WHO Calls for Better Cross Border Regulation of Alcohol Marketing
Alcohol is injurious to health.

The alcohol industry’s use of sophisticated digital media tools that transcend borders has prompted the World Health Organization to call for more effective cross border regulation.

The WHO is particularly concerned about how the marketing is targeting young individuals and heavy drinkers, according to a report released on Tuesday.

Someone dies every 10 seconds as a result of alcohol, accounting for 5% of all deaths in the world, according to the report.

Further, 13.5% of these alcohol-related deaths are among individuals aged 20-39 years. 

“Despite the clear risks to health, controls on the marketing of alcohol are much weaker than for other psychoactive products. Better, well enforced and more consistent regulation of alcohol marketing would both save and improve young lives across the world.” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the WHO, in the preface to the report. 

The WHO report said that the use of digital media has tapped into markets in different countries regardless of the social, economic or cultural environment. For instance, it notes that the advertising and packaging of ‘0.0% alcohol’ beer in Malaysia, a country which has strict prohibition on alcohol use due to its religious identity, attempts to normalise the ‘alcohol experience’ for abstainers, something which could also induce them to try genuine alcohol products later. 

Targeted messaging – ‘women’s empowerment’

The report notes, the cross-border sponsorship of festivals and other public events also influence the frequency and volume of drinking, as well as contributing to the social acceptance of alcohol as part of cultural and social norms. This, along with brand placement of alcoholic beverages in movies and shows further underscores the need for the regulation of branded content. 

Targeted advertising, especially of alcohol, has been further exacerbated by the deployment of social media influencers in promoting alcohol to specific, targeted audiences. A 2018 WHO report found that almost half the countries surveyed then had no regulation in place for the advertising of alcohol over the internet and social media. 

“The rising importance of digital media means that alcohol marketing has become increasingly cross-border”, said Dag Rekve of the Alcohol, Drugs and Addictive Behaviours Unit at the World Health Organization. “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.”

Other than young people, key demographic targets for digital alcohol marketing include women and heavy drinkers. Companies portray ‘women empowerment’ as symbolised through images of women drinking. WHO said that alcohol-dependent individuals frequently reported a stronger urge to drink alcohol when confronted with alcohol-related cues; however they rarely have an effective way to avoid exposure to the content of the advertising or promotion. 

Needs: more multi-lateral and bilateral collaboration on rules  

The report concludes that to combat cross-border advertising, greater bilateral and multilateral cooperation between states is important in augmenting national regulatory efforts.  But this requires greater national awareness and consensus, first of all. 

At the national level,the WHO says, actions to control, or prohibit, of alcohol marketing need to be integrated into public health strategies to reduce and control the harmful use and effects  of alcohol. 

Such approaches have worked well in the case of tobacco products, where greater attention to cross-border aspects of tobacco production and marketing has led to life-saving reductions in global tobacco use and exposures, WHO notes.

Image Credits: Sophie Carroll/flickr, Free printable signs.

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