As the Scottish government goes “back to the drawing board” on severely limiting alcohol advertising, a new report from the free-market think tank the Institute of Economic Affairs (IEA) finds that the evidence does not support restrictions.
Public health campaigners have long insisted that alcohol advertising bans could help reduce sales and, by implication, associated harm. But Alcohol Advertising: What does the evidence show? highlights the lack of evidence that advertising bans decrease drinking.
In 2014, a Cochrane Review – widely considered the “gold standard” of evidence in health policy – similarly found that “There is currently a lack of robust evidence for or against recommending the implementation of alcohol advertising restrictions.”
For example, three Canadian studies, based on advertising restrictions in British Columbia, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, found no effect on consumption. A 2010 cross-sectional study from 17 OECD countries between 1975 and 2000 similarly found “advertising bans do not reduce alcohol demand”.
Report author and Head of Lifestyle Economics at the IEA, Christopher Snowdon, says alcohol producers pay for advertising to persuade drinkers to switch from rival products, not to increase overall consumption. Accordingly, economic studies have tended to find a lack of association between advertising spending levels and consumption across countries, which are likely driven by cultural factors. A study of alcohol advertising in the USA, for example, concluded that “brand-level spirits advertising results only in brand switching and does not increase the size of the spirits market.”
Studies favourable to restrictions have tended to ignore confounding factors or been replete with biases – like cultural differences, measurement problems, and selection and recall bias. For example, studies that show heavier drinkers report viewing more alcohol advertising are likely examples of ‘reverse causation’.
Without robust evidence that banning advertising reduces consumption, Snowdon concludes that state intervention is unjustified.
“The claim that banning alcohol advertising would reduce the amount of alcohol-related harm in society has remarkably little evidence to support it,” said Snowdon. “Advertising affects the market share of individual brands, but the amount of money spent on alcohol advertising has no effect on alcohol consumption overall. This is how advertising works in every other mature market, and it would be a surprise if alcohol were any different.
“Strident claims from anti-alcohol campaigners about advertising should be taken with a pinch of salt. This evidence review found that only a few high-quality studies have looked at this issue, and the evidence is, at best, mixed. A ban on alcohol advertising would certainly not be an evidence-based policy.”