The headline of the BMJ editorial refers to the drinks industry ‘grooming the next generation’ – a distasteful attempt to draw a parallel with paedophilia – and much of the text is devoted to online marketing. The internet has, of course, created new regulatory challenges as well as new commercial opportunities, but there is no evidence that online marketing has led to a surge in underage drinking. Quite the reverse. Regular alcohol consumption by 11 to 15 year olds has fallen by two-thirds in the last decade – from 20% to 7% – and the proportion of these children who had ever drunk alcohol fell from 61% to 45% in the same period.
The BMJ’s call for a total advertising ban is manifestly not a response to a growing crisis; rather it is the ‘next logical step’ in a campaign to apply the anti-smoking blueprint to alcohol. It is no coincidence that one of the editorial’s authors, Gerard Hastings, works at the UK Centre for Tobacco Control Studies and has been heavily involved in the campaign for plain packaging of cigarettes. He holds the view, often espoused by left-wing environmentalists, that consumption is primarily caused by advertising rather than by wants, and he is already looking beyond tobacco and alcohol as industries to clamp down on, asking last year ‘should not all advertising be much more circumscribed because the consumption it engenders harms the planet?’
This latest call for legislation sits alongside minimum pricing, graphic warnings on alcohol and sin taxes on fizzy drinks in the long list of demands from the public health industry so far this year. Banning advertising is an important step in the process of ‘denormalisation’ – or, to put it more bluntly, ‘stigmatisation’ – of products which carry any measure of risk and it should be resisted on both practical and moral grounds. The vast majority of British adults are drinkers and they have a right to know what products are available and at what price. Advertising helps us make informed and efficient choices while protecting us from being ripped off in a ‘dark market’. Without advertising there can be no true competition, and without competition, the marketplace becomes a cosy cartel. A ban on advertising would discourage new players from entering the market and would stifle innovation.
Moreover, the proposed ban on sponsorship would have serious economic consequences that go beyond the market for alcohol. Most obviously, it would deprive newspapers and television companies of an important source of revenue, but it would also adversely affect all sorts of other enterprises, such as microbreweries, music festivals and Sunday football leagues. These sort of unintended consequences are not discussed in the British Medical Journal editorial. It is beyond their narrow field of interest. But no matter how few children experiment with alcohol, it will always be too many for health campaigners and the rhetoric of protecting kids will always be used to infringe the liberties of adults. Ultimately, it will lead to us all being treated like children.