Home > Legislation, Liquor Industry, Wine > Health risks pose threat to alcohol marketing

Health risks pose threat to alcohol marketing

First published in Bolander Lifestyle & Property, August 26, 2009.

Adrian Botha, director of the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA)

The right to market alcohol beverages in South Africa is under threat, according to Adrian Botha, director of the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use (ARA). “In my 21 years of dealing with this, I’ve never actually experienced such an amount of pressure on the industry as we have now,” he said. Mr Botha was addressing guests at a meeting of Rootstock, a wine industry interest group that meets regularly to discuss and debate issues of importance to the wine industry, at the Kleine Zalze Winery in Stellenbosch last Tuesday evening.

According to Mr Botha, part of the reason for the increased pressure on the industry, is the recent heightened level of interest of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the effects of alcohol. “The WHO looked at alcohol last in 1983, but until recently was not that concerned about [it]. They had asbestos as a big issue, then they had tobacco, but that has changed,” he explained.

In 2008 the World Health Assembly, the policy making body for the WHO, met and formulated Resolution WHA 61.4, which according to Mr Botha is “the most significant review of alcohol policy in 25 years”.

The resolution requested the director general of the WHO to prepare a draft global strategy to reduce the harmful use of alcohol, including recommended measures for states to implement nationally, in consultation with inter-governmental organizations, health professionals, nongovernmental organizations and economic operators.

The WHO noted its concern about the scale of premature alcohol-related deaths worldwide; the high ranking as a risk factor for the global burden of disease – almost 4% according to Mr Botha – its links to violence including domestic violence (particularly in South Africa), road traffic accidents and other social problems; its causal relationship to various malignant tumours, including colorectal and female breast tumours; harm caused by drinking during pregnancy, and harm to other people other than the drinker.

Commenting on these concerns, Mr Botha said “What’s got me worried, what I’m seeing a lot more of now, is the … claimed causal relationship to various diseases … [as the result of] normal consumption, rather than excessive consumption or abuse. This is something that we’re very aware of and … tracking it closely.”

He also noted that the focus has shifted from the harm the consumer does to themself, to the harm done to those close to the consumer. “The big impact with the shift [in focus] with cigarettes was not what you’re doing to yourself, but what you’re doing to the people around you,” he said. “The same thing has happened with alcohol. They’ve shifted away from what you’re doing to yourself, to what you’re doing to those around you.”

A WHO discussion paper in 2009, noted a series of policy options in pursuit of the brief of WHA Resolution 61.4, which include addressing 1) the availability of alcohol, 2) the marketing of alcohol beverages, and 3) pricing policies for alcohol beverages among others, as mechanisms for reducing the harmful effects of alcohol consumption. In broad terms, these measures constitute an effort to restrict access to alcohol beverages as a means of reducing the harmful effects of consumption, and Mr Botha said that these three issues are the most commonly proposed. “The view … is that in order to reduce alcohol related harm we’ve got to make everybody drink less,” he said, adding that although there are a host of academics who counter this notion, “those three policy options are always … propagated as the way to do it.”

Of particular concern, to the WHO is the need to protect adolescents and young people to from the pressure to start drinking and from heavy drinking. Marketing which appeals to children and adolescents is seen as a particular policy concern in most countries, as is the linking of alcohol bands to sports and cultural activities, and the use of modern direct marketing techniques.

According to Mr Botha the WHO believes that research into young people’s smoking and children’s food preferences indicate that marketing has a significant impact on consumption patterns of young people.

The African chapter of the WHO formulated a plan in September 2009 to curb the harmful consumption of alcohol, which amongst others, seeks regulation of availability, restriction of selling, regulation of marketing and increasing taxes and prices.

Local developments in support of this plan include health messages on labels, a ban on outdoor advertising in Tshwane, a call by the AA to lower the blood alcohol limit from the current .05% to .02%, a draft amendment to the Road Traffic Ordinance banning outdoor advertising, the recently promulgated Western Cape Liquor Act, the DTI’s consultation on its 1997 Liquor Policy, the draft City of Cape Town by-law restricting the days and hours of liquor sales and the new political leadership, amongst others.

