dealing with the right to have or do something.
Posted on 23 May 2011 20:07