WHO highlights glaring loopholes in regulation of cross-border alcohol marketing

A new report from the World Health Organization highlights the increasing use of advanced online alcohol marketing techniques and the need for more effective regulation. It shows that young people and heavy drinkers are increasingly targeted by alcohol advertising, often at the expense of their health.

This new WHO report, entitled Reducing the harm of alcohol – by regulating cross-border marketing, advertising and promotion of alcohol is the first to describe the extent of current alcohol marketing across national borders – often through digital means – and in many cases independent of the social, economic or cultural environment of the recipient countries.

Worldwide, three million people die each year from harmful alcohol consumption – one every 10 seconds – representing about 5% of all deaths. A disproportionate number of these alcohol-related deaths occur among young people, with 13.5% of all deaths among 20-39 year-olds being alcohol-related.

“Alcohol is robbing these young people, their families and societies of their lives and their potential,” said Dr.r Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director General of the World Health Organization. “Yet, despite the obvious health risks, controls on the marketing of alcohol are much weaker than for other psychoactive products. More effective, enforced and consistent regulation of the marketing of alcohol would both save the lives of young people and improve their lives around the world. †

A digital revolution in marketing and promotion

One of the biggest changes in alcohol marketing in recent years has been the use of advanced online marketing. The collection and analysis of data on user habits and preferences by global Internet service providers has created new and growing opportunities for alcohol marketers to design targeting specific groups across national borders. Targeted advertising on social media is particularly effective in using this data, its impact is amplified by influencers on social networks and the sharing of messages between users of these media.

According to a data source cited in the report, more than 70% of the media spending of major US-based alcohol marketers in 2019 went to promotions, product placements and online social media advertising.

“The growing importance of digital media means that alcohol marketing has become increasingly cross-border,” notes Dag Rekve of the World Health Organization’s Division of Alcohol, Drugs and Addictive Behaviors. “It is therefore more difficult for countries that regulate alcohol marketing to effectively control this in their jurisdictions. More cooperation between countries in this area is essential. †

Sponsorship of sporting events

Sponsoring major sporting events at the national, regional and global levels is another key strategy employed by transnational alcohol companies (which are increasingly increasing their dominance over the production and consumption of branded alcoholic beverages). Such sponsorships can significantly increase the awareness of their brands to new audiences. Also, alcohol manufacturers are partnering with sports leagues and clubs to reach viewers and potential consumers in different parts of the world.

The growing market for online sports, including sports leagues, is another opportunity to sponsor events and improve brand awareness and international sales. The same goes for product placement in films and series, many of which are broadcast on international pay channels. According to an analysis of the 100 highest-grossing American films between 1996 and 2015, nearly half of the films feature branded drinks.

A focus on marketing for specific target groups

The lack of regulation to combat the cross-border sale of alcohol is of particular concern to children and adolescents, women and heavy drinkers.

Studies have shown that starting to drink alcohol at an early age is a predictor of dangerous alcohol use in early adulthood and beyond. In addition, adolescent drinkers are more vulnerable to the harms of alcohol use than older drinkers. Regions of the world with young and growing populations, such as Africa and Latin America, are particularly targeted.

In addition, alcohol use among women is an important growth area for the production and sale of alcohol. While the world’s alcohol consumption is three quarters of men, alcohol marketers often see the lower percentage of female alcohol users as an opportunity to expand their market, and often see the consumption of alcohol by women as a symbol of empowerment and equality. To promote alcohol brands, they organize initiatives under the guise of corporate social responsibility, on topics such as breast cancer and domestic violence, and engage with women known for their success in fields such as sports or the arts.

Heavy drinkers and dependent drinkers are another target of marketing efforts, as in many countries only 20% of current drinkers consume more than half of all alcohol consumed. People who are dependent on alcohol often report a stronger urge to drink alcohol when confronted with alcohol-related telltale cues, but they rarely have an effective means of avoiding exposure to alcohol, advertising or promotion.

Existing regulations mostly limited to individual states

While many countries have restrictions on the marketing of alcohol, they are generally relatively limited. A 2018 WHO survey found that while most countries have some form of regulation for marketing alcohol in traditional media, nearly half of them have no regulation for marketing alcohol on the Internet ( 48%) and social media (47%).

At the same time, the determination of national governments, the public health community and the WHO to limit the availability and promotion of tobacco products, with a particular focus on the cross-border aspects of tobacco production and marketing, and their continued work in this direction, has increased tobacco consumption and exposure across the board. around the world and saved lives.

Need for international cooperation

The report concludes that national governments should incorporate restrictions or outright bans on the marketing of alcohol, including its cross-border aspects, into public health strategies. It highlights the essential elements and options for regulating the cross-border marketing of alcohol and underlines the need for strong cooperation between states in this area.

Note for editors:

There is a causal relationship between alcohol use and a wide range of health problems, such as mental and behavioral disorders, including alcohol dependence; major non-communicable diseases such as cirrhosis, certain cancers and cardiovascular diseases; and injuries and deaths from violence and traffic accidents.

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