Tomorrow sees the start of Senate hearings on the alcopops tax. This tax passes the “Scream Test” with flying colours: its impact on sales could not be clearer from the way the distillers are opposing it. They are throwing everything at the debate except the evidence on actual sales — which shows unequivocally that sales of these kid-magnet products are falling, and that sales of other products are not increasing to anything like the same extent.
The distillers’ desperation was recently demonstrated by a wonderfully tacky suggestion from their spokesperson that researchers reporting on the decline in sales were self-interested because they might somehow benefit from the alcopops tax. Desperate arguments indeed from an industry that has been producing and promoting sweet, sugary confections that help kids get drunk quickly.
But alcopops are only one part of the drinks industry’s promotional armamentarium. There is increasing concern about the way alcohol is being promoted through all sections of the media, to kids and adults alike. The drinks industry spends hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising with no serious controls beyond feeble voluntary self-regulation; and promotions such as sponsorship do not even have this notional filter.
In recent months, we have seen massive promotions for alcohol through direct advertising, bottle shop promotions, sports sponsorship and a host of other marketing techniques. Surely the most incongruous of all is sports sponsorship, through which alcohol can be directly promoted to kids, with their role models turned into billboards for beer and spirits. Sports such as football, rugby league, rugby union, cricket and soccer all happily promote alcohol sponsors. Small wonder that we see almost daily reports about the alcohol-fuelled excesses of their players.
A survey conducted at Curtin University last year found that in one televised afternoon cricket match, the sponsor’s logo was clearly visible for 75% of playing time — brilliant, ruthlessly targeted marketing. Anyone watching the Australian cricket team yesterday will have been delighted by the success of Phillip Hughes. What a pity that this talented 20 year-old’s success was tainted by the beer advertising he has to wear as part of cricket’s sponsorship deals.
It is time for the drinks industry to come clean and reveal exactly how much they spend on all forms of advertising and promotion — including sponsorship. The public are entitled to know what is being done to encourage drinking by kids as well as others. Once we have this information we can identify the best means of curbing and regulating it to protect our kids from an industry that has no ethical radar. If the industry fail to provide this information, we may need legislation to enforce some semblance of responsibility from them.
If we are serious about reducing binge drinking and all the other harmful consequences of alcohol, we need serious controls. The alcopops tax is an important start and should be supported on public health grounds, but the drinks industry should also be put on notice that the days of irresponsible advertising and promotion are coming to an end.