Analysis – With evidence showing the alcohol industry’s relative contribution to sports sponsorship revenue is smaller than that of other companies, there is a strong case for restricting its presence in broadcast sports, academics write.
For those concerned about the public health impacts of alcohol, the government’s recent policy announcement was perhaps a little “glass half empty” to be cause for outright celebration.
As Justice Minister Kiri Allan outlined, the government’s review of alcohol laws will start by implementing only one of the reforms proposed in Green MP Chlöe Swarbrick’s Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Harm Minimisation) Amendment Bill.
That reform will remove a legal appeal process that the alcohol industry has used to hinder or exclude community input into decisions around alcohol availability. But the government would not commit to the second wing of the private member’s bill, to remove alcohol sponsorship of broadcast (mainly professional) sports.
We hope the government will address this key issue. Because behind Swarbrick’s bill are some unpalatable truths: alcohol is a leading cause of cancer, mental illness, suicide, child brain damage and many social harms. In Aotearoa, alcohol contributes to an estimated 800 deaths each year and costs the economy about NZ$7.85 billion.
Here we outline the case for both changing the appeals process and restricting alcohol sponsorship of broadcast sports.
The case for removing appeals
Under existing legislation, local councils can develop Local Alcohol Policies (LAPs) to allow community involvement in deciding how alcohol should be sold in their areas.
LAPs can specify the number (if any) and location of new alcohol outlets, as well as the hours and conditions (such as storefront advertising) of sale.
However, large companies often block LAPs using their right of appeal. The country’s two major supermarket companies have appealed 86 percent of LAPs, while bottle stores have appealed 72 percent of them.
These appeals have resulted in many councils abandoning or watering down their policies. Seven years and $1 million later, Auckland council is still without an LAP – along with Wellington, Christchurch and Hamilton.
Thus, community attempts to influence the location and density of alcohol outlets have been rendered ineffective. This makes the government’s commitment to even the playing field a welcome announcement.
The case for changing alcohol sponsorship
The bill also adopted recommendations from two government-initiated reviews, by the Law Commission in 2010 and the Ministerial Forum on Advertising and Sponsorship in 2014, to place restrictions on alcohol sponsorship of sport.
Sports sponsorship is the primary driver of children’s exposure to alcohol marketing in Aotearoa. A New Zealand study called Kids’ Cam, where children wore automated cameras over four days, found children were exposed to alcohol marketing via sports sponsorship 1.4 times per day on average. Māori and Pacific children are exposed to four or five times more alcohol sponsorship than New Zealand European children.
Alcohol marketing, including sponsorship, increases the risk of children drinking at earlier ages, drinking more once they start and drinking more hazardously. As such, alcohol marketing is considered a causal factor for alcohol consumption. Put simply, alcohol marketing drives consumption.
Alcohol sponsorship is a small part of revenue
Opponents commonly suggest that sponsorship restrictions will destroy community sport and affect the financial viability of professional sport. But these arguments don’t bear close scrutiny.
Firstly, the bill is designed to restrict broadcast sports only. Many community sports should not feel any direct impacts of restrictions.
Secondly, the total value of all alcohol sponsorship of sport, including community sports, was NZ$21 million in 2014. This equates to less than 1 percent of all revenue generated by sports and recreation in Aotearoa.
As of September 2022, Sport New Zealand had no updated information of any kind on the value of alcohol sponsorship or sponsorship in general. Despite this, the organisation recently advised the minister for sport and recreation, Grant Robertson, that a sponsorship ban “would have a profound impact on the ability of some organisations to continue to provide sport and recreation opportunities”.
The Sport New Zealand advice contained no figures to support this statement. It also referred to revenue that would not be impacted by the bill (sponsorship of clubrooms, for example). In the past, Robertson and some of his cabinet colleagues voted in favour of various bills proposing more restrictive measures on alcohol marketing than the current member’s bill.
Sponsorship can be replaced
The sponsorship revenue from the alcohol industry could be replaced by an increase in the existing alcohol levy by around two cents per beer.
A two-cent levy increase assumes no other sponsors would replace alcohol sponsors. However, when tobacco sponsorship changed in the early 1990s through a sponsorship replacement program, around 50 percent of all tobacco sponsorship was replaced immediately.
The range and number of industries sponsoring sports have increased since the 1990s. Globally, the alcohol industry contributes only 2.1 percent of all sports sponsorship revenue.
Available evidence in Aotearoa suggests a similar contribution. Only three of the top ten national sports organisations (rugby, cricket and golf) have an alcohol sponsor. In each case, the alcohol sponsor is not a principal sponsor, suggesting its relative contribution is smaller than that of other companies.
Time for evidence-based policy
While some sports organisations may struggle with losing any sponsorship revenue, the claims that community or professional sports would fold is not supported by the available evidence.
By contrast, there are decades of longitudinal evidence demonstrating the harms of alcohol marketing, including sponsorship. The body of evidence has led the World Health Organization (WHO) to classify restrictions on marketing as one of the three best policies to reduce alcohol-related harm.
There is limited evidence to support the argument that sports organisations will suffer unduly, particularly when considered in the context of an appropriate and modest increase in an existing alcohol levy.
Looking ahead, further action is also required to decrease the affordability of alcohol (through a minimum unit price or tax), reduce its availability (through reduced outlets and hours of operation) and introduce more comprehensive marketing restrictions, particularly online.
But the proposed restrictions outlined in the Sale and Supply of Alcohol (Harm Minimisation) Amendment Bill are a good start to alcohol reform in Aotearoa. If the government wants to tackle alcohol-related harm, restricting alcohol sponsorship of broadcast sport is an evidence-based policy response to the country’s most harmful drug.
Tim Chambers is a senior research fellow in the Health Environment & Infection Research Unit (HEIRU), University of Otago. Chambers receives funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand and from a donation from the GAMA Foundation.
Joseph Boden is a professor at the University of Otago. Boden receives funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand
Dr Matthew Hobbs is a senior Lecturer in Public Health and Co-Director of the GeoHealth Laboratory, University of Canterbury.Dr Hobbsreceives funding from the New Zealand Health Research Council, Cure Kids/A Better Start National Science Challenge and IStar. He was also previously funded as a researcher by the New Zealand Ministry of Health.
Nicholas Bowden is a research fellow at the University of Otago. Bowden receives funding from the Health Research Council of New Zealand, Cure Kids, the Laura Fergusson Trust, and A Better Start National Science Challenge.
Story Credit: rnz.co.nz