The Central Drug Authority currently recommends that warning labels should appear on liquor bottles; that the broadcasting of liquor commercials should be prohibited between 06:00 and 22:00; that the public should be informed about “the dangers of alcohol” and in such a way that the “forbidden fruit” notion is not encouraged; and that limitations on sport sponsorships should be considered.

Although these suggestions are not entirely in line with the stipulations of the liquor industry’s own ombudsman, ARA (Industry Association for Responsible Alcohol Use), the liquor industry has a strong sense of social responsibility and the ARA stipulations are strictly and consistently applied. About 40 liquor advertisements per annum are investigated and some of those are rejected, even at a cost of thousands of rand to the industry.

A television commercial was recently rejected because ARA stipulates: “Liquor advertisements may not portray nudity or indecent semi-nudity or create the illusion that alcoholic beverages contribute to sexual success.” This is what the advertisement looks like: A beautiful, well-endowed blonde slowly emerges from the ocean. In her hand is a well-known “cooler”. She puts the cold bottle between her breasts and cracks open the cap …

ARA’s main goal is the prevention of alcohol abuse, says Dr Chan Makan, ARA director. ARA was founded 15 years ago by the South African Breweries (SAB), the Cape Wine and Spirits Institute and KWV (on behalf of the wine producers). Their voluntary advertising code stipulates the requirements with which liquor advertisements, packaging and promotions have to comply.

The ARA code, which is even stricter than that of the Advertising Standards Authority, is widely respected. However, one school of thought maintains that self-regulation is not sufficient to prevent alcohol abuse and that the government should become more involved in regulation. Some people even believe excise to be an effective means of preventing abuse.

Theo Pegel, representative of the producers on ARA’s executive committee, says that excise does not in fact have this effect on abuse. “Additional tax does, however, have a negative effect on the growth of the liquor industry, which already makes a significant contribution to the state coffers.” (Moreover, the government’s income from tax on wine products is much more than wine farmers get for their products.)

Due to the liquor industry’s alleged “irresponsible marketing practices” (such as foil bags), the government increased tax on wine by 4% more than tax on beer last year. This costs the liquor industry an additional R35 million annually.

Makan says only a small percentage of South Africans abuse alcohol, “but all the attention is focused on these people”. ARA tries to limit abuse in various ways, such as the new Fetal Alcohol Syndrome (FAS) project. FAS causes birth defects due to alcohol abuse by pregnant women. In the Western Cape 60 out of 1 000 children suffer from FAS. ARA initiated and started to fund relevant research in 1996 and will soon launch an educational programme in this respect, says Adv Riaan Kruger, ARA chairman.

The programme entails printing of posters with warnings about pregnancy and alcohol abuse. The posters will be distributed by provincial health departments and will also appear as magazine advertisements. In addition ARA will launch a radio campaign.

The youth is another important target group. The wine industry has been involved in wine education for 35 years. Thanks to facilitation by ARA, lifestyle programmes will soon be incorporated in the new school curriculum. “The solution is to empower youngsters with knowledge so that they can make an informed decision about alcohol consumption,” Kruger says.

ARA’s regulations stipulate furthermore that liquor advertisements may not be targeted at the under 18-group. All advertisements should state: “MAY NOT BE SOLD TO PERSONS UNDER 18”. Youngsters are not allowed to appear in advertisements with a glass of wine and models must be older than 25. In addition, liquor advertisements may not be broadcast before, during or after children’s programmes on TV or radio.

ARA says wine promotions may not encourage high wine consumption over short periods, such as happy hours in restaurants. Wine promotions on campuses must be strictly controlled by university authorities.

Liquor logos on sport outfits are under fire for creating a so-called “climate for young people to start drinking”. Adv Frank Kahn, chairman of the Central Drug Authority, is strongly opposed to the Castle Lager logo on Springbok rugby jerseys, for example that of Bobby Skinstad. Kahn refers to the “probable influence” on youngsters who are crazy about sport. Pegel, on the other hand, believes a liquor logo on the chest of a responsible, successful role model will not result in liquor abuse. “The responsible value system of youngsters plays a bigger role in this instance.”

Critics propose that sport sponsorships for the under 18 group should be prohibited. Again Pegel asks where the youth would be without sport sponsorships, in other words, without rugby or cricket for example.

