Associate Feature: It is time to prioritise alcohol harm prevention over industry interests
There is no doubt about it, Scotland is facing a crisis with alcohol. Every day, almost 3 people lose their lives and 100 people are hospitalised purely because of alcohol. As a society, we have a broken relationship with this harmful product – with more than one in five of us drinking at levels that can harm our health. Alcohol is having a devastating impact on our families and communities, and it is time to prioritise alcohol harm prevention over alcohol industry interests. The Scottish Government’s consultation on marketing restrictions is an opportunity we cannot afford to miss in improving the nation’s health and well-being.
Alcohol marketing works: it makes us buy and consume more alcohol. Why else would alcohol companies spend millions on it each year? It is no surprise that in Scottish society alcohol has become normalised - we simply cannot go about our daily lives without a nudge to drink. We are bombarded by alcohol advertisements and promotions everyday on public transport, billboards, in our outdoor and public spaces, when we attend events and sports games, through TV and radio, and online. A wide body of international evidence demonstrates how compelling this omnipresent type of marketing is, as it directly influences how much and how often we drink. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable yet they tell us that they see it everywhere, all the time. They want change.
Alcohol marketing is ultimately a human rights-based issue: we have a right to health and we do not consent to being exposed to marketing which make us more likely to consume a harmful product. How can we let this continue, knowing that we have a crisis on our hands which this is contributing to?
Alcohol is not an ordinary product, and should not be marketed or treated as one. The World Health Organization cite restrictions on marketing and promotion as one of their ‘best buys’: it is one of the most cost-effective and effective ways to reduce alcohol harms.
As the Scottish Government consults on marketing restrictions, the alcohol industry are once again pushing back against plans to improve public health, making the same alarmist economic claims as when Minimum Unit Pricing was first mooted. These claims have since been proven unfounded. In reality, the economic case against policies to reduce alcohol harm in Scotland is extremely weak. Alcohol harms cost Scotland around as much as the alcohol industry contributes to GDP. It is estimated that the societal cost of alcohol to Scotland including health and social care costs, labour and productivity loss, crime and the value of lives prematurely lost, is as much as a staggering £5-10 billion per year. Therefore, the economic cost of reducing alcohol sales in Scotland would be offset by the savings in healthcare costs and the gains from a healthier, more productive workforce.
The alcohol industry, like the tobacco industry before it, is using its considerable power and influence to try to derail marketing restrictions. They argue that they should have been involved in shaping the Scottish Government consultation before it issued. But there is a very good reason why they should not, and have not, been involved – because they have a conflict of interest. The World Health Organization view - endorsed by the Scottish Government in its 2018 Alcohol Framework – is “that regulatory controls on the market must be decided and enforced by governments, with public health interests as the primary goals. Such regulations and their enforcement need to be protected from industry interference.” So it is right that industry did not shape the consultation but, like others, they have had the opportunity to respond to it and their views will be considered as part of the process.
The introduction of comprehensive marketing restrictions is not a novel or radical concept. In fact, Scotland is behind many European countries in adopting a regulatory approach. Recognising their responsibility to protect citizens, countries such as Norway, Sweden, Finland, France, Estonia, Lithuania and Ireland are setting an example of how effective such measures can be in changing the societal relationship with alcohol and reducing harms.
Alcohol harm is one of Scotland’s greatest public health challenges and needs to be addressed with urgency. It is time that we stopped exposing our nation to alcohol marketing and acted to protect people’s right to health, ensuring future generations can make their own decisions around consumption, free from industry bias. It is essential that we take this opportunity to change the Scottish narrative around alcohol and put the welfare of our nation first.
Elinor Jayne is Director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems
Alison Douglas is Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland.
This article is sponsored by Alcohol Focus Scotland.
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