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The Econometrix report on the economic impact of a ban on alcohol advertising can be challenged on several grounds, say Charles Parry and Leslie London.

Johannesburg - An inordinate amount of space has been given in the media to the Econometrix report released in June on the economic impact of a ban on alcohol advertising. To date, it has largely been unquestioned. Indeed, it has been welcomed by those in the industry who commissioned the study, the Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use.

The article “Alcohol advert ban pros, cons” (The Star, August 6) quotes from the report without questioning its claims.

However, given the approval by the Inter-ministerial Committee on Substance Abuse of the Health Minister’s plan to ban alcohol advertising, one must understand the report and the attention it has been given in the context of the liquor industry’s strategy to counter the government’s plans to reduce harmful use of alcohol.

Far from concerns about the ineffectiveness of banning advertising, industry’s prime concern is likely to be about reduced sales and profits. This report can, and should, be challenged on several grounds.

First, it tries to deflect the problems associated with the regulated sale of alcohol to the unregulated sector when the evidence shows all outlets are responsible.

Second, it tries to pin the major cost of abuse on the use patterns of a relatively small percentage of the population who drink to excess on occasions and/or on a regular basis. This is a claim that runs counter to published evidence. In fact, a third to a quarter of drinkers in South Africa drink at problematic levels. By Econometrix’s own statistics, over 10 percent of adults are binge drinkers and 7 percent drink at hazardous rates.

This translates to about 4 million and 2.5 million adults respectively, hardly an inconsequential number. Further, the report claims that South Africa is a mature alcohol market and should not be strongly regulated in terms of alcohol advertising.

This is not so, as the report’s own data shows substantially less than 50 percent of adults drink, so there’s much profit to be made by expanding the market.

The report also works hard to deflect the view that advertising is used to attract new drinkers. World Health Organisation (WHO) reports acknowledge growing evidence from youth studies that points to the impact of alcohol marketing on initiation of youth drinking and riskier patterns of youth drinking. Studies show that alcohol advertising influences young people’s behaviour, normalises drinking and brings about positive beliefs about drinking.

 

The report’s authors also choose to cite an old (2000) report by the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse as the basis for a claim that there is only inconclusive evidence of the effects of alcohol advertising on consumption. More recent studies point to a consistent association. These studies are the basis for the increasing recognition by WHO of the need to address alcohol advertising as a key preventive strategy.

Furthermore, the Econometrix study, by looking at local trend data on adspend and consumption over a seven- to eight-year period, claims there is no link between advertising and consumption of branded alcohol and home brew. This is a simplistic analysis that ignores the complexities likely to exist in such a relationship (such as differences by age and socio-economic status).

By their own admission, adspend and consumption rose together for three years (2003/4 to 2005/6) but then consumption dropped over the next five years while adspend increased. It would be important to know what other factors might have contributed to the drop and one should also consider whether it would not have been greater without the significant adspend.

It should also be noted that information from industry sources (released in the publication SA Wine Industry Statistics (SAWIS) Number 37, 2013), in contrast to the WHO figures, has indicated a small increase in per capita consumption of alcohol from 5.05 litres per capita (in 2009) to 5.14 litres (last year) with an increase in each year since 2009. This suggests Econometrix would have come up with different findings had they used SAWIS data.

The report argues that banning alcohol adverts will have a R7.4 billion impact on the GDP. This is open to question as spending will occur elsewhere.

Finally, the solutions to addressing alcohol abuse in the report are those shown to be ineffective – such as increasing consumers’ education and limiting alcohol adverts on radio and TV until after 9pm.

The liquor industry has been able to use their support for these weak interventions in preference to known effective measures to deflect criticisms that they are not concerned about the health problems associated with harmful use of alcohol.

Based on the best global evidence, WHO, in its Global Status Report on Noncommunicable Diseases, rates enforcing bans on alcohol advertising among the top 10 best buys for addressing non-communicable diseases – evidence that the Econometrix report cannot easily wish away.

* Professor Charles Parry is director of the Alcohol and Drug Abuse Research Unit at the South African Medical Research Council and Professor Leslie London is with the School of Public Health and Family Medicine at the University of Cape Town.

** The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Independent Newspapers.

The Star