Liquor packaging is another important issue as far as ARA is concerned. No packaging may create the impression that alcohol is a bulk product. Labels may not feature offensive names for liquor, such as “dop”. “Decent quality wine in decent packaging costs money, but it is incredibly important for the image of wine. Packaging such as ‘swart varkies’ (plastic cans) and foil bags encourage people to drink with the purpose of getting drunk. Beer, on the other hand, is consumed from the same neat packaging by everyone,” says Kruger.

Another facet of packaging that receives world-wide support and is currently being implored by the Central Drug Authority, concerns health warnings on wine bottles. These state, for example, that pregnant women should not consume alcohol, that alcohol consumption affects your ability to drive and operate machinery, and that wine may cause health problems. Comments Pegel: “This is the last recourse of people who want to protect the public against alcohol abuse. The issue at stake here is how politicians read the public opinion and how this will influence their decision about liquor advertisements. If we have to print health warnings, we also have the right to publish health benefits on bottles, which will be totally confusing. Just imagine: Good for the heart, but bad for the liver.” Kruger says health warnings on cigarette packs serve no purpose. “Many advocates of wine bottle warnings are smokers themselves.”

Various studies prove that health warnings do not have a noticeable effect. A Canadian study (Health Warning Labels, ICAP Report) indicates, for example, that there is no proof that warning labels reduce the damage caused by alcohol abuse.

Stricter limitations on liquor advertisements do not appear to be solving abuse either. But is there a link between liquor advertising and consumption Dr Charles Parry, Director of the Alcohol & Drug Abuse Group of the Medical Research Council says yes, based on international research supported by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. “The liquor industry has the ability to buy advertising space and can therefore influence perceptions about liquor and public policy,” he says. Parry advocates counter advertisements to be funded by the levy on liquor industry advertisements. “This will result in more balanced information so that the public may take more reponsible decisions about liquor consumption.”

Experts in the liquor industry say liquor advertisements do not necessarily result in increased sales/abuse. SAB sales dropped by 7,5% last year, although they advertised as much as before. Advertisements purely result in a shift in market share. “But one cannot make a categorical statement either that no advertisement has ever resulted in abuse,” warns Kruger.

But what is moderate, low risk alcohol consumption The Australian National Health and Medical Council says it is no more than four units (a unit is a 120 ml glass of wine or 340 ml of beer) per day for men, and no more than two for women. Everybody should also have at least two alcohol-free days per week. There are several groups who should not drink at all, such as children, people on prescription medication and those with a genetic inclination to alcohol dependency.

But what does other world-wide research say about the link between liquor advertisements and alcohol consumption Research at the University of Western Australia (1969 to 1986) found, for example, that liquor advertisements had no or little effect on alcohol consumption. Two other researchers, R G Smart and R E Cutler, studied the effect of a 24-month prohibition on alcohol advertisements in a Canadian province (1971 and 1972). The prohibition did not have a significant effect on alcohol consumption.

“Liquor advertisements are not aimed at those who don’t drink, anyway. It is about obtaining the biggest possible market share of those who do consume alcohol,” says Pegel. If advertising had to be banned, it could result in the “forbidden fruit” syndrome which prompts youngsters to investigate. Kruger agrees. “Just look at the drug ban.”

But what does a good liquor advertisement and label look like “An advertisement should emphasise the unique characteristics of the liquor product, such as a characteristic nose, origin or special production process, and definitely not encourage the consumption of large quantities of liquor or make false promises about business or social success,” says Pegel. Kruger says a good label should not encourage a “down-down race”, “nor should it feature nude girls”.

Makan says ARA is definitely an effective means of encouraging responsible advertising. ARA members are in strict compliance with the code’s requirements and when the health environment changes, the advertising code is adjusted accordingly. Self-regulation is also especially effective, means Makan. “If legislation had to replace self-regulation, it would most likely result in attempts to find loopholes in the law, rather than obey the law.”

According to Parry, the liquor industry is in for an uphill struggle. This year the World Health Organisation asked international experts to revise the marketing and advertising of alcohol to young people. The Alcohol Advertising Committee of the Department of Health also plans to investigate sport sponsorships by the liquor industry, warning labels and other forms of counter-advertisements.

* If a member of the public is of the opinion that an advertisement breaches the ARA code, write to Dr Chan Makan, Director: ARA, PO Box 112, Bergvliet, 7864 or to Adv Riaan Kruger, Chairman: ARA, PO Box 236, Stellenbosch, 7599.

The main purpose of the liquor industry’s advertising code (under the auspices of ARA) is to prevent alcohol abuse. Not everybody agrees that the industry’s self-regulating measures are sufficient.

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