Beer ads have tangible effect

Recent studies suggest alcohol advertising attracts new drinkers and encourages drinkers to drink more.
Recent studies suggest alcohol advertising attracts new drinkers and encourages drinkers to drink more.
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A recent alcohol advertising campaign by Canadian brand James Ready that uses lawn signs, posters and giveaways is troubling.

Campaigns like these point to the need for all Queen’s students to think critically about how advertising influences their health and their decisions related to alcohol.

The University’s health promotion department in Health, Counselling and Disability Services (HCDS) takes a harm-reduction approach to alcohol use. That means we focus on helping students be smart and safe about drinking alcohol, rather than telling students not to drink.

This approach is demonstrated through our unique programs, including the two-decade-old Campus Observation Room (COR) in the basement of Victoria Hall, which provides intoxicated students with a safe, confidential and non-judgmental space where they are monitored overnight.

While we fully respect the rights of students to make their own decisions about alcohol consumption, we don’t support the targeting of students by companies selling alcohol.

Alcohol is not a pair of shoes or a computer. Longstanding research shows that alcohol advertising can negatively affect a student’s health and well-being.

Some of the strongest findings supporting this claim have been in the last 15 years. According to a 2005 paper produced by the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care and presented to the Association to Reduce Alcohol Promotion in Ontario, alcohol advertising attracts new drinkers and encourages drinkers to drink more. It also makes it more difficult for those who have alcohol-related problems to stop drinking.

This, perhaps, is no surprise. If companies thought advertising didn’t work, they wouldn’t spend millions on it each year. One popular brewery, for example, signed a seven-year, US$375-million contract with the National Hockey League this past February.

While alcohol companies might suggest they are just encouraging students to drink their brand instead of others, this isn’t the case. Benjamin Rempel, manager of the Alcohol Policy Network at the Ontario Public Health Association, stated to me via email this week, “The alcohol industry does a fantastic job of convincing the public that [the notion that brewers advertise solely for competitive purposes] is true.”

Rempel notes that research, in fact, points in the opposite direction.

“Recent studies have suggested that exposure to alcohol advertising does promote alcohol misuse which commonly leads to associated harms such as crimes, injuries and assaults,” he said.

Research supported by the World Health Organization shows that ads increase consumption and suggests the amount of alcohol marketing someone is exposed to is connected to the likelihood of binge drinking.

Rempel agrees, stating, “Alcohol advertising — regardless of the brand — encourages drinking attitudes and increases the likelihood of heavier and more frequent drinking episodes, especially among young adults.”

It’s imperative that students understand the tangible implications of alcohol advertising. This isn’t just about one campaign or one type of advertising.

This is about how Queen’s students are being targeted by alcohol companies who glorify alcohol consumption and shape cultural norms.

When beer and alcohol companies target Queen’s students, they are normalizing alcohol by incorrectly connecting alcohol with fun, free items, positive social interactions and success in life or relationships.

These messages also suggest that alcohol consumption is relatively risk-free. The ads certainly don’t expose the problems that overconsumption of alcohol can cause.

Advertising campaigns also send inaccurate messages about how much Queen’s students are actually drinking.

These ads suggest that intoxication dominates the student lifestyle when we know that most students at Queen’s are safe and smart when they drink.

A 2009 student survey by Queen’s HCDS showed that 67 per cent of Queen’s students drink five or fewer drinks when they socialize or party, and 22 per cent of first-years choose not to drink alcohol at all.

I’m concerned that some forms of advertising, like lawn signs and posters in student housing windows, incorrectly suggest to the greater Kingston community that all students care about is getting some free beer. Again, this is simply not the case — Queen’s students are engaged and involved in a variety of academic, athletic and extracurricular activities.

By the time they graduate, 80 per cent of students have volunteered or worked on campus and throughout Kingston. They are more passionate and dedicated to diverse ways of influencing positive change than advertising campaigns portray.

While we cannot control off-campus ad campaigns, we do continue to work with community partners to help shape the off-campus environment, in which Queen’s students live, work and play during their time at the University.

We do this because research shows the off-campus environment plays a critical role in shaping the culture of alcohol consumption on post-secondary campuses.

Working alongside our partners, including the Safe and Sober Alliance — a coalition of groups dedicated to reducing alcohol-related injuries and deaths — we will continue to promote safe and smart drinking. We will also advocate against discounts on alcohol, frequent promotions and targeted advertisements.

Shifting the culture of alcohol consumption is a complex issue, and advertising is only one piece of the puzzle. When alcohol companies target students with misleading messages, I would expect that most students will recognize the disconnect with their experience.

I would also hope that our students are media-literate enough to realize that both advertising and their surroundings can influence their health and behaviour. I encourage students to continue the critical discussion about what forms, amounts and types of advertising they will accept and to speak out if ads go too far.

Kate Humphrys is the health promotion coordinator at Queen’s Health, Counselling and Disability Services.

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