Reducing harm caused by alcohol


New evidence demonstrates that alcohol ads lead to youth drinking

The marketing of alcoholic drinks is one cause of underage drinking, public health experts conclude. Because of this, countries should abandon what are often piecemeal and voluntary codes to restrict alcohol marketing and construct government-enforced laws designed to limit alcohol-marketing exposure and message appeal to youth.

These conclusions stem from a series of eight review articles published as a supplement to the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, which combined the results of 163 studies on alcohol advertising and youth alcohol consumption.

Responding to the new research, Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland said, “Alcohol Focus Scotland welcome this new evidence demonstrating that exposure to alcohol marketing causes young people to start drinking and to binge drink.  The researchers used the same methodology – the Bradford Hill criteria – which were used to establish the causal link between tobacco and cancer.

“Just as governments have acted to protect people from tobacco marketing, it is now time for action on alcohol marketing.  The alcohol industry claim the hundreds of millions of pounds they spend every year promoting their products is about competing for market share; the truth is it drives increased alcohol consumption.  Children and young people are particularly vulnerable, with those exposed to marketing more likely to start drinking in the first place, more likely to drink heavily and more likely to develop a problem.

“Self-regulation has failed; it is time for robust controls on alcohol marketing to be put in place.  The Scottish Government’s upcoming consultation on marketing restrictions provides a timely opportunity to consider comprehensive regulations to protect people from alcohol marketing.”

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “International evidence of the harms caused by alcohol marketing to young people should be a concern for us all. Although the number of young people drinking in the UK in recent years has decreased, those who do drink are doing so at dangerous levels.

“Current restrictions on alcohol marketing are woefully inadequate: children and young people are bombarded with alcohol advertising throughout the day; including online. The government must take swift action to protect our children.”

Each of the eight review articles in the supplement evaluated a different aspect of alcohol marketing and drinking among young people. The reviews covered hundreds of studies that used different research designs and measurement techniques, and the data came from a variety of countries and scientific disciplines.

“[T]here is persuasive evidence that exposure to alcohol marketing is one cause of drinking onset during adolescence and also one cause of binge drinking,” write James D. Sargent, M.D., of the C. Everett Koop Institute at Dartmouth, and Thomas F. Babor, Ph.D., M.P.H., of the University of Connecticut, in a conclusion to the supplement.

The authors of the reviews used the Bradford Hill criteria—a well-known framework for determining causal links between environmental exposures and disease—to determine whether marketing is a cause of adolescent alcohol use. The same criteria have been used to establish that smoking is a cause of cancer and that tobacco marketing is one cause of youth smoking. Hill’s causality criteria involve determining the strength of association, consistency of the link, specificity of the association, temporal precedence of the advertising exposure, biological and psychological plausibility, experimental evidence and analogy to similar health risk exposures (e.g., tobacco advertising).

Sargent and Babor note that each of the Bradford Hill criteria were met within the eight reviews, supporting a modest but meaningful association between alcohol advertising and youth drinking.

Although such a relationship had been previously known, this is the first time any public health expert has explicitly concluded that advertising causes drinking among adolescents.

As a result, the authors recommend that Government agencies—independent from the alcohol industry—should restrict alcohol marketing exposures in the adolescent population

Alcohol Focus Scotland hopes that the Scottish Government gives consideration to this new evidence in its upcoming consultation on alcohol marketing restrictions and puts in place comprehensive regulations to protect children and young people.

Read the full journal article.

This article is part of a wider supplementary issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs which contains eight review articles on the subject of  “Alcohol Marketing and Youth Drinking: Is There a Causal Relationship?” Read more.