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STANDING COMMITTEE ON SOCIAL POLICY AND LEGAL AFFAIRS
04/04/2011
Regulation of billboard and outdoor advertising

CHAIR —Welcome. Please note that these meetings are formal proceedings of parliament. Everything said should be factual and honest. It can be considered a serious matter to attempt to mislead the committee. This hearing is open to the public and is being broadcast live. A transcript of what is said will be placed on the committee’s website. I invite you to make a very, very brief introductory statement before we proceed to questions.

Ms Davoren —Thank for you for the opportunity to give evidence to this inquiry today. From the Alcohol Policy Coalition we know that alcohol advertising is directly related to the uptake of drinking and the likelihood of long-term risky drinking. Aside from the short-term effects of heavy alcohol consumption by children and young people, which the submission by the Dalgarno Institute canvasses, the long-term consumption of alcohol is related to a number of chronic diseases, not least of all cancer. It is the APC’s view in relation to outdoor advertising, which is detailed in the submission, that, firstly, the regulatory codes that apply to outdoor advertising are inadequate. A good example of this we find in the Outdoor Media Association’s policy that requires members to limit the advertising of alcohol within 150 metres of a primary school or secondary school. This policy is subject to some exceptions where a school is in the vicinity of a licensed premise and it does not apply to transit advertising on buses and trams. These are exceptions that we think render the policy useless. We think that alcohol advertising, including outdoor alcohol advertising, should be regulated by an independent statutory authority rather than self-regulated through voluntary industry codes. We think it is essential that this regulation and this authority should have the power to restrict exposure to alcohol advertising in addition to policing content.

That leads me to my second point and the second point in our submission. One of the concerns we have, which I am sure you will appreciate now in the course of this inquiry, is that the issue with outdoor advertising is the lack of a choice to view. It is fair to say that our submission is more concerned about exposure rather than content, but we would agree that content of alcohol advertising is still important. The rationale that children should not be exposed to alcohol advertising is reflected in the number of self-regulatory codes, particularly television codes of practice. With the outdoor advertising regulatory codes, there are no limitations at all on exposure limits to areas that have a higher proportion of children and young people, which includes public spaces, shopping centres and a lot of public transport areas. The APC’s position is that there should be a limit on the amount of alcohol advertising, to prevent exposure to children and young people. Thank you for the opportunity to make this statement. Together with my colleagues, I look forward to your questions.

Mrs MOYLAN —I found your submission excellent. Thanks for that. There is one issue that you might explain for our purposes today. Your submission reads:

Jones et al reviewed the revised regulatory code in 2004 and found that decisions made by the Advertising Standards Board in relation to alcohol advertisements, were not in harmony with the judgement of independent experts. Despite changes to the ABAC, the review found that the code remained an ineffective regulatory tool, and failed to reduce the problems associated with alcohol advertising in Australia.

For the purposes of this committee and its deliberations, could you give us a more detailed explanation of why the code is ineffective and how the code could be improved?

Ms Davoren —I guess the key issue that we have with it is that it is a voluntary code and it is an industry given code. We think that the restrictions in it are not enough in terms of alcohol advertising to restrict what are important issues around exposure. In the ABAC, there are very little restrictions on exposure. We know that the research around uptake of drinking and harmful drinking links it all back to the amount of advertising that is seen, not the type of advertising seen. Once you restrict the amount of advertising that is available in public spaces, on television, overall, then you can limit the harms that are caused by alcohol. I guess the key issue with the codes is that there are no restrictions on content and exposure.

Mrs MOYLAN —How would you propose that that be rectified?

Ms Davoren —The National Preventative Health Taskforce recommendation did say that there was an intention to limit the exposure of advertising. I know that they had a focus on television advertising, but they did suggest that there was the ability to restrict alcohol advertising in times and in places which have a high exposure to under 25s. That was quite a high age threshold, which we do agree with, given the evidence around the level of harm up until the age of 25. I know that in some American states there have been initiatives to ban alcohol advertising in residential areas, so it is possible to define what areas have a high percentage of children and young people present and to restrict the amount of advertising in those areas. There are issues like point of sale, so we can address the amount of advertising in stores where children may be accompanying their parents on shopping trips or things like that. There are also in-store promotions and viral and emerging media, so it is more than just the billboard; it is the access to the billboard that then gives you access to other media. It is possible to restrict that. We know that it has been done in other jurisdictions.

Mrs MOYLAN —I noticed that you talked about the bar code now on posters, where you can actually scan it into your phone and get further detail. There was some fairly compelling evidence that that is a worrying trend. What recommendations would you make to the committee on how to deal with it?

Prof. Fitzgerald —One specific setting in which we know young people are exposed to outdoor alcohol advertising is the community sports setting. We know the Commonwealth is currently developing a program of funding to assist sporting clubs to reduce their reliance on alcohol sponsorship. We know that alcohol sponsorship is accompanied by significant amounts of outdoor advertising and that the venues where this occurs are not age-specific—kids play in the same sportsgrounds that adults play on. One way of limiting the exposure of children in those settings is to incorporate a restriction on alcohol advertising through sponsorship in those venues where they receive Commonwealth funding through the National Binge Drinking Strategy Community Sponsorship Fund.

Mr NEUMANN —It is not just in the context of local sporting organisations. Australian rules and rugby league are the two most watched sports. Are you also suggesting that in, say, the MCG, Sydney Football Stadium or Lang Park in Brisbane there would be a ban on advertising of alcohol?

Prof. Fitzgerald —There are a number of considerations in that. One would be that clearly in-venue advertising has a captured audience that involves young people in those venues, so we would anticipate that there would be significant exposure of young people to alcohol advertising in those venues. What is also apparent is that children watch broadcast TV and that the in-field advertising for alcohol in those venues gets rebroadcast as part of the televised coverage. We would also suggest that there is an opportunity there for the committee to make recommendations around limits being placed on that form of advertising.

CHAIR —Ms Davoren, I want to take you back to alcohol advertising in stores. In Queensland, Woolies and Coles do not sell alcohol. Do we have less binge drinking than you other drunken states? Is there empirical data to back up what you have said? Even from the US, can you give examples from state to state?

Ms Davoren —There is actually good data overseas. That is one of the unfortunate issues: a lot of the research into exposure to outdoor advertising is based on US research and there is a real need to replicate that research in Australia.

CHAIR —So we do not have the data breakdown by states?

Ms Davoren —No. We do not have as much data in Australia about the effects of in-store advertising.

CHAIR —The Tweed River is a clear divide as to what goes on when you go and do the majority of your grocery shopping. I do not know what percentage of the alcohol sales Coles and Woolies have in the other states, but I assume that it is not insignificant.

Prof. Fitzgerald —There is some advertising research by Sandra Jones from Wollongong, using focus groups to look at the consideration of in-store promotions on choice and purchase preference. That showed that point-of-sale advertising has an impact on the point of preference. It was not broken down by state and territory.

CHAIR —Could you take it on notice to give us some other links? I know this is slightly outside of this committee’s inquiry, but it would be interesting.

Ms ROWLAND —Once upon a time it was the norm to have tobacco advertising in all mediums. In fact, we had a legislative amendment that went through the parliament a couple of weeks ago banning advertising tobacco on the internet. Do you foresee a time when alcohol advertising is itself banned? The reason I ask that is that I find these submissions quite compelling. The purpose of advertising really is to encourage different brands, so it is a brand competition issue rather than ‘Drink more alcohol.’ It is more ‘You need to consume this particular brand.’ I often get—and I am sure the others on this committee may get—representations from constituents, saying: ‘I am an adult. I choose to smoke. I choose to drink. Why are you being so invasive about what I can and cannot do as an adult, when neither of these products is illegal?’ I am interested to see how you respond to that, particularly when we consider that, with tobacco advertising, we are now moving towards plain packaging and having it out of sight at point of sale. I am interested in how far you think we need to go in order to take into account all the research that you have done and to minimise the harm that is caused to adults and children.

Ms Davoren —That is a good question. I think it is the harm minimisation point that you made at the end of your statement there which is the key. Granted there is a lot of advertising that is focused on brand competition and that is targeted towards adults, but we find that the bulk of advertising is targeted towards younger adults and children, and so there is actually attention given to increasing the amount of consumption, which a lot of the advertising goes to, and it is to capture early drinkers. We know that there is a lot of advertising that is actually designed to embed that product and to encourage children and young people to take up drinking and to take it up earlier. We have research that shows that alcohol advertising is associated with an earlier uptake of alcohol consumption, and we also have evidence that says that, the earlier a child takes up drinking, the more likely it is that they are going to have harmful effects later in life and the more likely it is that they are going to drink at risky levels on a long-term basis. So, from a public health and harm minimisation approach, we are focused on that early advertising to children and young people and on trying to limit and restrict that core area of advertising, because that is where the evidence is strongest. I take your point that, with older people who have the ability to discern advertising messages, it is not changing their preferences. It may or may not be increasing their consumption, and the evidence is not as solid as it is with children and young people, but we have a clear evidence base for that and that is where our focus is.

CHAIR —Mr Varcoe, would you like to comment further? I know your views are even starker, in a way.

Mr Varcoe —I suppose they are in some respects. I value incredibly the work of the APC and I certainly concur with their findings and/or conclusions, certainly the evidence and data that we have dealt with. As a lay institute, we have had a long history of working in the educational field. One of the things I wanted to bring to the table today was not just to repeat that which has been so adequately submitted here, but perhaps to open the committee to a paradigm issue, particularly from a sociological and anthropological perspective, without being too high. I have limited myself here, with a statement that we cannot go into the anthropological concerns today because time will not permit us to do so.

Consequently, though, I want to look at some of the meta cultural issues, because, as an affective domain educator, we are seeing, as has been stated, an earlier onset of alcohol drinking. That has certainly been a part of our culture, arguably for a number of decades, but it is getting prolifically worse. As it says in the submission, we are seeing kids as young as 10 presenting for alcohol related conditions. These are not just one-offs; these are growing instances. It buys into the cultural framework in which things are done. The meta issues around this are a real concern. I want to table a standing statement from the World Health Organisation from 2001 which says clearly that young people have a right to grow up in a society where they are protected from the pressures to drink and from the harm done by alcohol. I think that is one of the key factors here. When it comes to the rights of children, on an international level, we need to be protecting those.

When it comes to the whole educational perspective and the frameworks in which young people learn and develop patterns, develop models and develop behavioural techniques, it is based on a number of factors. In a culture where more and more media is shaping that framework, we have got to be far more vigilant in how we engage that particular medium and what we do to monitor it. We have asked for a blanket ban on banner advertising of alcohol, flat out. The French did this for the most part back in the seventies, and it has had a substantial impact on the drinking culture of the young. It has not stopped it, and it will not, because internet advertising is filling that gap beautifully. Just on the weekend I saw a massive banner on the Calder Highway for Dan Murphy’s. It said, ‘Get your drinks,’ but the big pitch was ‘Order online—please go here and get this.’ Online advertising is the niche for young people between the ages of 12 and 20. That is their niche and they are shifting rapidly to that space. I want to just give you a couple of quick excerpts from a document that has been recently acquired. It was publicly released—

CHAIR —We might go to some questions, if that is all right.

Mr Varcoe —Sure.

Mrs MOYLAN —Thank you very much again for your submission. It is very illuminating. Perhaps you and Professor Fitzgerald might like to comment on this. I read in the APC submission that the VicHealth community attitudes to alcohol survey found that 82 per cent of respondents agreed that alcohol advertisements should be restricted so that they are less likely to be seen by people under the age of 18. In relation to outdoor advertising, 77 per cent of respondents from the survey agreed that alcohol advertising on billboards should be banned within one kilometre of schools. I also noted reference to the National Preventative Health Taskforce recommendations. Given this sort of evidence, why are we having so much trouble getting changes to the advertising of alcohol, particularly as it is pitched to young people?

