You need look no further than this ad for Tooheys New to see why Australia has a nasty drinking problem. The ad features a street party with giant inflatable figures in happy bright colours and could easily be mistaken for a toy promotion — until the beer truck arrives.

The industry’s self-regulatory Alcoholic Beverages Advertising Code — which many in the public health field regard as a bit of a joke — states advertising must not have a “strong or evident appeal” to children or adolescents.

But the panel which oversees the code has just dismissed a complaint alleging this ad targeted young people. This is understood to have been “a majority decision”, which suggests that the sole public health representative on the committee was outvoted, yet again.

Lion Nathan, brewer of Tooheys and sponsor of rugby, was not surprised by the decision, insisting that the ad is “absolutely not” aimed at children and that the “tallmen” figures are well known as rugby emblems.

Nor is the dismissal a surprise for Geoff Munro, director of the Community Alcohol Action Network, who’s used to such complaints being knocked back.

“The code is useless because it is not enforced and this dismissal is a perfect example,” says Munro.

Why does this matter? There is growing evidence that youth binge-drinking is on the rise at the same time as there’s mounting evidence that drinking may be more harmful for the developing brain than previously thought. Not to mention the many other harms associated with bingeing, including rapes, assaults, and accidents.

The problem for the alcohol industry is that overall, Australia’s per capita consumption is falling, perhaps because of the population’s ageing and the general tendency for people to drink less as they get older. So the industry is keen to cultivate new markets — hence the ever-expanding range of sweet and potent ready-mix drinks, perfectly designed for young palates.

Any government that is serious about tackling the grog toll — which a spate of recent media coverage suggests is arousing increasing community concern — should be having a hard look at the industry’s marketing to young people. They could start by considering a study published in Drug and Alcohol Review in January, which searched 93 magazines popular with youth, two-thirds of which contained at least one alcohol ad or promotion (including one featuring skateboards).

Fifty-two per cent of these items appeared to contravene at least one section of the code. Almost half of the ads were for premixed or straight spirits. The Curtin University of Technology researchers concluded that self-regulation of alcohol advertising appeared not to be working and that governments should act.

Tomorrow: why governments won’t risk being called wowsers

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey