Tuesday 6 December 2022

New junk science about alcohol advertising

With Scotland eyeing up a ban on alcohol advertising, you can expect some dubious claims about the efficacy of advertising bans to appear in activist journals in the coming months. A low quality effort in Drug and Alcohol Review titled 'Effective alcohol policies and lifetime abstinence: An analysis of the International Alcohol Control policy index' gets the ball rolling. 

Its authors include Sally Casswell and Petra Meier. Casswell was a co-author of the neo-temperance bible Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity (alcohol is not actually a commodity) and Meier is the president of the neo-temperance Kettil Bruun Society having previously been in charge of the team in Sheffield that did the dodgy - and now demonstrably wrong - modelling on minimum pricing. 
Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity and the Kettil Bruun Society promote strict Scandinavian-style supply-side policy interventions targeting affordability, availability and advertising, despite a lack of evidence that clamping down on any of them reduces alcohol-related harm. 
A Cochrane Review found "a lack of robust evidence for or against recommending the implementation of alcohol advertising restrictions" and even Casswell and her colleagues could not put forward a compelling case for advertising bans, saying in a summary of their book that...

Imposing total or partial bans on advertising produce, at best, small effects in the short term on overall consumption in a population, in part because producers and sellers can simply transfer their promotional spending into allowed marketing approaches. The more comprehensive restrictions on exposure (e.g. in France) have not been evaluated… The extent to which effective restrictions would reduce consumption and related harm in younger age groups remains an open question.

The new study claims, in the abstract, that: 

Our findings suggest that restricting alcohol marketing could be an important policy for the protection of alcohol abstention.
Its methodology is so lame that you wonder how it was ever published. They found 13 countries and gave them a score under the International Alcohol Control policy index which awards points for "availability restrictions, pricing policies, marketing restrictions and drink-driving prevention". 

They then looked at how these scores correlated with the lifetime abstinence from drinking. With regards to alcohol advertising, there was quite a strong correlation, as shown below.

As the authors say: 
Marketing restrictions showed relatively high correlations with lifetime abstinence among the policies included (r = 0.80) (Figure 1).

Well, yeah, if you only look at these thirteen countries, one of which is Turkey where 90 per cent of the population is Muslim. The rest of them are a random grab bag including England, Scotland, Vietnam, Mongolia, Chile and New Zealand. Even tiny St Kitts and Nevis is there, but there is no USA, China, France or Russia.

The authors concede that "we had a limited sample size" and that that this "might have limited the generalisability of our findings". No kidding! 

They also admit that...  

... this was a cross-sectional analysis which was open to reverse causation, so our findings should not be interpreted as causal. Settings where alcohol use is less common may facilitate the government’s development and implementation of more restrictive alcohol policies.

This is quite obviously true of Turkey and, to a lesser extent, is likely true of some of the other countries.

Why such a small and eccentric sample? Apparently, it was a limitation "based on researchers who obtained funding and were willing to participate in the IAC study." Feeble stuff. It sounds like they relied on having people in each country to tell them what the laws were like in them. 

If so, they still managed to make mistakes. I don't know what the rules are in Mongolia or St Kitts, but I do know that Scotland has a lower drink-driving limit than England, and yet England gets a higher score for that in this study. England also gets a higher score for 'pricing' despite Scotland having minimum pricing while England doesn't. I stand to be corrected, but I also don't think there are any differences in alcohol advertising legislation between England and Scotland, and yet Scotland gets a higher score.

What is the point of a study like this? At best, it is underpowered to draw any conclusion. At worst, it is cherry-picking. And the data is wrong anyway. 

Why are they even using lifetime abstinence from alcohol as the measure in the first place? Since when was this the goal of alcohol policy? That alone tells you a lot about where these people are coming from.


PS. Brian Monteith has written about the extremist Scottish proposals for the Scotsman

Enjoy your favoured alcoholic relief while you can – because our Yellow and Green political puritans are coming after your pursuit of alcoholic recreation. And they will not be satisfied with temperance, oh no, nothing short of prohibition in Scotland will eventually do.

Why do I make this surely exaggerated claim? Two reasons; first the SNP/Green Scottish Government showed its hand last month when it launched a consultation on banning alcohol advertising in Scotland, and secondly, we know the route map from the past and current treatment of tobacco by today’s neo-puritans – and the assault against advertising of alcohol products will be almost identical, other than be delivered at an even faster pace.

No paywall. Do read it all.

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