“We’ve got five government departments (Health, Social Development, Transport, Communications (through ICASA), Trade and Industry) dealing with this issue,” said Mr Botha, “and at the same time we have the provinces … and the municipalities … doing their own thing.”

“Our friends the media hate good news stories, they love bad news,” he said, citing numerous sensationalist headlines that have appeared in the recent past, which have contributed to the negative perception of alcohol.

Mr Botha noted that with up to 70% of alcohol sold through illegal outlets, reducing availability is unlikely to be effective. In his view substantially increased taxation is unlikely, but he feels that legislation restricting the marketing of alcohol is inevitable. “It’s very simple. If you are politician under pressure to do something about the problems of alcohol abuse … you actually know that it has a multi-faceted core … and you know that one of the big issues is social deprivation which you can’t easily resolve … so you look for something that is very dramatic … that everyone will notice … the easiest thing to do is to restrict alcohol marketing.”

In explaining ARA’s response to this wide ranging offensive is that advertising has not been shown to increase aggregate consumption by adults or young people, and that no causal link has been established between alcohol advertising and harmful or excessive drinking patterns and resulting problems. He pointed out that banning advertising simply reduces consumer choice, and reduces competition and freezes market shares of existing brands but has little effect on overall consumption. Estimates are that as much as half of all alcohol consumed worldwide is not advertised.  Comprehensive advertising and marketing restrictions will not make any difference for these products

The aforesaid notwithstanding, Mr Botha noted that ARA feels that due to alcohol’s potential for harm if misused, the marketing of alcohol beverages requires careful attention. ARA feels further that industry self-regulation, by which it is responsible for monitoring and enforcing its own conduct around the marketing of its products, can be an effective approach to ensuring responsible marketing.

This is entirely in keeping with ARA’s mission to reduce alcohol-related harm through combating the misuse and abuse of alcohol beverages, and promoting only their responsible use.

Mr Botha explained that in pursuit of this mission, ARA promotes marketing self-regulation (through adherence to its commercial communications code – by its member companies and other alcohol beverage manufacturers, distributors and retailers, partnerships with government, public health bodies and other stakeholders to reduce misuse and abuse, and education on the nature and risks of alcohol misuse and abuse, and on the responsible us if alcohol beverages.

In terms of self regulation, Mr Botha noted that South Africa is the only country in the world where the liquor industry has voluntarily placed a “not for sale to underage persons” line in its advertising.

He also noted ARA’s on-going work with schools (a “Teenagers and Alcohol” booklet distributed to scholars by 19 participating schools) to discourage underage consumption, and at universities to encourage responsible drinking.

Bolander spoke to Mr Botha after the presentation, and he confirmed ARA’s view that national legislation is likely. “The 5 government departments involved in reducing alcohol related harm would look at policy options advertising bans, increased legislation, reduced availability as a means of addressing the problem [of alcohol abuse] … on a national level,” he said. ”You also have provinces able to introduce their own regulations … and you have municipalities, so you have a plethora of levels of government involved in potential restrictions on the industry.”

“We’ve got a government that is going to be influenced by the community and community problems … and is going to be driven to do something about it [alcohol abuse] and instead of looking at it holistically … for an overall solution, may pick on simple things to demonstrate they are doing something,” he said.

Asked whether making representations about the fact that similar legislation related to tobacco consumption has not had the desired affect will influence government policy direction for the liquor industry, Mr Botha said: “I do think there is a possibility. We have engaged and been asked to comment on whether we think that advertising is going to have influence on abuse or misuse or underage drinking, and we’ve been able to make our points heard. I get the impression that this government is prepared to consider [our input]. In other words it’s not a case of ‘We will decide for you’. It’s more a case of ‘we will listen to what you say, however if we think it’s in our community’s best interests to go another way then we will.”

He concluded by saying he expects the conclusion of the policy making and consultation process, driven by the department of trade and industry, to be concluded sometime next year, with the caveat that restrictions on advertising are unlikely until after the FIFA 2010 World Cup.


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