Mr Varcoe —I am sure there are a number of wonderful evidence based responses. Getting back to what I have been talking about from an affective domain education context, the formative years of identity, relationship, connectivity are key issues in the formation of the persona of a young person. When cultural frameworks disappear, and some of those have been disappearing quite rapidly and being replaced by the superficial, young people are still looking for identity that does not change, they are still looking for belonging that does not change, they are still looking for connectivity and for meaning and for context. Those things do not change. What these advertisers are wanting to do is generate a space in which they can own that particular process. In fact, I am going to quote Carling here using their particular strategies, and this is from the document ‘They’ll drink bucket loads of the stuff’, which was released by Professor Gerard Hastings of the Institute for Social Marketing, University of Stirling—an open university in England. These same techniques are used by brewers all over the world, so this is not specific to Carling. It says there is a greater focus on students as a ‘core recruitment audience’. This product is declared as ‘social glue’ by its promotion team and it says the brand overtly seeks to ‘own sociability’. It wants to own that, so that is a key issue, and to dominate the booze market. It says: ‘Young men think about four things. We brew one and sponsor two of them.’ So, again—

CHAIR —Mr Varcoe, wasn’t white Australia founded on drunks? We had the Rum Rebellion and we have always had alcohol as a part of our life. David Copperfield got drunk—kids everywhere in Victorian England.

Mr Varcoe —What a wonderful indictment of our nation!

CHAIR —I am just saying the reality.

Mr Varcoe —Absolutely. I think one of the concerns we have in that basis—

CHAIR —You are suggesting that we are going to hell in a hand basket and we are going to have drunk kids everywhere. I thought we had always had alcohol in our society.

Mr Varcoe —We have, I agree with you. The problem is we have not addressed it as effectively as we possibly could, and I think that is the issue—the idea that this has always been the case. It is the normalisation process. The fact that there is an industry behind this and because we have had this out of control system, we continue to see it as a problem.

CHAIR —Innkeepers have been around for a while

Mr Varcoe —They have been.

Mrs MOYLAN —Can I just go back to the question because I do not think the question has been answered. Clearly there is a very high level of public concern, in any survey done on this, about the promotion of alcohol to young people. Clearly the federal government has a stated agenda. My question is: why can’t we deliver? Professor Fitzgerald might want to comment on that. Where are the stumbling blocks? What can this committee do to remove those barriers to action? That is the question.

Prof. Fitzgerald —That is a fantastic question. I think what it comes down to, which is reflected in the comments from the chair—

CHAIR —I was being devil’s advocate.

Prof. Fitzgerald —is that there is a sense that alcohol is a normal part of life. If we took history as constructing our present then we probably would not have women voting and we would probably still be riding horses and carts, and things like that, so I will not go down that track. We know that there are opportunities to reduce harm to the community. We can see that, where there are opportunities, there are opportunities for government to actually take the lead on that. The main point of the National Preventative Health Taskforce report and subsequent reports around that time is to denormalise the presence of alcohol in our community. The interests that actually are enforcing alcohol as a normal part of life are strong and they are powerful. Any look at the lobbyists register that goes to Canberra would suggest that there is substantive lobbying that occurs from the alcohol industry through its affiliates to ensure that the economic interests of those organisations are maintained and sustained through government policy.

CHAIR —Are you suggesting they should not be allowed to have lobbyists?

Prof. Fitzgerald —I am not sure if putting restrictions on lobbyists would be the only solution. My sense is that we need to take a population-level view, and that is probably one of the important considerations that can actually drive an evidence based set of solutions. From the national accounts from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, if you look at the gross household expenditure on alcohol and you compare it to the gross household expenditure on tobacco, you can see that when government intervened in the late 1980s and early 1990s with taxation, social marketing, a suite of resources, the gross household expenditure on tobacco dropped dramatically, producing substantive health outcomes for Australia.

