Intended for healthcare professionals


Failure of self regulation of UK alcohol advertising

BMJ 2010; 340 doi: (Published 21 January 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;340:b5650
  1. Gerard Hastings, director1,
  2. Oona Brooks, researcher1,
  3. Martine Stead, deputy director1,
  4. Kathryn Angus, researcher1,
  5. Thomas Anker, researcher1,
  6. Tom Farrell, researcher2
  1. 1Institute for Social Marketing, University of Stirling, Stirling FK9 4LA
  2. 2Open University, Milton Keynes
  1. gerard.hastings{at}

    Although the content of alcohol advertisements is restricted, Gerard Hastings and colleagues find that advertisers are still managing to appeal to young people and promote drinking

    Research has established that alcohol advertising,1 2 3 like that for tobacco4 and fast food,5 6 7 influences behaviour. It encourages young people to drink alcohol sooner and in greater quantities. From a public health perspective, advertising of alcohol should clearly be limited. The United Kingdom has opted for a system of self regulatory controls that focuses primarily on the content of advertisements, with some limitations on the channels that can be used. This is overseen by the Advertising Standards Authority, through the Committee of Advertising Practice, which represents the interests of advertisers, agencies, and media owners.

    As part of its alcohol inquiry, the House of Commons health select committee wanted to explore the success of self regulation. It obtained a large number of internal marketing documents from alcohol producers and their communications agencies in order to examine the thinking and strategic planning that underpin alcohol advertising and hence show not just what advertisers are saying, but why they are saying it. Here we present the key insights to emerge.

    Selection of documents

    Because alcohol advertising is so extensive (around £800m (€900m; $1.3bn) a year)8 it was not possible to examine documents from all relevant companies. Requests were therefore sent to only four producers, chosen for their profile, and their respective communications agencies; and they were asked to send documents relating to just five brands out of the dozens on their books for 2005-8 (table 1). We analysed the documents on behalf of the committee.

    View this table:

    Sources of documents studied

    Although the sample is small, the requests resulted in thousands of pages of paper documents and nearly three gigabytes of electronic ones. These …

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