Alcohol is an intrinsic part of Scottish culture. For many of us it has become as much a supermarket staple as bread and milk and we are constantly reminded of its presence in society by a plethora of references – be they subliminal through the choice of revolving our favourite soap operas around the local pub or more obviously emblazoned on the shirts of our top football stars or headlining our top music festival T in the Park.
Last week the BMA’s Board of Science published a report calling for a comprehensive ban on all alcohol marketing communications. The ‘Under the influence – the damaging effect of alcohol marketing on young people’ report says that while it may be tempting to blame the irresponsible few for our alcoholic excesses, particularly younger drinkers, alcohol misuse is not an isolated phenomenon. Instead, it argues that excessive drinking is driven by social norms and “underpinned by clever alcohol marketing”.
The UK alcohol industry, it points out, spends approximately £800m each year marketing its products and as a result it says, “our society is awash with pro-alcohol messaging, marketing and behaviour.” These messages, the report argues, work as unhealthy cues and prompts that encourage alcohol consumption. And it appears that they are working.
According to the report, in 2007 sales of alcohol were high enough to put virtually every British adult over the Government guideline drinking levels.
No doubt emboldened by the success of radical public health legislation such as the ban on smoking in enclosed public spaces and the latest efforts in Scotland to remove the last bastion of tobacco advertising – point-of-sale displays – the report makes a number of recommendations to the Scottish and UK Governments to help rebalance our relationship with alcohol. In addition to the ban on alcohol marketing, it proposes increasing the level of excise duty paid on alcohol above the rate of inflation – both of which are reserved issues – as well as calling for a reduction in licensing hours for on and off-licensed premises, for planning and licence applications to take account of the density of alcohol outlets in an area in a bid to stem the saturation of pubs and off-licenses in many communities, and proposes the introduction of a compulsory levy on the alcohol industry in order to fund an independent public health body to oversee alcohol-related research, health promotion and policy advice. It also lends its support to the Scottish Government’s plans for minimum pricing for alcoholic products.
Unsurprisingly, the report has produced a polarised response. While Scottish Labour’s health spokesperson Cathy Jamieson welcomed the report as “a serious contribution to the debate about the soaring cost of alcohol-related harm”, Scottish Conservative MSP Jackson Carlaw called the ban “easy blanket approach which would only serve to create fresh new problems.” The alcohol industry’s response was also predictably wounded, with David Poley, chief executive of the social responsibility body for drinks manufacturers, the Portman Group, arguing that, “The effectiveness of our regulatory work has been recognised by several independent and authoritative bodies.” He criticises the BMA for ignoring evidence that advertising causes brand switching, not harmful drinking, and argues that a ban would prove “counter-productive”.
The criticism of the report was to be expected, says BMA Scotland’s new chair Dr Brian Keighley.
“In a way, yes, it was expected, but I think there is a lot more challenging, widely held misconceptions about alcohol and I think the important thing for people to realise is that a) we are not saying that alcohol should be banned and b) that it should not necessarily make a tremendous difference to people who drink sensibly and moderately.” However, the report does not set out to make friends, merely influence the public to think about the impact of alcohol on our society and what we should do about it. While there is a danger that the population sees the medical profession as “killjoys” and dismisses the contribution as unwelcome interference, he says the report has come from “the board of science not from the board of sanctimony” and simply aims to ensure the public are aware of the issues.
“Doctors can’t legislate and the legislators can’t really legislate without public consent and I think all the BMA has done is just to lay in front of society and the legislators the issues, according to the evidence and it is now for society to decide how to direct their legislators how it wants to go forward. All we can do is act as scientists. We are not proselytisers.
We are not campaigners with any degree of self-interest. The BMA is a professional organisation that has the interests of patients and the general public’s health at heart and we’ve just laid out the evidence.”