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Ineffective Voluntary Code For Alcohol Advertising Must Be Scrapped

Alcohol harm reduction advocates are calling for an end to alcohol advertisers writing the rules around advertising. Strong statutory standards on alcohol advertising are being demanded following research published today in the New Zealand Medical Journal.

Dr Nicki Jackson, Executive Director of Alcohol Healthwatch, says "Responsibility for protecting our children and vulnerable people from harmful, ubiquitous alcohol advertising should not be delegated to alcohol advertisers. Regulatory standards are long overdue."

"The science is clear that voluntary codes do not work. Codes are deliberately vague, focus on content of individual ads, and do nothing to address the saturation of ads in our physical and digital environment. We’ve had over a decade of Government-commissioned reports calling for effective regulation of alcohol marketing. These ineffective voluntary codes must be scrapped to protect our children".

Published in the Journal today is Dr Jackson’s and colleague’s analysis of three years of complaints to the Advertising Standards Authority’s (ASA) voluntary Code for Advertising and Promotion of Alcohol (the Code), finding 24% of complaint assessments were upheld, while 40% were settled.

"Under a voluntary Code we are effectively condoning harm to occur until someone makes a complaint. And even if they do complain and are successful, by the time the ASA asks the advertiser to remove the ad the advertising cycle has usually finished. So the process is meaningless. New Zealanders deserve better", says Dr Jackson.

The study found that more than one-half (58%) of the complaints relates to advertisements on social and digital media while 30% related to traditional media like TV, print and billboard advertisements.

"The Code is more irrelevant than ever before, given the proliferation of ads in digital media that are uniquely targeted to individuals. We have no way of detecting compliance with the voluntary code. The Code does nothing to limit the number of ads we are exposed to. We need to take back control if we are serious about reducing alcohol harm", says Dr Jackson.

"The current system reflects a failure of the Crown’s responsibility to protect Maaori health", says David Ratuu, Tiamana Whakahaere o Kookiri Ki Taamakimakaurau Trust. "The ASA has failed and continues to fail to protect Maaori from the harms of alcohol advertising and sponsorship. Evidence is clear that Maaori rangatahi, tamariki and mokopuna are more exposed to harmful alcohol advertising than any other demographic and yet, they continue to persist with a failing system. The Standards and Code are biased, one-sided and racist", says Ratuu.

"It is long overdue that the Government take ownership of its Tiriti obligations, and implement the recommendations from the Law Commission report in 2010, the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship in 2014 and the Mental Health Addictions inquiry in 2018 to actively protect our tamariki. The evidence is clear on what needs to be done", says Ratuu.

In 2019, community workers in Ōtautahi made an ASA complaint about Facebook posts by an alcohol-mixed energy drink popular among young men on limited incomes, such as students. The themes of the advertisements including binge drinking games, having a three-day blinder, and staying up all night.

"The complaints were upheld in terms of lacking social responsibility and encouraging heavy drinking, but the advertiser’s response was disingenuous at best, feigning ignorance regarding the drinking game", says Paul McMahon, a Senior Project Worker with Community Action on Youth And Drugs (CAYAD).

"The posts were removed but that advertiser has since carried on in the same manner, breaching the code with impunity and no fear of penalty. In fact, by transgressing boundaries that advertiser is being ‘on-brand’", says McMahon.

"We shouldn’t pretend that self-regulation and voluntary accords work; they have never, and will never, work. The current voluntary code does nothing to prevent brazen targeting of young people with sexualised messages that glamorise binge-drinking, as the outcome of our complaint shows. These companies will never change their behaviour without meaningful incentives to do so", McMahon says.

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