31 July 2023

Is there any evidence that advertising bans reduce demand for alcohol?

By Joe Dinnage

The Scottish National Party can’t seem to get much right. Its former leader, Nicola Sturgeon, was ousted over controversial gender self-ID reforms precipitating a divisive leadership campaign, and the party is now under investigation over its finances. But one welcome side-effect of the SNP’s current weakness is that it’s being forced to row back on damaging nanny state policies.

In April, Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf announced that consultation proposals to limit alcohol advertising in Scotland would ‘go back to the drawing board’. The Scottish government had previously indicated that drinks producers should be banned from sponsoring sports events and that breweries would be prevented from selling branded merchandise to attendees.

As one can imagine, this split opinion. Public health campaigners welcomed the plans, lauding them as a crucial step in the crusade to erase problem drinking. Those in Scotland’s alcohol industry, however, had different views. Representatives of the sector, which comprises around 5% of Scotland’s economy, were understandably concerned that whisky distilleries and other major tourist attractions would be adversely affected.

On first glance, the plan might make some sense. Surely, if the public are less exposed to alcohol advertising, then fewer people will drink, and thus alcohol-related harms will diminish? The reality, however, is far more complex.

This is the central conclusion of a paper published last week by the Institute of Economic Affairs. ‘Alcohol Advertising: What does the evidence show?’, examines the empirical evidence surrounding the popular public health theory that banning alcohol advertising will decrease overall consumption. Predictably, the nanny-statists’ kneejerk desire to prohibit does not stack up against the facts.

A Cochrane Review from 2014, widely considered the gold standard of evidence-based policy research, found that there is ‘currently a lack of evidence for or against recommending the implementation of alcohol advertising restrictions‘. This is reflected in the numbers. Despite alcohol advertising in Britain falling by 10.8% between 1991 and 2001, consumption rose by 15.8%. 

Don’t believe me? A trip across the pond proves the same pattern. Canadian studies into advertising restrictions in Manitoba, British Columbia and Saskatchewan showed no impact on overall consumption and a 2010 study from 17 OECD studies between 1975 and 2000 found that ‘advertising bans do not reduce alcohol demand‘.

What public health campaigners have failed to grasp is that advertising in mature markets does not tend to increase overall consumption. Instead, advertising promotes certain brands over others. For example, back in the days of Carlsberg sponsoring Liverpool football kits, the point was not to boost sales across the industry and risk driving up the profits of Stella Artois, but rather to encourage drinkers to try another brand. What analysts may have found during this period was a spike in the amount of Carlsberg consumed, not a flurry of drunk and disorderly former teetotallers.

This is not the only poorly evidenced paternalistic policy pursued by the SNP. In 2018, the SNP introduced Minimum Unit Pricing on alcohol, setting a floor price of 50p on each unit of alcohol sold. The policy has now been utterly debunked, having cost Scots’ £270m since implementation and induced no fall in alcohol-related health, crime and employment issues for the heavist drinkers. But this evidence clearly isn’t resounding enough, and the World Health Organisation last year published a report praising the policy and falsely asserting that price controls are the most effective way of preventing problem drinking.

If politicians want to get serious about tackling alcohol-related harm, market distortions and blanket bans are not the answer – and pretending that they are will only perpetuate the difficulties that problem drinkers face. As with any group, treating drinkers as a homogenous bloc is misleading and disregards the vast fluctuation in levels of use and associated social issues. Although it is welcome that Yousaf has indicated that the advertising ban is unlikely to go ahead, greater focus must be given to treating drinkers on an individual basis and tailoring care to their specific needs. But that would require a government far more capable than the SNP have proved themselves to be.

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Joe Dinnage is Press and Digital Officer at the Institute for Economic Affairs.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.