Alcohol and ‘health halos’: a risky mix
Alcohol marketing strategies are being scrutinised again as new research highlights the misleading health claims being placed on alcohol products.
Lead researcher Ms Julia Stafford, Executive Officer of Curtin University’s McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, told doctorportal that there has been a shift among consumers towards health and wellness. The alcohol industry has responded to this threat by advertising products labelled as low carb, low sugar, natural or preservative free.
“We’re seeing alcohol marketing often picking out very minor points about their products, like highlighting that it’s infused with electrolytes or purified water.”
“Using these health claims, which really don’t mean much to your health, creates this health halo over these products which still contain similar alcohol to other products”
The study, published in Public Health Research and Practice, analysed examples of new product developments and monitored alcohol industry publications for information on key trends and comments from alcohol company executives.
The researchers said that existing regulations do not appear to be sufficient in restricting health-related claims made by alcohol marketers as alcohol products continue to be advertised in association with health. They added that this can have significant implications for the way consumers view these alcohol products.
The problem with health halos
Ms Stafford said the main danger with alcohol products making these claims is that although the drinks aren’t genuinely healthier, “people might think they are. They have this health halo over them and pretty packaging with a fruit on it so they might consume them differently.”
“We’ve seen with low carb beer that people think it’s healthier and therefore might be more inclined to drink more of it on occasions.”
However, the label does not change the fact it is still a full-strength alcohol product, with all the same health risks associated with it.
She said the key focus of alcohol labelling should be the alcohol content, “not all these other claims about it being fresh, pure, natural or preservative free, which is misleading consumers about the health impact of the product.”
Regulation of alcohol marketing is still lacking
In Australia, alcohol marketing is self-regulated by the alcohol and advertising industries.
“That has all sorts of problems with it – those regulations are incredibly weak in lots of different ways,” Ms Stafford said.
Current marketing regulations do not cover the kind of health-related claims that are now being made on alcohol product packaging.
“The industry knows what they can do to get around existing regulations and still give consumers a strong suggestion these products are healthier and make health-related claims without breaching any of the regulations.”
The evidence base is strong – now it is time for action
Ms Stafford said there is already a strong evidence base to support the need for industry reform. Governments need to step in and take self-regulation away from the alcohol and advertising industries, and implement legislated and independent controls.
“Our research looking at the health claims is really just adding one extra part to that already existing, strong rationale for why governments should be regulating alcohol marketing much better than what is currently happening.”