Plain Packaging... for alcohol??

A study from the Centre for Behavioural Research in Cancer has found what your average joe on the street could have told you - that advertisements linking alcohol to cancer are more effective at making people reluctant to drink compared to advertisements that avoid graphic imagery or extreme links. Surprise!

This has prompted suggestions and calls for a plain packaging-style regime… for alcohol products.

The truth is that any kind of extreme fear-mongering tactic is going to make people feel reluctant about something, at least as far as a survey asking them how reluctant they are goes.

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the failed tobacco plain packaging experiment which has actually seen an increase in tobacco consumption since its introduction in both Australia and France, it is that people tend to become desensitised to graphic imagery. The only change in consumer behaviour is that they are likely to make their choice in supposedly ‘harmful’ product based on price since that’s the main variable left to distinguish products once you take visual branding away.


In the case of cigarettes, this means that cheaper brands are preferred over more expensive ones which means that MORE tobacco is consumed for the same price – as confirmed by an independent study conducted at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. In the case of alcohol, this could mean increased consumer preference for cheaper products that offer more intoxication for your buck – encouraging rather than discouraging irresponsible drinking.

Secondly, what’s the point of trying to sway consumers based on misleading claims?

The link between alcohol and cancer as well as other alleged ill effects, is tied to very high, atypical levels of consumption seen in extreme alcoholics – with a vast majority of ordinary Australians drinking responsibly and moderately.

What’s more – drinking in moderation has actually been shown to be good for you! With a positive link found between consuming 1-2 glasses of red wine and improved cardiovascular health – something that is ignored by suggestions for graphic advertising. This is why these ads only serves to patronise and demonise regular drinkers who are likely to roll their eyes at another attempted doomsday prophecy targeted at them.

What’s more, Cancer and alcohol don’t actually share a ‘cause and effect’ relationship, by any means.

Graphic advertising conveniently ignores and oversimplifies the complex range of factors which work in conjunction to increase an individual’s risk of cancer. These include genetics, family history, other habits, physical fitness, exposure to harmful chemicals in the environment as well as extreme levels of frequency and consumption. In other words, linking cancer to alcohol is as brain-dead as linking cars to fatal road incidents – no reasonable person would suggest that this is justification for giving up driving, unless you happened to be predisposed to be a homicidal maniac behind the wheel.

This is why graphic and extreme claims about the vices we enjoy in moderation not only serve no legitimate purpose – they also contribute to the dumbing down of our public health discourse.

When will the public health Nazis of the nanny state admit that it is irresponsible or atypical behaviour and not alcohol itself that is the villain? Probably not as long as studies like these continue to be churned out from organisations benefitting from taxpayer-funded grants to conduct them.

Don’t hold your breath!

Satyajeet Marar is the Director of MyChoice Australia. 

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