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Let’s not pour out pressure on youth

15 December 2008 1,029 views No Comment

IF 29 countries, including France and Germany, can completely or partially ban the advertising of booze and in the process reduce alcohol consumption, why is Australia dragging the chain?

This is something our health ministers should urgently consider.

According to a recent commonwealth report, the annual cost to Australia of alcohol abuse in terms of policing and health care is $15 billion.

In NSW, the chief health officer estimates alcohol causes 1220 deaths and 47,000 hospitalisations a year.

Last week, NSW Health Minister John Della Bosca called for a public debate about drinking and restrictions on alcohol advertising.

“I am not interested in a wowser’s approach to this issue, nor do I accept extreme views such as prohibition – people should be free to enjoy a drink – but it is time for a cultural shift on alcohol,” Della Bosca said.

As a nation, we are under the influence of alcohol. Many Australians still accept that excessive drinking, unlike the use of other drugs, is socially acceptable.

We have made considerable progress in reducing cigarette smoking but Australia needs a broad alcohol strategy that includes education about the dangers of risky and excessive drinking, a firm stance on liquor licensing, coupled with the provision of proper treatment services and adequate police action to curb alcohol-related violence.

We have not seriously looked at the way alcohol is promoted, especially to the young.

“It is the next generation of drinkers – older children and teenagers – who are being influenced by the sophisticated promotion and advertising of alcohol and the distorted messages about success, popularity, sophistication and attractiveness,” Della Bosca rightly says.

Despite restrictions on the timing of ads on television, data shows that in 2005-06 children under 12 were exposed to one in three alcohol advertisements seen by adults. In addition, research by the NSW Centre for Overweight and Obesity found that alcoholic beverages were the single most advertised consumable product on billboards within a 250m radius of primary schools.

International evidence shows that advertising leads to higher alcohol consumption and that restrictions would be likely to reduce harm.

While the issue is contentious, there is evidence of community support for change. According to the 2007 National Drug Strategy Household Survey, more than 72 per cent of people aged 14 and older supported a ban on alcohol ads before 9.30pm, and almost 50 per cent supported banning alcohol sponsorship of sporting events.

Such a move has the support of the Royal Australian College of Surgeons trauma committee. Deputy chairman John Crozier said: “We are in strong support of a Minister (Della Bosca) who has the courage to make a statement that alcohol advertising restriction is in the interest of the Australian community.”

As the alcohol industry seems unlikely to take a responsible approach, the time is ripe to debate advertising, especially since advertisers are eagerly trying to impress consumers with ever more dazzling and expensive campaigns to increase sales.

An obvious starting point should involve looking at the impact of banning alcohol ads. To be successful with a total or partial ban, we will need a national action plan. A partial advertising ban could significantly reduce alcohol consumption, road fatalities and the social costs of alcohol abuse, while a full ban would be even more effective.

Importantly, as well as traditional advertising mediums it is time to include new media. Corporations are increasingly blurring the lines between advertising and entertainment, developing content-based movie clips with sophisticated storylines that can be downloaded on the internet or through mobile phones.

A ban on ads and restrictions on sponsorship can’t be a panacea for all our drinking-related woes. But such actions would be an important part of a broader strategy to reduce the levels of risky drinking. With alcohol-related emergency department admissions among teens to 24-year-olds increasing exponentially, the influence of ads can’t be underestimated.

A report from the NSW chief health officer reveals that the level of risky drinking by adults has decreased from 50 per cent to 30 per cent of men and 37 to 27 per cent of women.

If we can achieve these results with adults, why not with teens and young adults? Della Bosca’s courageous stance deserves widespread support.