There is an opportunity now for this government to do a similar thing. With some of the current strategies in place, such as the introduction of the alcopops tax, and through initiatives such as this there is the opportunity to put some further restrictions that at a population level can actually produce some outcomes such as reducing household expenditure.

The sad fact is that measures of alcohol related harm are increasing. Measures of alcohol consumption are relatively stable. However, measures of alcohol harm are increasing and the national estimates data suggest that the estimates of household expenditure are also increasing, which would suggest that these are triggers for government to look very seriously at placing restrictions, such as that we denormalise the consumption of alcohol in our community. It is a pretty simple argument. Why we cannot do that is because the forces that constrain normalisation of consumption are very strong, and the first point of contact for normalisation is the visible presentation of alcohol to children through outdoor advertising. This is a point of contact where you can influence the normalisation of alcohol in our community and I implore you to take this opportunity.

Ms SMYTH —This will probably lead us back to the specific issue of outdoor advertising in a context of what you have just said. The second last page of the APC’s submission talks about already existing means of collecting information about the use of public spaces and so on. Just to extrapolate from that, is it your suggestion that there be a more detailed look at planning means and planning overlays and the link between those sorts of mechanisms and codes of ethics or advertising practices in a more specific way?

Prof. Fitzgerald —There are a number of opportunities for regulating exposure in a public space. One that we have talked about is around venue based. One is around being attached to funding programs. I think being attached to planning activities would be another opportunity. The only difficulty in that is often that involves multiple levels of government. I am not sure if I would be with you on that labyrinthine journey through the multiple levels of government because I think it is a tricky one.

Ms Davoren —If I could just add to that, I think we can quite sophisticated about how we can restrict alcohol advertising. Maybe it could be a seasonal limit so we could look at advertising spend through a year, focusing on music festivals for example. There could be some targeted and quite sophisticated approaches that we could take, which may or may not include the planning regulations.

Prof. Fitzgerald —There is an excellent document on that. The Intergovernmental Committee on Drugs produced a review of outdoor advertising, and part of that review—I think it was done by King and others—showed the seasonality of the alcohol advertising spend over the course of the year. It goes some way to argue against a little bit around the brand-switching argument, because there is a high intensity of alcohol advertising that occurs in spring. I do not know about you, but I do not know why spring is a particularly good opportunity to ask people to switch their brands. If they wanted people to switch their brands they could do that at any time of the year. Spring is a really intensive period of time for alcohol advertising—yes, it is attached to sport. So I think if there was an opportunity around putting seasonal caps on alcohol advertising that would again be a very effective measure.

Ms Davoren —I do have some of that data here, which is on the monitoring of alcohol advertising.

Mr NEUMANN —The self-regulation procedure at the moment has no penalties or sanctions whatsoever. You make some recommendations in relation to sanctions or penalties, and I would like you to flesh that out. One of the recommendations is that self-regulation has not worked and we need to go to some other process. I would like you to comment on that and, secondly, to comment about penalties and sanctions. So far it is just a general recommendation and I would like you to really flesh that out. Can I also say that I agree with Mrs Moylan; I was extremely impressed by the papers submitted by both of you.

Ms Davoren —Thank you. I listening to the previous submission and the previous discussion and I have to say that I agree with some of the frustrations around the independent reviewer process. We made a submission to the ASB last year about the difficulties and the issues with the independent reviewer process, and that really does touch on some of the issues we have with the self-regulatory scheme. Parts of the process are not open: in addition to the independent reviewer process, parts of the prevetting process are not open for discussion. So we think there are some fundamental flaws with the self-regulatory system. As far as what we would do differently, the APC does not have a position on this, but I would say that there should be an independent statutory authority. I can see that the ACCC would be a good organisation to house that authority because of its power to deal with corporations.

CHAIR —The prevetting side of things?

Ms Davoren —No, to deal with regulation of alcohol advertising in general.

Mr NEUMANN —Could it be a division of the ACCC?

Ms Davoren —It could be a division of the ACCC, but I certainly think that it should be a statutory authority and it should have the simple ability to injunct corporations and to actually have some teeth behind the decision.

