01.05.2014 Advertising ban for tobacco and alcohol products protects public health

Lead article. Advertising persuades children and adolescents to take a positive view of alcohol and tobacco. It makes little difference whether or not the advertising message is aimed directly at them. Full-scale bans on advertising are politically controversial, but – if combined with other measures – they would afford better protection against the subtle influences and clever advertising strategies of tobacco and alcohol producers. In Switzerland, producers are subject to fewer restrictions than in other European countries.

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The research findings largely concur: advertising seduces young people into drinking alcoholic beverages. Advertising of alcohol increases the probability that young people will start drinking and that those who already do so will drink more. According to a study carried out by the Addiction Research Institute in 2004, young people who had responded more positively to alcohol advertising at the age of 18 were stronger drinkers at 21 and reported more alcohol-related acts of aggression.
A connection between advertising and adolescent consumption has also been noted in a large number of studies relating to tobacco products.  And it made no difference whether they were aware of the advertising or not. Adolescents who are more exposed to cigarette advertising tend to start smoking earlier than those who are unaware, or only slightly aware, of tobacco advertising.

The lure of the adult world
Present-day advertising restrictions primarily serve to protect young people. In their current form, however, they are of only limited value. Mandatory or voluntary commitments by producers not to target young people directly in their alcohol or tobacco marketing but to aim it only at adults are largely ineffective. Even if young people do not feature in the advertising, it communicates emotions and a sense of adult life that adolescents perceive as worth emulating. As they develop their own identities, they become very responsive to the signals and symbols of adulthood. Far from protecting young people, "adult-focused advertising" makes tobacco and alcohol products even more attractive to them.
Producers of alcohol and tobacco products in Switzerland nevertheless behave very largely in compliance with the law with regard to advertising and youth protection. Any nationwide restrictions apply primarily to TV and radio advertising. Producers nowadays are simply shifting their marketing activities increasingly to areas where they still have some leeway, for instance sponsorship.

No sponsorship without clear protection of young people
Sponsorship of sports events and music festivals is widespread in Switzerland, and it is particularly in this area that the law is largely ineffective with regard to youth protection. Such events are attended by thousands of young people. At football or ice-hockey matches for instance, beer producers in particular have very direct, legal access to their target public – adolescents and young men. These are the population group most likely to develop harmful patterns of alcohol use. This means that they are also the group to which the alcohol industry owes a large portion of its profits. In terms of health policy, the application of stringent youth-protection conditions and special prevention measures for groups at particular risk at such sponsored events could bring about an improvement.

Hard to control: online advertising
The steady growth of advertising on the Internet, the youth medium par excellence, is also at odds with considerations of youth protection but not with the applicable law. In 2010, producers of alcoholic beverages spent just under 284 million francs on classic online advertising such as banners and search engine marketing, compared with 155 million in 2008. The Internet also provides the tobacco industry with a new advertising platform that is hard to control. On the one hand, it directly confronts young people with advertisements for alcohol or cigarettes or with the presence of producers. On the other, it enables the young people themselves to become advertisers: the possibilities offered by the Internet and the principles underlying it empower them to create their own content or pass content on to others. With a view to protecting young people, the new Tobacco Products Act aims to regulate this area more unequivocally and prohibit online advertising of tobacco products in future.

Bans on advertising tobacco products: other countries go further than Switzerland
Switzerland is among the European countries with the weakest national legislation concerning bans on tobacco advertising. Together with Germany and Bulgaria, it is one of the few countries that do not impose any nationwide restrictions on outdoor advertising of tobacco products. This form of advertising is prohibited in all other European countries. As regards advertising of tobacco products in print media, Switzerland enjoys the unique distinction of being the only country in Europe that has not yet introduced any restrictions at a national level. Admittedly, fifteen cantons impose more stringent restrictions than the Federal Government's minimum standards. But how effective can bans on advertising really be if they apply only at the cantonal level and therefore to relatively small geographical areas? The new Tobacco Products Act will compel tobacco advertisers to satisfy a minimum set of requirements that take youth protection considerations into account.
Ireland, Norway, the UK and Finland are considered to have the strictest laws banning tobacco advertising. They have prohibited all forms of tobacco advertising, including display of the products at the point of sale. Tobacco products must not be seen and therefore have to be stored under the counter, for instance.

International recommendations
The WHO includes marketing restrictions as an important measure in the recommendations of the "European Action Plan to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol 2012 – 2020". Alongside the trad­itional media, the new marketing channels represent a particular challenge to youth protection. The "WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC)" is a major tool in global efforts to reduce smoking. A total of 177 countries, including the 27 EU member states, have ratified it to date. Switzerland signed up to it in 2004. Rati­fication of the Convention requires changes to the law, particularly to the regulations governing tobacco advertising and sponsorship, and the introduction of a ban on the sale of tobacco products to minors (under 18). These requirements will be taken into account in the new Tobacco Products Act, which is about to be submitted to the consultation process and is expected take effect around 2018.

Structural measures are cheaper and more effective
Numerous studies show that structural prevention measures such as taxation, availability restrictions and advertising bans are more effective than measures that focus on individuals (behavioural prevention). Advertising bans are also among the less costly prevention-policy measures and are particularly effective when they cover the entire marketing process. Various studies have, for instance, found that a comprehensive ban on alcohol marketing can lower per capita consumption by an average of 5 to 8 percent. Thus, anybody interested in genuinely protecting young people will support bans on the advertising of products that are harmful to health.

Voluntary ban

New types of solutions based on good will are currently being tried out in other fields: in 2010, leading Swiss brand manufacturers voluntarily pledged not to advertise food products to children under 12. An exception is made for products that fulfil specific nutrition criteria based on scientifically accepted dietary guidelines. A total of 13 companies are currently participating in the programme: Coop, Coca-Cola, Danone, Intersnack, Kellogg, Mars, McDonald's, Mondelez, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Procter & Gamble, Unilever and Zweifel Pomy-Chips. Swiss Pledge partners are also partners of the "actionsanté" initiative launched by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH).
The idea behind the Swiss Pledge programme is based on comparable EU programmes (EU Pledge). The future will show whether the companies comply with the minimum criteria and whether additional food producers can be persuaded to take part. From the viewpoint of public health, this would be a small but important step in the right direction.

For further Information: www.swiss-pledge.ch or www.actionsante.ch


Roy Salveter, Joint Head of National Prevention Programmes Division, roy.salveter@bag.admin.ch

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