WHO highlights glaring loopholes in regulating alcohol marketing across borders

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A new report from the World Health Organization highlights the growing use of sophisticated online alcohol marketing techniques and the need for more effective regulation. It shows that young people and heavy drinkers are increasingly targeted by alcohol advertising, often to the detriment of their health.

Reducing alcohol-related harm – by regulating cross-border alcohol marketing, advertising and promotion is the first WHO report to detail the full extent of how alcohol is today marketed across national borders – often through digital means – and in many cases regardless of social, economic or cultural environment of the host countries.

Worldwide, 3 million people die each year from harmful alcohol consumption – one every 10 seconds – which represents about 5% of all deaths. A disproportionate number of these alcohol-related deaths occur among young people, with 13.5% of all deaths among people aged 20-39 being alcohol-related.

“Alcohol robs young people, their families and societies of their lives and their potential,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization. “Yet, despite the obvious health risks, controls on the marketing of alcohol are much weaker than for other psychoactive products. Better, well-enforced and more consistent regulation of the marketing of alcohol would allow the time to save and improve the lives of young people around the world.

A digital revolution in marketing and promotion

One of the biggest changes in alcohol marketing in recent years is the use of sophisticated online marketing. The collection and analysis of data on user habits and preferences by global internet providers has created new and growing opportunities for alcohol marketers to target messages to specific groups across national borders. . Targeted advertising on social networks is particularly effective in using this data, its impact being reinforced by social influencers and the sharing of posts between social network users.

A data source cited in the report calculated that more than 70% of media spend by major U.S.-based alcohol distributors in 2019 came from online social media promotions, product placements and ads.

“The growing importance of digital media means that the marketing of alcohol has become increasingly cross-border,” said Dag Rekve of the World Health Organization’s Alcohol, Drugs and Addictive Behaviors Unit. “This makes it more difficult for countries that regulate alcohol marketing to effectively control it in their jurisdictions. Greater collaboration between countries in this area is needed.

Sponsorship of sports events

Sponsorship of major sporting events at global, regional and national levels is another key strategy used by transnational alcohol corporations (which are gaining increasing dominance in the production and marketing of alcoholic beverages). Such sponsorship can significantly increase awareness of their brands to new audiences. Additionally, alcohol producers engage in partnerships with sports leagues and clubs to reach viewers and potential consumers in different parts of the world.

The growing esports market, including competitive gaming events, is another opportunity to sponsor events and increase brand recognition and international sales. The same goes for product placement in movies and series, many of which air on international subscription channels. According to an analysis of the 100 highest-grossing American films at the box office between 1996 and 2015, branded alcohol was shown in nearly half of them.

A focus on marketing to specific audiences

The lack of regulation to combat the cross-border marketing of alcohol is of particular concern for children and adolescents, women and heavy drinkers.

Studies have shown that starting to drink alcohol at a young age is a predictor of hazardous drinking in young adults and beyond. In addition, teenage drinkers are more vulnerable to harm from alcohol consumption than older drinkers. Regions of the world with young and growing populations, such as Africa and Latin America, are particularly targeted.

In addition, alcohol consumption among women is an important growth area for the production and sale of alcohol. While three-quarters of the alcohol consumed globally is consumed by men, alcohol marketers tend to view women’s low drinking rate as an opportunity to grow their market, often describing drinking of alcohol by women as a symbol of empowerment and equality. They organize corporate social responsibility initiatives, on topics such as breast cancer and domestic violence, and engage with women known for their success in areas such as sports or the arts to promote brands of ‘alcohol.

Heavy and dependent drinkers are another target of marketing efforts, since in many countries only 20% of current drinkers drink well over half of all alcohol consumed. People who are dependent on alcohol frequently report a stronger urge to drink alcohol when confronted with alcohol-related cues, but they rarely have an effective way to avoid being exposed to alcohol content. advertising or promotion.

Existing regulations mostly limited to individual states

Although many countries have some form of restrictions in place on the marketing of alcohol, they generally tend to be relatively weak. In a 2018 WHO study, it was found that while most countries have some form of regulation for the marketing of alcohol in traditional media, nearly half have no regulation at all. place for the marketing of alcohol on the Internet (48%) and social media (47%).

In the meantime, the continued attention and work of national governments, the public health community and the WHO to limit the availability and promotion of tobacco products, with particular attention to cross-border aspects of production and tobacco marketing, have led to vital reductions in global tobacco consumption. tobacco use and exposure.

International cooperation required

The report concludes that national governments must incorporate restrictions or outright bans on the marketing of alcohol, including its cross-border aspects, into public health strategies. It highlights the main features and options for regulating the cross-border marketing of alcohol and stresses the need for close collaboration between states in this area.

Note to editors:

Alcohol consumption is causally linked to a range of health problems such as mental and behavioral disorders, including alcohol dependence; the main non-communicable diseases such as cirrhosis of the liver, certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases; and injuries and deaths resulting from violence and traffic accidents.

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