By Jonathan Isaby
A Ten-Minute Rule Bill was introduced on Wednesday by Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who has represented Totnes since last year's general election, which would place new restrictions on how alcohol can be marketed in order to reduce children's exposure to such advertising.
"Youth culture is heavily influenced by marketing and our children are saturated by alcohol advertising. Despite the clear evidence of harm – only Denmark and the Isle of Man have higher levels of binge drinking and drunkenness in their schoolchildren – the European school survey demonstrated that our children have the most positive expectations of alcohol of any children in Europe and were the least likely to feel that it might cause them harm.
"Where do those positive expectations come from? Let us just look at the scale of marketing in the UK. The estimated spend on alcohol marketing is around £800 million, compared with the Drinkaware trust's funding by the industry of just £2.6 million. When £307 is spent encouraging drinking for every pound spent promoting sensible behaviour, the results are predictable. The World Health Organisation hit the nail on the head when it said: "In such a profoundly pro-drinking environment, health education becomes futile."
So what was she proposing?
"I am not suggesting a retreat to the nanny state or a ban, but we should aim to protect children, especially as there is clear evidence of their exposure to marketing and the consequent harm. We currently have an absurd situation where advertisers are not supposed to link drinking with social or sexual success or portray drinkers as youthful or vigorous, but they can regularly sponsor major sporting and youth events, such as T in the Park. The Bill aims to reduce the exposure of children to the harmful effects of alcohol marketing by setting out what advertisers are allowed to say and where they can say it. Rather than the current confused cocktail of legislation and self-regulatory codes, let us switch to something that works.
"The Bill would permit the promotion of alcohol in media that adults use. That would include the print media, where at least 90% of readers are adults rather than children, radio after 9 pm and films with an 18 certificate. It would allow advertising at the point of sale in licensed premises and at traditional producer events, so it would not penalise, for example, west country cider makers or small Scottish distilleries. In these media, advertisers would be permitted only to make factual and verifiable statements about their products, such as alcoholic strength, composition and place of origin. Every advert would also carry an advisory message about responsible drinking or health.
"Any other marketing or promotion not specifically permitted would therefore be banned, and this would include television, social media and youth-certified films. The Bill would specifically prevent the growing threat from viral phone marketing and ploys such as "advergames" on the internet, where so-called games are a cover for alcohol marketing. I think we would all agree that those are designed specifically to appeal to young people. Ofcom in its own research has demonstrated that for every five 24-year-olds who see an alcohol advert on television, there are four 10-year-olds who see the same advert. The industry will claim that these measures will kill off sport and culture, and that advertising is designed only to persuade people to switch brands. The same claim was made before the tobacco advertising ban."
"The coalition has staked a great deal on talking about outcomes. If we are serious about outcomes such as reducing health inequality, reducing violent crime and domestic violence, improving the life chances of our children and reducing teenage pregnancy, we must stop talking to the drinks industry, with its vested interest in increasing drinking, and start listening to those with real expertise in preventing alcohol-related deaths. Not so much big society, perhaps, as big sobriety."
"It will come as no surprise to my hon. Friend the Member for Totnes that I object to the Bill in principle and in practice. Despite her best efforts to suggest otherwise, it is clearly an attempted extension of the nanny state, of which we have had far too much already. It is gesture politics to try to appease the health zealots in this country, most of whom cannot be appeased anyway."
"If we accept this policy, where will it end? All sorts of products are bad for us if taken in excess. Cream cakes are undoubtedly bad for us if we partake of them in excess, as are pizzas, chocolates and curries. Does my hon. Friend propose to come back at a future date to ban the advertising of cream cakes, pizzas and curries, or anything that happens to be bad for us? This is the start of a very slippery slope, and one that I am not prepared to go down.
"The Bill would do enormous damage to sports clubs. It is estimated that alcohol companies spent between £150 million and £200 million a year sponsoring sport alone, including many amateur sports teams. Without that sponsorship it would be difficult for those clubs to continue. We have the rather ludicrous suggestion that we should for health reasons attempt to try to stop the advertising of alcohol, the only consequence of which would be to stop lots of people being able to take part in sporting activities, which is presumably something the health lobby wants to encourage."
"I object to the Bill in principle, but even the people who accept it in principle must recognise that it is completely unnecessary. It is a solution looking for a problem. Alcohol already cannot be sold to anyone under the age of 18, so if my hon. Friend is concerned about young people drinking alcohol, surely the solution to the problem is to stop anyone selling it to them. That law already exists.
"The UK already has a comprehensive framework of regulation that makes the Bill completely unnecessary. The Advertising Standards Authority has an established regulatory system, the Portman Group provides its own code of practice and Ofcom regulates TV programme sponsorship. The current alcohol advertising rules were tightened in October 2005, in response to the alcohol harm reduction strategy, and they were reviewed again in 2008, taking into account the latest evidence commissioned by the Department of Health, and were subject to a full public consultation in 2009. The rules already state that adverts must not target under-18s; be shown around programmes that especially appeal to under-18s; link alcohol with seduction, sex or social success; link alcohol with irresponsible, anti-social, tough or daring behaviour; show alcohol being served irresponsibly; show people drinking and behaving in an adolescent or juvenile way or reflecting the culture of people under 18-years-old; or be shown in publications aimed at under-18s or where more than 25% of the readership is under 18."
He did not force a division on the issue, but without government backing the Bill stands very little chance of making any progress.