Policy questioned

Alcohol advertising bans ‘do not cut consumption’

Alcohol sale in supermarket
Restricting the promotion of alcohol is under review

Banning alcohol advertising would have no significant effect on demand or on the level of drink consumed, according to a leading UK think tank.

Research commissioned by the Institute for Economic Affairs found that in the ten year to 2001 alcohol advertising fell by 10.8% in Britain, but alcohol consumption rose by 15.8%

It said that advertising increases the sale of individual brands but does not increase total sales

Public health campaigners have long insisted that alcohol advertising bans could help reduce sales and, by implication, associated harm.

On becoming First Minister, Humza Yousaf ordered a review of Scottish Government plans to introduce a ban which was part of a policy to reduce alcohol-related illnesses and deaths.

Alcohol Advertising: What does the evidence show? highlights the lack of evidence that advertising bans decrease drinking or harm. 

The Cochrane Review in 2014 – widely considered the ‘gold standard’ of evidence in health policy – similarly found that “there is currently a lack of robust evidence for or against recommending the implementation of alcohol advertising restrictions.” 

Three Canadian studies, based on advertising restrictions in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, found no effect on consumption. A 2010 cross-sectional study from 17 OECD countries between 1975 and 2000 similarly found “advertising bans do not reduce alcohol demand”.

Report author and head of lifestyle 3conomics at the IEA, Christopher Snowdon, said alcohol producers pay for advertising to persuade drinkers to switch from rival products, not to increase overall consumption.

A study of alcohol advertising in the US, for example, concluded that “brand-level spirits advertising results only in brand switching and does not increase the size of the spirits market.”

Without robust evidence that banning advertising reduces consumption, Snowdon concludes that state intervention is unjustified.

Mr Snowdon said: “The claim that banning alcohol advertising would reduce the amount of alcohol-related harm in society has remarkably little evidence to support it.

“Advertising affects the market share of individual brands, but the amount of money spent on alcohol advertising has no effect on alcohol consumption overall. This is how advertising works in every other mature market, and it would be a surprise if alcohol were any different.

“Strident claims from anti-alcohol campaigners about advertising should be taken with a pinch of salt. This evidence review found that only a few high-quality studies have looked at this issue, and the evidence is, at best, mixed. A ban on alcohol advertising would certainly not be an evidence-based policy.”

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