Regulation of alcohol advertising is failing Australia’s young people: new research on the ABAC Code

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Exposure to alcohol advertising influences the likelihood that young people will begin drinking, that those already drinking will increase their intake, or engage in risky drinking. Accordingly, the World Health Organization calls for regulation that reduces the impact of alcohol marketing on young people, including by addressing the content and volume of marketing, as well as sponsorship activities that promote alcoholic beverages. The WHO also recommends developing effective administrative and deterrence systems for infringements of marketing restrictions.

The main source of alcohol marketing regulation in Australia is the ABAC Responsible Alcohol Marketing Code, an industry-based code containing a series of standards on responsible alcohol advertising. These include a prohibition on advertising that has strong or evident appeal to minors, as well as new rules that aim to prevent alcohol ads from being directed to minors. These rules require advertisers to use age restriction controls where available, place marketing only in media with an audience of at least 75% adults, and ensure that marketing is not placed in programs or other media content designed for children (based on its story line, themes, music, and so forth).

The ABAC Scheme is administered by a Management Committee which includes four representatives from alcohol and advertising industry bodies, as well as a government representative and an independent chair. Public complaints can be made to the ABAC Adjudication Panel, comprising a chief adjudicator with legal expertise, a public health representative, and a broadcasting industry representative.

My study examined whether the ABAC Scheme contained the components of an effective regulatory scheme, focusing specifically on the rules concerned with minors. In other words,  did the ABAC follow the WHO’s recommendations for reducing the impact of alcohol marketing on minors?

I found that there were significant gaps and limitations in the ABAC, both in its substantive rules and in the processes of administration, monitoring, and enforcement created by the code.

These gaps include the exclusion of some media channels and promotional techniques such as cinema advertising and more importantly, sponsorship arrangements.  This second loophole is compounded by the fact that the Free TV Code (which regulates the broadcast of alcohol ads on TV), allows alcohol ads to be broadcast during a sports program on a weekend or public holiday, or during a live sports event at any time – including, for example, during a Sunday morning sports event on TV.

It’s a positive step that the ABAC now contains restrictions on the placement of ads in media directed to children, but these restrictions are unlikely to reduce young people’s exposure to alcohol ads. This conclusion is supported by another recent study by Hannah Pierce and colleagues, which found that the ABAC’s age gating requirements and voluntary audience thresholds are ineffective in reducing alcohol marketing in times and places where young people are likely to be exposed.

Age gating on websites might stop young people from following the Instagram accounts of alcohol companies, for example, but it won’t stop them from seeing material that’s reposted or shared, or from interacting with digital content in other ways.

Another concern is the narrow definition of program and other media content that is “primarily aimed at minors.” Recent determinations from the ABAC Adjudication Panel suggest it interprets this phrase to mean content that appeals exclusively to minors, so that content appealing to both children and adults won’t be included – as with the superhero film Thor: Ragnarok. Pierce reports that the Panel dismissed a complaint about a whisky ad screened before this movie, because while the movie had broad appeal to adolescents, it was not primarily aimed at them.

Along with the loopholes in the substantive rules contained in the ABAC, the Scheme’s governance processes lack independence and public accountability. Although there’s some government oversight, the administration of the scheme is largely industry based, and there’s no independent monitoring of compliance with the ABAC, or external review of the Scheme’s operation. There are also few meaningful penalties available for ads that breach the ABAC. The Panel can order the removal or modification of an ad, but has no way of enforcing its rulings, or escalating to more serious penalties.

Given the serious limitations that remain in the ABAC – despite numerous government reviews and refinements over its 20-year history – it’s time for stronger government intervention. At the very least, the Federal Government could act to close off loopholes on cinema advertising and sponsorship, as well as introducing a comprehensive ban on all alcohol marketing within 150 metres of schools, childcare centres and playgrounds. The ABAC Scheme would also be improved if it was administered by an independent body with a broad range of enforcement options and no vested interest in showing that the Scheme is effective in protecting young people from alcohol marketing. In short, it’s time for a regulatory approach that prioritizes young people’s well-being over industry profits, and truly accords with good regulatory practice.

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