Drinking age debate is an advertising problem

Human beings are naturally drawn to quick-fix solutions to social problems and often this results in knee-jerk reactions which treat the symptoms rather than the cause.

Longer prison terms for offenders, cutting access to the Domestic Purposes Benefit and reducing the size of parliament are all measures which have been proposed at different times but none would make an iota of difference to the underlying problems.

These so-called solutions are often focused on punishment and are often more an expression of community frustration when people would prefer not to be bothered engaging in a deeper discussion.

The problems of teenage binge drinking and consequent anti-social behaviour are now the focus of a parliamentary select committee where it has been proposed to retain the drinking age at 18 but raise the age at which alcohol can be bought to 20.

Unfortunately this proposed solution is another exercise in tinkering with the symptoms rather than tackling the problem.

 Responsible drinking is practiced in many families as parents try to model good behaviour and allow teenagers to drink moderately in a supervised family environment. However, much of this can go out the window when a group of teenage peers get together and a strong cultural drive to excessive drinking takes over. We see the result regularly on television in scenes of drunken disorder.

This drinking culture is established primarily by advertising.

Young people are immersed every day in a sea of alcohol adds on billboards, TV, radio, magazines, posters, newspapers and in cinemas.

In sport it is particularly prevalent with the big alcohol producers involved in a wide range of sponsorships. The All Blacks may wear the silver fern but they also wear the sponsor’s alcohol brand prominently on their jerseys both during games and in TV promotions. In cricket the same deal. A visitor from another planet might think a cricket game at Eden Park was a mass celebration of drinking so prominent are the sponsors advertisements and so large the number of intoxicated spectators.

Our university student organisations and myriad sports clubs often have lucrative contracts with alcohol producers whereby there are exclusive advertising rights at functions, sports events and plenty of alcohol on sale.

Even inside schools there is a problem with our drinking culture. A school rugby team was fundraising for an overseas trip a few years back and organised a raffle where the second prize was 30 dozen beer while I’ve seen another school sports team wearing tracksuits emblazoned with the name of a local pub.

There is a voluntary industry code which covers alcohol advertising. It says for example that advertisements “must not imply that liquor creates a significant change in mood, contributes to personal, social or sexual success, nor imply offensive behaviour, nor have strong appeal to minors in particular, nor advocate heroes of the young”. Even a cursory look at alcohol adds on billboards and television and it is clear this code is openly flouted.

The Tui beer website last year for example included soft-porn pictures advertising the product and a young woman binge drinking from a beer horn. In fact the website as a whole could be described as a celebration of our vacuous young-kiwi-teenage drinking culture.

Advertising campaigns themselves are very sophisticated. There is a great deal of research done to find the triggers in young people which will resonate with them and make drinking attractive to them. The role models, the images, the humour, the social groupings, the “mateship” situations are carefully chosen to target the vulnerabilities and enticements of young people.

With more than $70 million being spent by the alcohol giants each year on sponsorship and advertising they want value for money and they are getting it.

Advertising of alcohol was relaxed here in 1992 and public advertising of alcohol mushroomed. In the next 10 years alcohol consumption doubled in the age group 14 to 17 with surveys showing one-third of our teenagers are now binge drinking.

New Zealand teenagers now spend $2.7 million on alcohol every week.

Last year the government announced a review of alcohol advertising but when the steering group for the review was announced it became clear meaningful change was unlikely because this group includes representatives of the alcohol advertisers themselves.

There is an old saying that adult actions speak so loudly that kids can’t hear what we are saying. Adults need to get the social environment for our kids right if we expect to seriously impact on teen drinking. A stop to alcohol advertising and sponsorship would be the most important first step.