Binge drinking, advertising bans and higher duties- the wrong prescription

Author: John Luik
Article Published: 15/02/2004

There is an unfortunate tendency in contemporary public policy debates to attempt to solve long-standing and multi-dimensional problems with simple solutions that resemble political slogans or sound-bites more than serious attempts to deal with complicated issues. Whilst this tendency is found across the policy spectrum it is particularly obvious in policy debates that involve advertising and health. Michael Prowse exhibits this tendency all too clearly in his completely unsubstantiated claim that the answer to the UK’s ‘binge drinking’ problem is to ‘ban alcohol advertising and sharply raise taxes on products aimed at the young’ (18/19 October, 2003)

Rather than simply asserting the more advertising=greater consumption theories from Vance Packard’s 1956 The Hidden Persuaders, Prowse might wish to look at the serious econometric work that has been done on this issue in the UK over the last forty years. In this instance, one example is worth a thousand theories.

Whether one looks at the work of McGuiness, who examined drink demand in the UK from 1956-1975, or the work in the 1980’s of my colleague Mike Waterson, or finally the studies done from 1981 through 2003 by Martyn Duffy of the University of Manchester, there is a consensus that there is generally no statistically significant association between drink advertising and consumption.

This lack of connection between advertising and demand is illustrated in a series of changes in the UK drinks market during the 1970’s and 80’s. From 1978 to 1987 beer advertising rose by over 80% while beer consumption fell by 14%. Between 1978 and 1987 advertising for spirits increased by 70% while sales fell by 4%. During the same period advertising fell in the wine market by 26% while sales increased by 65%.

Comparative studies of the UK with France, Germany and the Netherlands from 1971-1989 (Calfee and Scheraga) find similar patterns with advertising not having a statistically significant impact on consumption, and indeed, in all but one country, consumption peaking even while advertising continued to increase. Further, recent evidence from the US, which looks exclusively at young drinkers, (Roper Youth Report, 2003) suggests that only 6% of teenagers reported advertising as an influence in their decision to drink.

Equally compelling social science evidence comes from those jurisdictions that have followed Prowse’s policy prescription and instituted drinks advertising bans. Canada, for instance, has seen two provinces, British Columbia and Saskatchewan, try advertising bans. In both instances, the bans had no impact on alcohol consumption. In Saskatchewan where the ban was in force for 58 years, a six year study following its lifting indicated no overall increase in alcohol consumption once advertising resumed. Lest one think that North American drinkers and advertisers are unique, a similar study of Sweden’s advertising ban from 1979-1989 concluded that the ban ad little or no effect on the Swedish drinks market.

Prowse’s other policy option- sharply higher alcohol taxes to discourage young drinkers- is equally at odds with the empirical evidence. According to data from the US National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (2000), there is no correlation between underage drinking rates and state alcohol tax rates. If higher alcohol taxes discourage youth drinkers, than states with dramatically higher tax rates like New York and Florida should have lower underage drinking rates, but this is not the case.

Calls for advertising bans and higher duties on alcohol are doubly unfortunate in that not only do they lack rigourous and consistent evidence and show little promise of efficacy, but they tend to divert attention away from good public policy with respect to underage drinking. By focusing so much attention on advertising bans and added duties, promising new approaches to youth alcohol use such as the determinants of health model with its focus on such protective factors for substance abuse as keeping young people in school, reducing income disparities, supporting stable home environments, and addressing issue of self-esteem and stress, fall off the policy menu. And that is too great a price to pay for bad theories.

John Luik, a health policy analyst, is co-author with Mike Waterson, of Advertising and Markets

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