Mr NEUMANN —And damages?

Ms Davoren —That is right. From a public health perspective, damages probably is not—

Mr NEUMANN —Damages, penalties and injunction: they are the critical things. You have to have teeth.

Ms Davoren —Yes, and to be able to affect the economic success of a company, who could get an ad that goes through that has a lot of controversy about it, which then increases the notoriety of that campaign. From a public health perspective that is an extremely difficult issue to battle against. We are often at the crossroads of whether we complain about an ad and that then gives it more notice, or we sit back and allow the ad to run its course without making that sort of song and dance about it.

Ms ROWLAND —Would you recommend that government legislates to ban outdoor advertising of specific classes of alcohol products that are targeted at young people?

Prof. Fitzgerald —We as a coalition have not discussed the preference of one or the other. What we know from other interventions is that there is a risk of substitution, that when you restrict access to one product or restrict the promotion of one product there is the opportunity for other products. So there is the risk in doing selective interventions that you get perverse outcomes, and that would be one consideration we would suggest in doing selective work. What we do know from the data from the introduction of the alcopops tax is that when you restrict one product you do not get 100 per cent substitution to another—there was some substitution but it was not substantive. We would suggest that, for young people in particular, if you were to go for an incremental strategy then certainly the alcopops or products that are amenable to young people would be a good place to start.

CHAIR —That was a price signal, not a substitution.

Prof. Fitzgerald —That was a pricing strategy, but in terms of promotional work if you were to specifically target those products targeted towards young people then that would be one option. We would also caution the general principle that there is the danger, especially with promotional work, of moving from one product type to another. The industry has a strong track record of innovation, of moving from one type of product to another and promoting them to different target audiences in relation to their own strategies. I think a more comprehensive strategy would be preferable from our point of view.

Mrs MOYLAN —There was some anecdotal evidence with the alcopops tax that young people then moved toward buying their hard liquor in their own mixes and in some cases it may have resulted in them consuming more hard liquor. Is that what you are referring to by a segmented approach?

Prof. Fitzgerald —Yes. There certainly was not a one-for-one substitution, so in not drinking alcopops they did not all go and drink something else. There was a small proportion of people who did go and consume other products in substitution for the price change.

Ms Davoren —Overall there was a decrease in consumption.

Mrs MOYLAN —Was there any actual study done on that?

Prof. Fitzgerald —Yes, from the National Drug Research Institute.

Ms Davoren —We can provide that for you.

Mrs MOYLAN —Thanks very much.

CHAIR —I think there were Treasury figures as well—they had a particular interest. Ms Davoren, you touched on making complaints. I am wondering generally if you have made complaints to the ASB or ABAC about outdoor alcohol advertising and what the experience and response were like. Can you talk us through that?

Ms Davoren —We have made a number of complaints to the ASB about a number of alcohol products. They tend to be television rather than outdoor advertising. This really comes back to my original point that our key concern is about exposure. There is no regulation of exposure in the current ABAC or outdoor media advertising code.

CHAIR —Are you discounted because you are a campaigner? In the ASB’s response earlier, which you heard, they said if it was a particular campaign—did that change their response to you, versus to an individual?

Ms Davoren —As a slight side issue, we submitted a complaint about a beer in 2009, a skinny Blonde beer, which had a label where the effect as it warmed up was that the pin-up on the front became naked.

CHAIR —Can we still buy it?

Ms Davoren —I have some—I should have brought some as a prop! We did submit a complaint to the ASB based on that and we did submit a complaint based on the provisions in the code but also the provisions around packaging and labelling, which we also consider to be an aspect of outdoor advertising. The response from the ASB was that because the code did not cover packaging and labelling they could not consider it. Our experience is that if there is not a provision that they would adjudicate under, then they will not adjudicate. The issue of exposure over content has been a very difficult avenue for us to pursue.

CHAIR —Any other comments in terms of your experience dealing with ASB? Thank you very much for appearing before us today.

Proceedings suspended from 11.35 am to 11.46 am