WHO Plan Targets Role of Marketing, Pricing in Alcohol Abuse

BY Talea Miller  May 20, 2010 at 3:30 PM EST

World health ministers agreed Thursday that alcohol advertising targeted to young people should be limited, and sponsorships regulated.

The non-binding plan, approved by the World Health Organization’s 193-member states, urges countries to take action to control alcohol marketing and prices, and to work to reduce binge drinking.

The agency cited that alcohol is among the top risk factors for premature death in the world, with an estimated 2.5 million people dying of alcohol-related causes in 2004. The PBS NewsHour reported last year that deaths now outpace births in Russia, in part because of widespread alcohol abuse.

WHO said in the report that alcohol is being “marketed through increasingly sophisticated advertising and promotion techniques,” including sponsoring teams and concerts and through social media sites.

Alcohol sponsorships for professional sports as well as recreational leagues is commonplace in many countries. Budweiser is one of the official sponsors for the World Cup , Guiness sponsors the English Premiership league for rugby and soccer in England, and Anheuser-Busch is the official beer sponsor of the National Football league in the United States. Many brands have large followings on Facebook, with drinks like Smirnoff and Jack Daniels boasting nearly a half million fans each.

Companies are also getting more creative about how they insert themselves into popular culture. Absolut recently partnered with rapper Jay-Z to produce a short documentary about his music.

A report out this week by researchers at the Center for Digital Democracy and the Berkeley Media Studies Group of the Public Health Institute warned that online interactive alcohol advertising campaigns pose “a new threat to young people,” and should be investigated by the Federal Trade Commission.

Even if these techniques are targeted at young people of drinking age, the WHO said, they still attract those who are underage.

The WHO plan is also advocating setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol, to reduce consumption, and suggests raising taxes on alcohol.

Development of the plan, which took about two years, has been closely watched by the alcohol industry, but the industry organization Global Alcohol Producers Group responded positively Thursday, calling the strategy an “important and constructive step forward in helping address alcohol issues around the world.”

The group represents Heineken, Diageo, Anheuser-Busch InBev, among others.