Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Alcohol marketing at the school gates?

Posted by Mark McGivern, Specialty Registrar in Public Health, Balance

[Editor's note: this post describes a piece of work conducted by Mark and Balance. Just for the avoidance of doubt, we thought we should point out it hasn't been formally peer reviewed.]

I’m a reluctant supermarket shopper at the best of times. If possible we try and do most of our shopping online or using local shops or the market (at least, that’s my excuse for not having noticed the scale of alcohol displays in our supermarkets).

However, in the first week of working at Balance, the North East Alcohol Office, a colleague came back from a lunchtime visit to a supermarket, somewhat vexed at the labyrinth of alcohol displays they had walked through in the store.

This sparked an idea for a piece of work studying the promotion and provision of alcohol by our supermarkets, which we hope to publish in the near future.

The Government’s public health responsibility deal (PHRD) is a partnership between government, industry, academic and voluntary sector experts aimed at developing voluntary agreements to address specific public health objectives.

Within the PHRD, the five largest supermarkets (‘Top 5’- Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s, Morrisons. Co-Op) have made a series of pledges regarding alcohol, which including the following:

A6. We commit to further action on advertising and marketing, namely…. not putting alcohol adverts on outdoor poster sites within 100m of schools…..
There could obviously be some debate as to whether a self-imposed exclusion zone of 100m constitutes a responsible attitude towards alcohol promotion by supermarkets. In theory, I suppose it shows intent at the very least, but does it go far enough? If you take the guidance on planning applications for takeaways which recommends an exclusion zone from schools of 400m, then the alcohol advertising exclusion zone pales into insignificance by comparison.

Making this pledge is all very well, but there was also no mention of whether the Top 5 applied the same standards to their own store-front advertising as part of the pledge. I wanted to see whether it would be possible to demonstrate compliance with this pledge by visiting stores throughout the North East to look at the extent to which the Top 5 stuck to their pledging guns.

To look into this 100m exclusion zone further, I visited a number of stores across the region and, as part of the wider study, assessed the Top 5’s compliance with this pledge.

The 378 postcodes of the stores of the 5 major supermarket retailers were entered into a GIS system and mapped against all primary and secondary schools to identify those that were within 100m of a school. Initially, 18 primary schools and two secondary schools were identified as potentially being within 100m of a supermarket. This was narrowed down to 10, once inaccuracies in the postcode address file were accounted for.

So, ten stores were identified as being within 100m of schools. After visiting these, it became clear that a number appeared to be contravening the alcohol pledge. Three had on-site, outdoor alcohol advertisements. Another had an alcohol advert in a window that was intended to be visible outside.

Examples of storefront alcohol advertising within 100m of a school premises in the North East of England
Clearly, as with all advertising, there is a seasonal aspect to take into consideration. At the time of carrying out the research, it was close to Mother’s Day. Whilst most of the adverts related to non-alcohol related gifts & seasonal products, there were also a number of adverts promoting wine. For those with good eyesight, I should stress that I am not suggesting fabric softener is an appropriate mother’s day gift!

Perhaps, if the same stores were revisited now, during the World Cup, the likelihood of there being more adverts associated with alcohol consumption would be much higher too.

This research has highlighted that there may still be some way for the Top 5 (and retailers and manufacturers more broadly) to go when it comes to taking the Public Health Responsibility Deal seriously. After all, a pledge means nothing if it isn’t seen through. And if it isn’t seen through, then people lose confidence in it.

There have also been a number of other examples of alcohol advertising in the North East that wouldn’t meet with the responsibility deal pledges, like advertising alcohol at school bus stops for example.

Examples of alcohol advertising within 100m of a school premises in the North East of England
There is a body of evidence that suggests exposure of children and young people to alcohol advertising increases initiation of drinking and also encourages heavier drinking among existing drinkers

Advertising in such close proximity to schools is something that most major producers and retailers have committed not to do, but this limited investigation has shown otherwise.

These are unlikely to be isolated examples and we’d like to try and compile some more examples from across the North East, and beyond. We know elsewhere in the country there have been successful objections to such practises. Next time you take your kids to school, if you see any alcohol advertising at the school gates, please send us a picture with details of the location to: info@balancenortheast.co.uk or tweet it to @BalanceNE.

The debate about appropriate restrictions & guidelines on alcohol advertising will continue. However, if we don’t highlight the apparent lack of compliance by the retail and manufacturing sector with their current pledges, it may be assumed that the current controls are not only being observed, but are enough. By demonstrating that this isn’t the case and taking a stand on alcohol advertising, we can take a small, but significant step in the right direction.

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