THE relationship between advertising and health has changed for the better. There was a time when cigarette adverts were ubiquitous. Now advertising is banned, the packets are hidden behind anonymous screens in the shops and smoking rates have fallen. There are few who would argue with what has happened.
But what about the advertising of alcohol? According to Alcohol Focus Scotland, it should also be banned in some places and restricted in others. The campaign group says the Scottish Government should start by banning adverts from the streets and public transport; it also says alcohol sponsorship should be phased out at sporting events and suggests restrictions on TV ads before 11pm.
The organisation says the measures are necessary to prevent alcohol companies reaching children. Alison Douglas, Alcohol Focus Scotland’s chief executive, says children are seeing positive messages about alcohol while waiting for the school bus or on social media. “We need to create environments that foster positive choices and support children’s healthy development,” she says.
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In some ways, it is easy to see where Alcohol Focus Scotland is coming from in a country that has such a troubled relationship with drinking. Alcohol sales are much higher than in England and Wales and Scotland suffers more than most of its European neighbours from alcohol-related harm.
But the situation is more nuanced than a call for a ban on advertising would suggest. Alcohol Focus Scotland says its proposed restrictions would protect children, but the most recent figures from the Office for National Statistics suggest the real problem may lie with the over-45s, who are three times more likely than younger people to drink alcohol every day. Heavy drinking among young people also appears to be falling, with the proportion of teetotal 16-24-year-olds rising to 27 per cent. It suggests young people are changing their attitudes without any help from an advertising ban.
There are other potential risks with the proposed restrictions. Naturally, the focus of public policy should be health, but whisky is one of Scotland’s most important industries; there is also a thriving craft brewing sector that could be damaged by restrictions on advertising. And could an advertising ban pile yet another problem onto the pub sector?
And is a restriction on advertising the right strategy anyway? In Scotland, shoppers can walk into a supermarket and buy their weekly maximum recommended alcohol intake for as little as £2.50, which has led to a profound change in the way Scots drink alcohol. We no longer go to the pub as much as we did; instead, because of the cost, we drink more at home where it is harder to judge measures.
A change to the advertising rules is unlikely to make any difference to that situation. Minimum pricing on other hand has a real prospect of reducing alcohol intake for the simple reason that cost, rather than advertising, is the main driver of consumption. The policy may still be bogged down in the courts, but if and when it gets going, it has a good chance – and a much greater chance than new rules on advertising – of finally changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol for good.