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April 26, 2010 | by  | in Opinion |
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Brandishing booze…

Alcohol advertising in New Zealand is regulated through a voluntary system administered by the Advertising Standards Authority. The ASA maintains this self-regulated regime by developing codes of practice and is funded by the industries it regulates.

The Code for Advertising Liquor establishes principles and guidelines for alcohol advertising, and the Advertising Code of Ethics generally requires that advertisements must not be misleading or deceptive. As such, alcohol advertisements must not make a connection to young people’s role-models, people in advertisements must be over 25, and the strength of alcohol can only be promoted where the low alcohol content is being emphasised.

Underpinning this is the idea that those advertising alcohol have a social responsibility to ensure its appropriate consumption. Currently there is a bill before parliament, the Sale and Supply of Liquor and Liquor Enforcement Bill, to reform regulation of alcohol advertising. It’s time to take stock then.

First, although the connection between alcohol advertising and consumption is not negligible, it is not particularly strong. Therefore the idea of a ban on alcohol advertising seems completely disproportionate to the harm done by advertising. We do it for cigarettes, right? However, the most logical distinction between alcohol and cigarettes in this context is that alcohol, if consumed moderately, is not as acutely harmful as cigarettes. They even say a glass of red wine a day does you some good.

Second, don’t those selling alcohol have the right to advertise their legal product? And don’t consumers have the right to make an informed choice, provided with options through advertising? Isn’t that just part of healthy competition? Section 14 of the New Zealand Bill of Rights Act 1990 guarantees the freedom of expression of advertisers. Freedom of expression also covers the consumer’s right to receive expression. But section 5 of the Bill of Rights provides for justified limits on freedom of expression.

So at what stage does the regulation of alcohol advertising cease to be a justified limit on the advertiser’s/consumer’s freedom of expression, and become a breach of their rights? My suggestion would be that it should be in line with the regulation of selling and consuming the product itself, much as it seems to be now. In other words, alcohol advertisements should encourage appropriate drinking behavior, and discourage abuse. However, this is a difficult balance to strike.

This indicates a third issue as to whether a voluntary self-regulating system is effective or whether mandatory regulation through a statutory body is required. Currently the ASA only looks at advertisements where there are complaints, which means that regulation may be uneven. On the flipside, those in the industry say the voluntary system works well, and liquor advertisers have set up a Liquor Advertising Pre-vetting System to facilitate compliance with the code.

So is this a matter of ‘if it ain’t broke don’t fix it’, or should we be using this review of the regulation of alcohol advertising to take a stronger stance against alcohol abuse and its harmful effects in our society?

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