Booze barons abuse advertising freedom

Last Thursday morning I was driving through Otahuhu in South Auckland and came across a huge billboard for a new RTD (ready-to-drink) of bourbon and cola with the message “Would you prefer to walk in on your parents or have them walk in on you?”

If this isn’t an alcohol promotion aimed at teenagers by the booze industry using cynical advertising then tell me what is. This particular RTD is made by Dominion Breweries but all the industry players are hard at it – pushing alcohol onto teenagers with subtle and not-so-subtle messages which make a mockery of the voluntary advertising code they are supposed to follow. RTDs are the drink choice of young New Zealanders – young women in particular – and they are at the heart of our booze drinking culture.

On their website DB make the claim they are “Inspiring Good Times – responsibly” – pure bull dust.

A couple of days earlier the Law Commission released its long –awaited report on alcohol and I was hoping there would be emphatic recommendations to halt this kind of advertising which targets teenagers.

It was good to see the Commission’s media release in which Geoffrey Palmer singled out RTDs in particular:

“A can of beer or an RTD can be bought for one or two dollars in many retail outlets. This is less than we pay for bottled water. One of the consequences of alcohol being promoted and sold at pocket-money prices is that we risk losing sight of its status as a legal drug, capable of causing serious harm to others.”

Causing serious harm to others is an understatement. The Commission favours phasing out advertising which targets teen drinkers but it would be five years before it would have much effect. That’s just too long.

Several years back I was a teacher helping run a “keeping safe in the holidays” session for Form six students a day or so before they left for the Christmas break. Rather than a lecture it was conducted with a “post-box” exercise where students wrote anonymous comments in response to statements put up around the room covering issues such as drinking, driving, unwanted sex, swimming, melanoma etc

Groups of students then collated the statements and reported back to everyone.

What surprised me at the time was the large number of students, mainly girls, who reported unwanted sexual advances associated with alcohol. It shouldn’t have been surprising but there’s a difference between knowing something intuitively and hearing the reality.

From there each aspect of keeping safe was discussed which ended up as students talking quite animatedly to other students about their experiences and the best strategies to identify and avoid unsafe situations. It’s the best kind of teaching a school can provide in areas like this but good work which families and schools are doing is undermined every day by advertisers on big salaries with diminished social responsibility.

The early signs of government commitment to act on the report are not promising. Shortly after its release Justice Minister Simon Power said the government would not be implementing one of the key recommendations which was an increase in tax to bring a 10% increase in retail prices.

The government has so far not responded to the recommendations to phase out alcohol advertising.

The advertisers opposed to government regulation talk about freedom of choice for consumers and teaching individual responsibility. They believe their freedom to act irresponsibly is more important than the right of young people to grow up free of their malicious, manipulative influence.

The government did much better with cigarettes last week although nowhere near as far as Australia. Here the government is increasing the price of all tobacco products by 10% immediately and over 30% by 2012 while the Australians are increasing the price by 25% in one hit.

Maori Party MP Hone Harawira can claim the credit here. He has led the charge against an industry which promotes its products to young kiwis so it has a regular supply of addicts to maintain its profits. The effects on Maori are predictable. 40 % of Maori adults smoke compared to around 26% of the New Zealanders overall. This is directly related to socio-economic status. So much so that ACT MP Roger Douglas called the tax increase an “attack on the poor.” Excuse me while I puke.

Harawira has previously proposed nationalising the manufacture, distribution and sale of cigarettes. It’s a good approach. They should be available to nicotine addicts on a doctor’s prescription rather than sold uncontrolled at the dairy.

For most nicotine addicts the question of free choice is as illusory as the social responsibility of advertisers.