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Health experts call on Government to take action on alcohol marketing

Peter Henderson from South Tyneside

Peter Henderson from South Tyneside

Posted 30/11/21

A North East dad who got his life back after treatment for alcohol dependency has described how alcohol ads can make recovery harder – and joined experts in calling on the Government to take action to protect children and people recovering from drink problems.

Peter Henderson, 42, is nearly two years sober after undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction, which led to family breakup and losing his job. Now with liver disease, he says that drinking again could kill him. Peter has joined MPs and leading health experts including North East alcohol programme Balance in highlighting the impact the advertising onslaught can have – especially at Christmas.

The latest report from the Alcohol Health Alliance (AHA) titled “No escape: How alcohol marketing preys on children and vulnerable people” has found the “constant bombardment” of alcohol marketing at celebrations such as Christmas and sports events makes it difficult for people in active addiction and recovery. The AHA – which represents more than 60 organisations including Balance – is now calling for the Government to take urgent action to protect both those in recovery and children from overexposure to alcohol marketing. Evidence also shows alcohol advertising encourages people to drink at earlier ages and in greater quantities than they would otherwise do.

Recent examples include the product placement of beer brands in front of footballers during Euro 2020, a recent lager advert to tie in with the new James Bond film, and a supermarket advert at the height of the pandemic encouraging people to try a “quarantini”.

The North East suffers disproportionately from alcohol harm and the COVID pandemic exacerbated the situation, resulting in an estimated 855,000 people in the region drinking above recommended low risk levels. Alcohol-specific deaths in England hit record levels during 2020, with the worst rates in the country in the North East.

Peter Henderson, 42, from South Tyneside, is nearly two years sober after undergoing treatment for alcohol addiction, which led to family breakup and losing his job. Now with liver disease as a result, he says that drinking again would seriously put his health at risk.

Peter said: “I knew I had to stop, so tried several times over a few years and ended up being hospitalised numerous times for alcohol withdrawal symptoms. Each time I would spend between 4-12 days detoxing, and I promised I would stop drinking but my addiction was too strong.

“Recovery is the best thing I ever did but it’s so hard when alcohol advertising is a constant pressure telling you to drink. It can make it much more difficult and means you are never really free of what you need to avoid. There are lots of people like me who have been through, or are going through recovery, but we are never heard because of the stigma around alcohol.

“It is seasonal - you get lots of advertising during the summer. There is nothing worse than on a hot day or after a day's work then seeing a picture or advert on TV of a cold pint of lager – it’s still difficult now. But Christmas is definitely the worst time of all, especially with adverts for spirits. It is everywhere - the ads you see on the TV during commercial breaks and during football matches, to the cut price drink deals that follow you around the supermarket from the moment you walk in.

“I try to put alcohol out of my mind and then an advert appears on TV and every part of your body and mind tells you to have a drink, especially if you’ve had a stressful day. You have to steel yourself against it - the way I try to cope is by talking to someone or by going to a meeting just to stop me from craving a drink.

“I would support more restrictions on alcohol advertising like stopping the cut price drinks offers and a 9pm watershed so they’re not seen and heard by as many children, giving kids the message that everything about drinking is normal. I don’t want my son to follow me. But the reality is that money usually talks.”
He added: “The way alcohol companies now promote adverts using low alcohol brands strikes me as pretty cynical, like during Euro 2020. They might work for some people, but I blame zero alcohol drinks for at least two relapses when I hit the bottle again. At the end of the day an alcohol brand is alcohol, and it tells you to drink.”

Susan Taylor, Head of Alcohol Policy for Balance, said: “Alcohol advertising lures children and it normalises regular drinking. But this is the first time we’ve heard from people in recovery about the impact of this constant bombardment in making that process harder. Even the phrase “drink responsibly” used by alcohol companies is telling people to drink.

“The fact is there are an estimated 600,000 dependent drinkers in England and the situation has worsened during the pandemic to the extent we saw record numbers of alcohol deaths. Every drink advert aimed at making a profit ensures that the path to recovery is more challenging.”

Melissa Rice, author of Sobering: Lessons Learnt the Hard Way on Drinking, Thinking and Quitting and now in her fifth year of recovery, added: “In early recovery it dawned on me quickly that I had to get used to alcohol being everywhere and it was a major struggle. If I tried to avoid alcohol, I would never leave the house or turn on a TV.

“There really is no escape from alcohol imagery. Waiting for the tube at 8am, I look at a 6-foot bottle of whiskey. The side of a bus tell me there is an app that can get me ‘booze in under 15 minutes’. Some of my favourite TV shows are sponsored by alcohol. I receive emails from supermarkets telling me how they have slashed their prices of spirits. When I go to a supermarket, alcohol offers are dotted around the whole shop. I have no way to opt out of any of this. I am expected to accept this.”

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, Chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, said: “The constant bombardment of alcohol marketing is a significant contributor to alcohol harm in the UK. The glamourisation of a harmful product creates a culture where alcohol is seen as an essential part of everyday life. With deaths linked to alcohol at record highs, we are in desperate need of a new approach.

“The Health and Care Bill plans to introduce advertising restrictions such as a 9pm watershed for ‘less healthy food or drink’ advertising on TV and a prohibition of paid-for ‘less healthy food or drink’ advertising online, at the end of 2022. Alarmingly, alcohol is not currently included in these plans and is bizarrely not considered a less healthy drink. This needs to change. The Government must now introduce comprehensive marketing restrictions in both real world and digital spaces to ensure that vulnerable adults and children are protected from alcohol advertising and its harm.”

Susan Laurie, who has been in recovery for seven years, said: “Christmas is the season when the adverts for alcohol are relentless. They convince us that alcohol is an essential part of the festivities. Supermarkets also push discounted alcohol and will have special offers that are designed to make us buy more and more drink. Trying to maintain sobriety is difficult at the best of times, but at Christmas alcohol is absolutely everywhere, and this can have devastating consequences – as it did for me.”

The report also found that children are regularly exposed to alcohol marketing and demonstrate high levels of brand awareness. A 2019 survey of more than 2,500 young people found that four in five (82%) 11-17-year-olds had seen alcohol marketing in the past month . In addition, 42% of this age group have seen alcohol adverts on social networking sites, such as YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat and Instagram .

Research has consistently shown that alcohol marketing is causally linked to alcohol use among young people, including starting to drink at an earlier age or engaging in riskier consumption .