Big Alcohol and COVID-19: industry rules fail. Again.

By Hannah Pierce, Kathryn Backholer, Sarah Jackson and Florentine Martino

Reposted from MJA Insights: https://insightplus.mja.com.au/2021/11/big-alcohol-and-covid-19-failing-self-regulation-again/

Image by Vova Drozdey (Unsplash)

WE know some people are more likely to drink – and drink more – during times of uncertainty and stress. Unsurprisingly, the alcohol industry is also aware of this.

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated how quickly and creatively the alcohol industry will adapt its marketing practices to appeal to people’s vulnerabilities. And in Australia, there are few rules in place to stop these predatory actions. This is despite the link between risky alcohol use and weakening of the body’s immune response to COVID-19; not to mention the long-established impacts that risky alcohol use has on the physical and mental health of individuals, families and communities.

Two studies released recently show just how deceptive the alcohol industry has been during the COVID-19 pandemic and why current industry marketing codes fall far short of protecting public health.

The extent and nature of COVID-19-washing through social media marketing

In a recent study led by the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University and VicHealth, all COVID-19-related social media posts made by leading alcohol brands and delivery services on their official public accounts were audited over a 4-month period during the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia (February to May 2020). The study found that COVID-19-related marketing on Facebook, Instagram, YouTube and Twitter was highly prolific. Of the 26 alcohol brands and services audited, more than 400 social media posts were identified with up to a million plus “likes” or “shares” for a single post.

Sentiments of “community support” and “coping with stress” were most commonly used as a lure. For example, one brewery posted: “Connect with your mates online and we’ll get through this together, with a [beer brand] in hand”. One alcohol retailer promoted “wine” down time and another encouraged “knock off” drinks from home and “conference calls with colleagues to give you a sense of Knock Off Normality”.

Isolation activities involving consumption of alcohol were also heavily advertised. For example, one alcohol retailer posted videos with cocktail recipes, calling for #virtualhappyhour; organised online trivia nights using Facebook Events “with $300 in [retailer’s] eGift Cards (to help fund your next trivia night)”; gave away boxes of wine (valued at $100) in a competition where “community heroes” could be nominated; and organised virtual whisky tastings in collaboration with a popular brand of scotch.

Citing corporate social responsibility, donations of money and the production and donation of hand sanitisers were also common. By building goodwill, increasing company reputation, and thus insulating themselves from criticism, the alcohol industry may be creating an environment where further regulation of alcohol can be resisted, or worse, existing regulation may be weakened.

In our opinion it is clear that Big Alcohol is using the pandemic as an opportunity to sell more alcohol. But the question is whether there is a system in place that prevents companies from targeting vulnerable communities with harmful alcohol marketing.

Current controls on alcohol marketing in Australia

There are very few controls on alcohol marketing in Australia. Most alcohol marketing is covered only by the alcohol industry’s own rules in the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme. This voluntary scheme is developed, managed and funded by the very same companies that spend millions of dollars every year promoting their alcohol products. A substantial body of research has examined the effectiveness of this system over the past 20 years and consistently concluded that the ABAC Scheme does not effectively protect children and young people from exposure to alcohol marketing.

Having observed the industry tactics during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Cancer Council WA and Cancer Council Victoria saw an opportunity to examine whether the current ABAC Scheme was expansive or comprehensive enough to deter harmful promotion of alcohol during this time. To do this, 18 determination reports considering community complaints and other publicly available documents on the ABAC Scheme website that referred to COVID-19-related alcohol marketing were reviewed against a framework for evaluating the effectiveness of industry-based regulation. The report Giving the ok to “Stay In. Drink Up” outlines the result, highlighting five problems with relying on the ABAC Scheme during the pandemic:

  • the objective of the ABAC Scheme is inadequate and unsuitable, resulting in a system that fails to protect the community, and particularly those who are vulnerable, from harmful alcohol advertising;
  • key terms in the ABAC Code are not clearly defined, leading to the dismissal of complaints about promotions that encouraged drinking in the home during lockdown;
  • the ABAC Code provisions are too narrow to capture all the themes alcohol marketers are using during the COVID-19 pandemic;
  • there is no monitoring system, so it’s not possible to know how often alcohol companies are ignoring the rules — harmful promotions stay in market unless a community member goes out of their way to make a complaint that is then upheld; and
  • there are no meaningful penalties for advertisers who breach the ABAC Scheme, providing very little incentive for alcohol companies to avoid using harmful messages during the pandemic.

When assessing the complaints about alcohol ads that referenced the pandemic, the ABAC Panel appeared to give no consideration to the impact the pandemic was having on the Australian community. For example, one Facebook ad promoted a “14-day isolation pack”, which included nine bottles of wine to “help you through” 14 days of isolation. In the determination report, there was no mention of the significant amounts of stress and anxiety that many individuals and families in the Australian community were experiencing due to the pandemic. Instead, the ABAC Panel decided that promoting alcohol via an “isolation deal” was the same as referencing a “Christmas pack”. They believed that the post would not be understood as encouraging people to drink all nine bottles of wine in 14 days and so the complaint was dismissed. Similarly, alcohol ads including the phrases “Stay In. Drink Up”“survival kits”, and “all day every day” were all deemed acceptable.

In our opinion the ABAC Scheme has been inadequate at preventing harmful alcohol marketing during the pandemic. Previous research has focused on the ABAC Scheme’s ability to prevent the exposure of children and young people to alcohol marketing. This is because we know the more children are exposed to alcohol advertising, the more likely they are to start drinking earlier and more heavily. An effective regulatory system is crucial for protecting children from exposure to alcohol marketing.

In our opinion, the COVID-19 pandemic has left many more Australians vulnerable to influential marketing messages from the alcohol industry. The well recognised deficiencies of the ABAC Scheme have allowed the alcohol industry to bombard the community with harmful alcohol marketing at a time when they are most vulnerable.

The need for government regulation to protect Australians from harmful marketing practices

The management of the COVID-19 pandemic in Australia is an excellent example of the positive health outcomes we can achieve when decision makers listen to public health advice and implement evidence-based policies. These new publications mentioned above highlight once again that alcohol companies cannot be trusted to write the rules on alcohol advertising, and demonstrate the urgent need for the Australian Government to introduce legislation to protect the community from harmful marketing practices. It is time for the government to step up, listen to the public health evidence and advice, and put people before profits.

Hannah Pierce is an Alcohol Policy and Research Coordinator with the Alcohol Programs Team at Cancer Council Western Australia. Twitter: @hannahpierce01

Kathryn Backholer is a National Heart Foundation Future Leader Research Fellow and Associate Director of the Global Obesity Centre at Deakin University. Twitter: @KBackholer

Sarah Jackson is Senior Legal Policy Adviser at Cancer Council Victoria and leads policy for Alcohol Change Vic, a coalition of  organisations that campaigns for policy reform to prevent alcohol harm in Victoria.. Twitter: @SarsJackson

Florentine Martino is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow at The Global Obesity Centre (GLOBE) at Deakin University in Geelong. Twitter: @fp_martino

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