By CHRIS MOERDYK
Banning booze ads won’t cure SA’s drinking problem
WHEN Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi announced late last year that the government planned to ban alcohol advertising, he said alcohol abuse affected SA’s most serious health issues, such as HIV infections and infant mortality rate.
He was quite right, of course; alcohol abuse is one of SA’s biggest problems. But, he is wrong to suggest that banning alcohol advertising could be part of the solution.
From his statements, Motsoaledi quite clearly linked the banning of alcohol advertising to the issue of substance abuse rather than the government wanting to reduce overall alcohol consumption, cripple the advertising industry and punish the country’s mass media. Because, that’s all a ban will do.
A study by Henry Sasffer and Dave Dhaval of the US National Bureau of Economic Research at New York University in 2002 examined the relationship between alcohol advertising bans and alcohol consumption. The data set used in this study was taken from 20 countries over 26 years. The results show that banning advertising could reduce alcohol consumption between 5% and 8%. With so low an effect on overall consumption, it is clear banning advertising would have little or no effect on curbing alcohol abuse. So much so that Canada, Denmark, New Zealand and Finland have rescinded similar bans.
Motsoaledi also motivated an alcohol advertising ban by using the tobacco advertising ban as an example, which is not exactly comparing apples with apples. For a start, there is no evidence to suggest that a lack of advertising led to any reduction in smoking but a lot of evidence pointing to the fact that legislation banning smoking in aircraft, restaurants and other public places has been a major contributor, along with social acceptance of the health risks of smoking.
Which was not too difficult to understand, because there are no positive aspects to smoking. It is simply an addictive drug. Alcohol, however, is entirely different, with scientific proof that moderate consumption of wine, spirits and beer is no danger to normal, healthy people.
The government is correct in having identified the youth as the primary target group for any campaign to curtail alcohol abuse. And lobby groups have identified advertising as being one of the major culprits. Statistics, however, show a different picture. For example, the 19- to 29-year-old youth market is one the mass media has identified as being the most difficult to engage. Research shows that fewer young people are consuming traditional mass media. Instead they use iPods, iPads, iPhones and talk to each other on Twitter, MXit and Facebook. Social networking is the primary communications tool of the youth today and will become more so.
Already, alcohol advertising is not permitted on TV during children’s programming, and with teenagers and young adults not being exposed to mass media advertising, it is quite easy to understand why banning alcohol advertising has such a minimal effect on overall consumption and no effect on alcohol abuse. The main culprit among young alcohol consumers, without any a shadow of doubt, is peer pressure.
To demonstrate the complete lack of effect advertising has on substance abuse, the Western Cape has a enormous problem with the drug tik among its youth. It is a chronic and widespread scourge. Yet, never has there ever been an advertisement for tik.
Global research shows that when it comes to smoking and drinking among youth, they inevitably start because their friends do.
Proponents of bans on alcohol advertisements claim that these ads often portray alcohol as enhancing economic success, fun, attractiveness to the opposite sex, athletic skill and social popularity. Such messages, they say, are misleading and fail to mention the risks associated with alcohol use. Alcohol ad restrictions reduce the exposure to alcohol ads promoting unrealistic messages about alcohol use.
This is a common argument and is based on the premise that the consumer is an idiot. Research has shown that advertising is simply not capable of forcing consumers to do anything. All advertising can do is draw attention to brands, services and lifestyle experiences consumers want. Advertisements cannot persuade people to drive cars — they can only persuade people who want to drive cars to choose a certain model. Advertising cannot persuade people to go on a skiing holiday — it can only persuade consumers who want to go on holiday to try a skiing holiday.
Alcohol advertisement in this country is based on persuading the alcohol-consuming customer to move to another brand. Advertising is only capable of promoting choice. Keeping up with the Joneses, looking beautiful, driving a flashy car, all those things are driven by social pressures, not advertising.
The most reliable test of all, with regard to the real power of advertising is simply to ask friends and neighbours how they started smoking or drinking. Research shows that most will cite friends, parental example or some other social touch point.
But, of course, governments love to ban advertising because it is such a politically expedient thing to do. In spite of having no effect, it shows voters that the government has been seen to be taking what looks like stern action. And the only people that will get hurt are those in the advertising and media industries — an expendable minority.
Of the R17b n spent on advertising last year, about 10% could probably be directly attributed to alcohol advertising in the mass media. Removing that from the advertising and media industries would achieve nothing but considerable job losses. So much so that one could easily argue that an increase in alcohol abuse created by unemployment as a result of an advertising ban would exceed any benefits resulting the ban.
On the Alcohol Advertising: Facts & Information website, Dr David Hanson of the US points out that the “subject of alcohol advertising tends to be dominated not by scientific evidence but by strong beliefs and emotions”. He says research on this subject “has been conducted for decades by governments, health agencies and universities around the world. The result? No good evidence that alcohol ads cause nondrinkers to begin drinking or cause drinkers to consume more.”
In a statement issued when a ban on alcohol advertising was first mooted, Odette Roper, CEO of the Association for Communication and Advertising, said: “Within the principles that the legislation will have to consider are our constitutional rights — and the most significantly affected by the proposed regulation is freedom of speech. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression, which includes: freedom of the press and media and the freedom to receive or impart information and ideas. This alone is a clear indication that the advertising profession should be afforded the same rights and the same protection.”
Roper’s comments with regard to constitutional rights has been supported by numerous court cases in the US, where attempts to ban alcohol advertising have been overturned both on the grounds of constitutionality and facts showing that there was no empirical evidence that alcohol advertising led to young people starting to consume alcohol or subsequently abusing it.
On a positive note, Motsoaledi says the issue is open for debate. Hopefully it will be, and that political point-scoring will be put aside in favour of rational argument.