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The Urgent Need for Stronger Regulation of Cross-Border Alcohol Marketing and Advertising

A new report from the World Health Organization sheds light on the concerning trend of sophisticated online marketing techniques being used for alcohol and the dire need for better regulation. The report highlights that younger people and heavy drinkers are increasingly being targeted by alcohol advertising, which can be detrimental to their health.

Reducing the harm from alcohol through cross-border regulation of marketing, advertising, and promotion is the main objective of the report, which is the first of its kind to detail the full extent of alcohol marketing across national borders, often by digital means. The report reveals that alcohol is marketed in many cases regardless of the social, economic, or cultural environment in receiving countries.

According to the report, worldwide, alcohol-related harmful use causes 3 million deaths each year, representing about 5% of all deaths or one death every 10 seconds. Alarmingly, a disproportionate number of these deaths occur among younger people, with 13.5% of all deaths among 20-39 year-olds being alcohol-related.

WHO Director-General, Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, states that “Alcohol robs young people, their families and societies of their lives and potential…Better, well enforced and more consistent regulation of alcohol marketing would both save and improve young lives across the world.”

One of the biggest changes in recent years to alcohol marketing is the use of sophisticated online marketing. Global internet providers collect and analyze data on users’ habits and preferences, which has created new and growing opportunities for alcohol marketers to target specific groups across national borders. Targeted advertising on social media is especially effective at using such data, with its impact strengthened by social influencers and sharing of posts between social media users.

Dag Rekve of the Alcohol, Drugs and Addictive Behaviours Unit at the World Health Organization stated that “The rising importance of digital media means that alcohol marketing has become increasingly cross-border…This makes it more difficult for countries that are regulating alcohol marketing to effectively control it in their jurisdictions. More collaboration between countries in this area is needed.”

Sponsorship of major sporting events at global, regional, and national levels is another key strategy used by transnational alcohol companies. This sponsorship can significantly increase awareness of their brands to new audiences. Alcohol producers also engage in partnerships with sports leagues and clubs to reach viewers and potential consumers in different parts of the world.

The increasing market of e-sports, including competitive gaming events, is another opportunity to sponsor events and increase brand recognition and international sales. So is product placement in movies and serials, many of which are streamed on international subscription channels. An analysis of the 100 highest-grossing box office U.S. movies between 1996 and 2015 found that branded alcohol was shown in almost half of them.

The lack of regulation to address cross-border marketing of alcohol is particularly concerning for children and adolescents, women, and heavy drinkers. Starting to drink alcohol at a young age is a predictor of hazardous drinking in young adulthood and beyond. Furthermore, teenage drinkers are more vulnerable to harm from alcohol consumption than older drinkers. Areas of the world with young and growing populations, such as Africa and Latin America, are being particularly targeted.

While three quarters of the alcohol that the world drinks is consumed by males, alcohol marketers tend to see the lower rate of women drinking as an opportunity to grow their market, often depicting drinking by women as a symbol of empowerment and equality. They organize corporate social responsibility initiatives on topics such as breast cancer and domestic violence and engage with successful women in areas such as sports or the arts to promote brands of alcohol.