Croakey readers with an interest in improving the regulation of disinformation and misinformation may be interested in contributing to this review of a voluntary, self-regulatory digital industry code.
The deadline is 18 July for submissions to the Digital Industry Group (DIGI) review of The Australian Code of Practice on Disinformation and Misinformation.
Meanwhile, Stephanie Parnell, Alcohol Policy and Research Coordinator at Cancer Council WA, writes below that reform of the current alcohol industry marketing code is required to tackle misinformation spread by alcohol marketers.
Stephanie Parnell writes:
The results of the Federal election show that Australians are informed and ready to face hard truths about climate change, equality, healthcare and integrity; about our collective future.
But what happens when we aren’t informed? What happens when the law is silent about the kinds of information we receive, or how we receive it? And what happens when industry-led controls permit conflicting, confusing, or mis-information?
The marketing of alcohol-health misinformation raises all of these questions and provides an example of how Australians aren’t getting the honest health information they need and deserve.
Marketing is one domain where the law forbids false, misleading or deceptive advertising, and with good reason. Commercial advertising of consumer products is ubiquitous and features 24/7 across everyday broadcast, out-of-home, and digital settings. We are constantly exposed to marketing; sold messages that our lives are better when we consume this product, or that brand. But alcohol is no ordinary commodity.
Alcohol use is a leading risk factor for injury, disease, disability and death around the world, and cost the Australian health system $2 billion in 2018-19, with estimates that the total social and economic cost of alcohol use was $67 billion in 2017-18.
Yet just over one in four (26%) Australian adults exceeded the low-risk drinking guidelines in 2020-21, indicating a significant need to better protect the community from alcohol harms. The good news is that Australians want to know about alcohol-related health harms. And they want reliable information about how alcohol might impact their health.
Getting trustworthy, accurate information about alcohol and health is, however, another story.
The National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) recently revised the Australian Alcohol Guidelines to take into account the growing body of evidence that no amount of alcohol is safe to use. The Guidelines recommend that “To reduce the risk of harm from alcohol-related disease or injury, healthy men and women should drink no more than 10 standard drinks a week and no more than 4 standard drinks on any one day”.
The recommendations aim to arm Australians with evidence-based guidelines to minimise their risk of harm from alcohol, but this advice is muddied by the conflicting and highly appealing message, promoted by the alcohol industry, that alcohol can benefit one’s social, emotional, mental, and physical health.
The alcohol industry has tremendous budget and scope to regularly reach the public with attractive and persuasive pro-alcohol messages – including messages suggesting alcohol is good for health. Alcohol marketing is pervasive in all media, and even hits us via direct text message and email .
With mainly industry codes on when, where and what alcohol marketing we receive, it is no wonder alcohol-health misinformation clouds public perceptions about the true health impacts of alcohol.
Taking a cursory scroll through an alcohol brand website or social media account might give the impression that alcohol is a normal, even necessary part of everyday life. The images and messages you see will most likely depict alcohol as a social lubricant, an elixir to elevate mood, or as a survival tool to help relax and cope with kids coming home from school, a hard day at work, or the stresses of living through a pandemic.
Another key message, long promoted by the alcohol industry, is that along with these social benefits, alcohol has health benefits too. These are the kinds of messages that conflict with well-established science that says there is no safe level of alcohol use. These are also the kinds of messages that public health advocates find most concerning and have formed the basis of complaints about alcohol advertising.
In a complaint made by Cancer Council WA to the Alcohol Beverages Advertising Code (ABAC) Scheme (Australia’s alcohol marketing self-regulatory scheme), we questioned the heart health claims made on the social media posts of an online alcohol retailer.
The company responded by saying the posts were intended to create a topic of discussion and were not advising people to “drink to get healthy” but to “[drink] moderately, which may have health benefits”.
Under the Australian Consumer Law, the intention of the advertiser is not relevant and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has successfully sued large companies for making misleading health claims about their products. Yet alcohol-health claims are not judged by these kinds of objective standards.
Although the ABAC Panel found the posts had breached the ABAC Code, for suggesting that alcohol has some therapeutic benefit, no sanctions arose from the breach and the Panel refused to consider the sum of the evidence about alcohol and heart health, which shows that no amount of alcohol is good for the heart.
This complaint is just one example of how the alcohol industry suffers no consequences for failing to adhere to its own standards and is effectively free to make misleading claims about the health effects of alcohol in its marketing.
But this is not what Australians want, nor what they deserve. Consistent with international evidence showing strong public support for better product labelling, more than three quarters (76%) of Australians support the provision of alcohol-health information, and they don’t trust the alcohol industry to provide this.
Australians want and have a right to honest and trustworthy product information, especially when it comes to harmful commodities like alcohol. Our right to honest and trustworthy health information about most products is protected in Australian Consumer Law, yet the alcohol industry continues to evade a strong regulatory approach to its marketing by insisting its voluntary, self-regulatory system is effective, when clearly it is not.
With the substantial costs and health burden caused by alcohol use – to individuals, families, and communities – we can and should do better to protect the community from alcohol-health misinformation.
Higher standards are needed in alcohol marketing regulation, so that alcohol companies are prevented from making false, misleading, or deceptive alcohol-health information claims, and are properly held to account when they do.
All Australians will benefit from replacing the current alcohol industry marketing code with an objective regulatory scheme, one that is devoid of vested interests and powered by evidence.
See Croakey’s archive of articles on alcohol and health