Chris Hackley, Professor of Marketing at Royal Holloway, University of London, says that he believes the UK’s sharp increases in alcoholic liver disease among the under 35s is as a direct result of the marketing and pricing tactics used by the alcohol industry. The festive season sees a dramatic rise in alcohol consumption and around 70% of hospital admissions around this time of year are drink-related.
Professor Hackley says: “It is no coincidence that the way alcohol is marketed began to change radically in the early 1980s, with characters such as the Hofmeister Bear making alcohol advertising seem cool to children. The later 80s saw a huge increase in the number of vodka mixer drinks that were more palatable to young people than beer. Alcohol brands have now moved into major sponsorship deals, giving them huge public recognition which supermarkets use to drive store traffic. Twenty years ago alcohol was sold in a small, dedicated corner of the store at strictly controlled times. Today, it is often displayed prominently at the entrance and can be bought 24-7 at discounted prices.”
The academic’s concern comes in the wake of reports of a 400% increase in hospital admissions for alcoholic liver disease among 30-34 year-olds in the North East of England in less than a decade. Nationally, the increase is 67%. Liver specialist Professor Sir Ian Gilmore has said that alcoholic liver disease is being increasingly seen in people under 30, when thirty years ago it was virtually unknown in anyone under 50. Sir Ian argues that current rules do not go far enough in limiting alcohol marketing, and he advocates a minimum unit price for alcohol.
According to research Professor Hackley and colleagues have conducted, alcohol is seen today by many young people as an essential part of a fun social life. Most damagingly, he says, drinking in order to get very drunk indeed is seen as a normal way to contribute to the fun. “Twenty years ago, drinking occurred mainly in the context of pubs and clubs, and alcohol brands weren’t seen as cool. Today, the drinks industry promotes off-sales heavily while pubs are closing down. This has changed the cultural context of drinking, and as a result much common sense knowledge about the damage it can do has been forgotten. Getting very drunk very quickly is often the norm.”
He adds: “Britain’s contradictory relationship with alcohol goes back some 400 years. What is different today is that alcohol is treated almost as a normal grocery product in its price and availability. The alcohol industry lobby argues that drinking too much is the responsibility of the drinker, but this ignores the fact that people are getting into bad drinking habits well below the age of legal responsibility.”
According to Professor Hackley, the problem requires a policy shift from government: “It has taken a generation for extreme drinking among young people to become so common. There is no quick fix but stricter controls on alcohol marketing, price and availability have to be part of a wider solution.”