The Scottish Government say the aim of the proposed ban on alcohol advertising in Scotland is to decrease alcohol consumption in young people… however alcohol consumption in Scotland is already decreasing, particularly among young people.
The argument is that ads increase alcohol consumption but despite this belief, statistics show otherwise. And here’s something interesting – as marketing spend on alcohol has gone up, alcohol consumption has gone down.
Lets take a look at the statistics.
The Scottish Health Survey 2021 found that the “prevalence of hazardous or harmful levels of weekly alcohol consumption has declined steadily since 2003, from 34% in 2003 to 23% in 2021” and that the mean number of units of alcohol consumed per week by adult drinkers has also declined since 2003, from 16.1 to 11.3 in 2021.
According to alcoholchange.org, the number of people who don’t drink at all is increasing, particularly among young people, and overall alcohol consumption has fallen by 16% since 2004. Additionally, and according to Public Health Scotland, in 2020 population-level alcohol consumption in Scotland, estimated from alcohol retail sales, fell to its lowest level in the available time series (1994 onwards). 9.4 litres of pure alcohol were sold per adult in Scotland in 2020, equivalent to an average consumption of 18 units per adult per week, the lowest since 1994 and the largest reported year-on-year decrease. However, this still exceeds the low risk weekly drinking guideline of 14 units. Drink Aware found that drinking on four or more days a week, and drinking 14 units or more had not changed significantly or had declined since 2017 and that the proportion of drinkers who binge drink daily or almost daily in the UK is highest in Northern Ireland (3.0%) whilst Wales and Scotland have the lowest rates (1.8%). Finally, the percent of people who drink at least once a week is down from 54% in 2015 to 50% in 2021 in Scotland.
If we now consider younger drinkers, one of the main thrusts of the consultation, the Scottish Government report that “alcohol consumption is at its lowest level among younger people (16-24 years) since records began” but “hazardous drinking and possible alcohol dependence are higher among those aged 16-24 years than any other age group.”
The ONS found in 2018, and as reported by alcoholchange.org that “since 2005, the overall amount of alcohol consumed in the UK, the proportion of people reporting drinking, and the amount drinkers report consuming have all fallen. This trend is especially pronounced among younger drinkers.”
If we look at The Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS) alcohol report, also from 2018, it finds an increase in in the proportion of pupils under 16 who have ever had a drink since 2015 (71% of 15 year olds and 36% of 13 year olds), but this is much lower than the peaks on 2002 and 2004 and the lowest of any time before 2010. This all tells us that alcohol consumption is at best not increasing and most likely falling in Scotland.
But what about drinks advertising? Marketing spend has gone up, and so its safe to suggest that increasing spend is not growing the overall number of people who drink alcohol.
It is not easy to find a body or research that can be compared against each other – and this is work that should be carried out as a part of any consultation – but there is research available from the U.S. The U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found that there is “no reliable basis to conclude that alcohol advertising significantly affects consumption, let alone abuse.”
A U.S. Senate subcommittee also investigated the effects of alcohol advertising and could also could not find evidence that advertising influences non-drinkers to begin drinking or to increase consumption. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), in a report to Congress, concluded that there is no significant relationship between alcohol advertising and alcohol consumption, and did not recommend banning or imposing any additional restrictions on advertising. Finally, researchers at the University of Texas found that the total money spent for alcohol advertising rose over 400% between 1971 and 2011 while consumption per person was roughly the same by the end of the period.
This all suggests that there is no evidence (that we have found) that proves advertising increases overall consumption but rather, its purpose is to gain market share – a share of a static or declining market.
Here’s what we do know: even though youth drinking has decreased, older people’s drinking habits haven’t changed much. And it turns out that people aged 55-64 are the ones most likely to drink at high-risk levels. It seems like Generation X (those born between 1965 and 1980) are the “drinking generation” and they brought their drinking habits from the 90s and early 2000s into middle age.
It can be argued that the drinking habits of this age group were formed during a time of significant change in lifestyle and living standards. This ranges from widespread acceptance of women being allowed into all areas of the pub, home ownership, 24 hour television – and wine becoming more widely available. Most of the units consumed are wine and this is being drunk at home. Just because they may or may not have been influenced by alcohol ads back then, rather than the ‘loads of money’ culture of the time, it seems very unlikely that they are at all infludenced by advertising today and drinking more as a result.
Now, let’s not pretend drinking isn’t a problem – alcohol abuse and problem drinking is still a big issue in Scotland. In 2019/20, there were 35,781 alcohol-related hospital admissions. Scotland has the highest death rate from alcohol, at around 21.5 per 100,000 compared to 13.0 in England and 13.4 in Wales. But it is very hard to conclude that these rates are the result of dinks marketing.
Before we jump to conclusions about banning alcohol ads, we need to understand why people drink and who they are.
We know that 90% of drinkers are in higher income brackets yet around 4% of the population are problem drinkers and they mostly live in areas with low wellbeing. According to the National Records of Scotland, alcohol-specific deaths were 5.6 times as likely in the most deprived areas of Scotland compared to the least deprived areas.
There is nothing wrong with introducing measures to improve health in Scotland nor to discourage binge drinking and children accessing alcohol – but we already have a number of laws in place. To adopt a policy that will have a dramatic impact on the economy and the livelihoods of so many – from the businesses in the direct line to all the associated industries and then, once again, to the pubs and bars who receive substantial support from these drink companies in merchandise from beer garden umbrellas to glasses, would appear to be premature.
We first must address how to provide opportunity for those who live in deprived areas and take a joined-up approach across the board in that support before adopting policies that may have a widespread and detrimental impact on industry and the economy.