Alcohol advertising: Is there a reasonable solution?
The issue of alcohol advertising is heating up worldwide, as problems of underage drinking, abuse, drunken driving, illness, injury and death are sparking debate over whether governments ought, or have the right, to set limits.
Yesterday, in Australia, the Health Minister of New South Wales, John Della Bosca, set off a firestorm when he called for no alcohol ads on television before 9 p.m. Going even further, he suggested a complete ban on all alcohol advertising if that didn’t work. He told a local newspaper: “The power of persuasion of alcohol advertising is the most sophisticated and seductive I have seen. As a student of the art of persuasion for electioneering, the alcohol industry is almost unbeatable.”
Della Bosca’s comment was immediately challenged by New South Wales’ opposition leader, Barry O’Farrell, who said that promoting personal responsibility, not government censorship, is a better way to encourage responsible alcohol use. It’s the old education vs. regulation debate.
The brouhaha brought to mind last week’s explosion in this country when MillerCoors’ plan to introduce a new, high-alcohol drink clearly aimed at youth, Sparks Red, was opposed by 25 state Attorneys General. Under intense fire, the company last Tuesday announced it was shelving the launch. If Sparks Red had ever made it to store shelves, you can just imagine the ads deep-pockets MillerCoors would have created to sell it.
The European Union, like the U.S., forbids targeting minors in alcohol advertising, but individual member states have imposed far more stringent restrictions. France, for example, completely bans alcohol ads on television, while Norway and Sweden allow no advertising of alcoholic beverages that exceed 2.5% (Norway) or 3.5% (Sweden). Numerous other countries allow alcohol advertising on T.V. only at night.
The arguments over whether advertising increases alcohol consumption, or if it encourages underage people to drink, are eternal and probably impossible to resolve. Obviously, if alcohol beverage manufacturers didn’t believe advertising worked, they wouldn’t invest hundreds of millions of dollars in it. But human beings have shown a penchant for alcohol (and mind-altering substances in general) throughout our history, and long before the concept of “advertising” existed, drunkenness was a problem, as the tale of Noah in his tent reminds us. (See Genesis 9:21-24.)
Total bans on things rarely work the way they’re intended. Prohibition was a joke and a disaster. The “war on drugs” has failed. Some people who call for a ban on alcohol advertising undoubtedly do so because of their own ideological or religious beliefs, and it’s not unlikely that some of them would prohibit the sale of alcohol in America, if they could. It’s reasonable to restrict alcohol advertising, but we have to be vigilent not to let the camel’s nose of neoprohibitionism get into the tent of our right to drink. There’s also obviously a huge difference in the way that alcohol is portrayed in advertising. Wine ads tend to be aimed at smart adults and emphasize issues of greenness, respect for the land, pairing with food, family, and a balanced life. Beer ads target juveniles of all age whose hormones are out of control. We shouldn’t lump them all together.