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Artillery Row

The end of another prohibitionist myth

There is no good evidence that adverts for alcohol increase consumption

Last year I wrote a paper for the IEA about alcohol advertising. The conclusion was not very exciting. It simply said that the evidence on alcohol advertising is mixed and there was no strong reason to think that banning it would benefit anybody’s health:

This narrative review has shown that the academic literature has produced mixed findings, but the weight of evidence leans towards alcohol advertising having no important effect on the aggregate demand for alcohol. 

Despite being potentially quite boring, the paper got a lot of attention in the Scottish media because Nicola Sturgeon had been considering a ban on alcohol advertising before she suddenly resigned. Scotland’s state-funded temperance groups were outraged. One of them accused me of “acting as the messenger for the alcohol industry”. Another turned to what she presumably thought was a knockdown argument and said: “Companies spend millions of pounds promoting their products, something they wouldn’t do if it didn’t work.” 

And of course alcohol advertising does work. It just doesn’t work in the way the temperance lobby thinks it works. It might get you to try a new brand of beer. It might even get you to switch to a new brand of beer. But it won’t make you drink more alcohol overall. 

This week, a study published in Addiction and funded by the German Ministry of Health, came to an almost identical conclusion to that of my little report. The authors reviewed all the studies which looked at what happens when alcohol advertising is banned or restricted and found that there was no clear pattern but that the answer was generally ‘nothing’. Of the eleven studies, six found no effect, three reported a reduction in alcohol consumption and two reported an increase in alcohol consumption. “Overall,” the authors write, “there was insufficient evidence to conclude that alcohol marketing bans reduce alcohol consumption.” 

Their conclusion was blunter than mine:

The available empirical evidence does not support the claim of alcohol marketing bans constituting a best buy for reducing alcohol consumption.

The phrase “best buy” is a reference to the World Health Organisation (WHO) which recommends three anti-alcohol policies to member states and calls them best buys to underline their supposed cost-effectiveness. One of them is: “Enact and enforce bans or comprehensive restrictions on exposure to alcohol advertising”. But, as the Addiction study shows, this is nothing more than an article of faith. It is not remotely evidence-based. If this is one of the best buys, how bad are the policies that didn’t make the top three?

The Addiction study looks at what happens when alcohol advertising is banned, but  — as I show in my paper — there is also a wealth of economic evidence looking at the relationship between the amount of money spent on alcohol advertising and the amount of alcohol consumed in society. Overwhelmingly, there is no association. There is not an absence of evidence. Instead, there is strong evidence of an absence of any relationship between advertising and consumption. 

Faced with these facts, “public health” organisations who support advertising bans for ideological reasons resort to inane rhetorical questions like “if it doesn’t work, why does the industry spend so much money on it?” or simply lie about the state of the evidence. The WHO itself claims that “there is ample evidence that alcohol marketing exposure increases consumption” although even it admits that studies of advertising bans “have generally found small effects at best”.

It comes as a bit of a shock to see some facts that don’t fit the nanny state zeitgeist published in a high profile journal, but it is reassuring to see that the field of alcohol research hasn’t been completely hollowed out by dogma.

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