WHO calls for more regulation of cross-border alcohol marketing

The research shows how the digital revolution in marketing and promotion is being used to promote the merits of alcohol across national borders, and in many cases regardless of the social, economic or cultural environment.

According to the WHO, alcohol consumption is linked to a range of health problems, ranging from alcohol dependence and other mental and behavioral disorders to serious non-communicable diseases such as liver cirrhosis, certain cancers and cardiovascular disease, as well as injuries and deaths from violence and traffic accidents.

WHO/Sergey Volkov

A drunk man sleeps on a couch

Saving young lives

Every year around three million people worldwide die from harmful alcohol use – one every 10 seconds – representing about 5% of all deaths.

Young people are responsible for a disproportionate number of these alcohol-related deaths, as 13.5% of all deaths among people aged 20-39 are alcohol-related.

“Alcohol is robbing young people, their families and society of their lives and potential,” said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “Yet, despite the obvious health risks, controls on the marketing of alcohol are much weaker than for other psychoactive products. Better, well-enforced and more consistent regulation of alcohol marketing would both save and improve the lives of young people around the world.”

The rise of digital advertising

The report shows how recent changes in alcohol marketing have created new opportunities to reach audiences.

The collection and analysis of data on user habits and preferences by Internet service providers has enabled alcohol marketers to target messages to specific groups across borders.

The research found that targeted advertising on social media is particularly effective and is enhanced by influencers and message sharing.

A data source cited in the report calculated that more than 70% of the media spend of the top alcohol marketers in the US in 2019 was made through promotions, product placements and online social media advertising.

“The growing importance of digital media means that alcohol marketing has become increasingly cross-border,” said Dag Rekve, of the WHO’s Division of Alcohol, Drugs and Addictive Behavior. “This makes it more difficult for countries that regulate alcohol marketing to effectively control it on their territory. More cooperation between countries in this area is needed.”

Sponsorship of sporting events

Beverage manufacturers also sponsor major sporting events globally, regionally and nationally, which can also significantly increase brand awareness among new audiences, according to the report.

They also partner with sports leagues and clubs to reach viewers and potential consumers in different parts of the world.

Other opportunities include sponsorship of competitive gaming events or product placement in movies and series broadcast on international subscription channels.

A woman chooses alcohol in a supermarket in Moscow, Russia.

WHO/Sergey Volkov

A woman chooses alcohol in a supermarket in Moscow, Russia.

Alcohol use as a means of emancipation

The report titled Rreduce alcohol damage by regulating cross-border alcohol marketing, advertising and promotion activitiesalso examines how specific audiences are targeted, with a particular focus on children and adolescents, women and heavy drinkers.

According to the WHO, studies have shown that starting to drink alcohol at an early age is a predictor of dangerous alcohol use in early adulthood and beyond. Marketers are also particularly targeting regions of the world with young and growing populations, such as Africa and Latin America.

And while men consume three-quarters of the alcohol consumed worldwide, the lower percentage in women also offers an opportunity for growth. Alcohol marketers often portray women’s drinking as a symbol of emancipation and equality, the report said.

In addition, studies of domestic violence show that violence against women is more common when both they and their partner have been drinking, which runs the risk of reducing rather than increasing their power within the couple.

Heavy and addicted drinkers are another target of marketing strategies. “People who are dependent on alcohol often report a stronger urge to drink alcohol when confronted with alcohol-related messages, but they rarely have an effective way to avoid exposure to advertising or promotional content,” says the WHO.

Better integration into public health strategies and better collaboration

The report recommends integrating comprehensive restrictions or bans on the marketing of alcohol, including its cross-border aspects, into public health strategies. It also calls for greater cooperation between countries.

The WHO said that while many governments have introduced some form of restrictions on alcohol marketing, they are relatively weak.

A 2018 UN agency survey found that while most countries have some form of regulation for alcohol marketing in traditional media, nearly half have no regulation at all, which applies to the internet and social media.

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