Just one in four Scots would not support a ban on sports sponsorship by the alcohol industry, according to a national survey, The Ferret can reveal.
It comes as the Scottish Government – which is currently consulting on plans to restrict alcohol marketing, including a ban on advertising in sport – has been accused of breaking its commitment to exclude the alcohol industry from discussions on public health policy.
Campaigners including the Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems (SHAAP) said the Scotland-wide poll highlighted the need for the Scottish Government to guard against influence by the alcohol industry and act in the public interest to reduce alcohol harms and save lives.
An average of 700 people are hospitalised and about 24 people die each week from illnesses caused by drinking alcohol in Scotland. The number of annual alcohol-related deaths has been rising since 2012 and last year reached 1,245.
The poll was done in October by marketing research company IPSOS on behalf of the University College London’s Alcohol Toolkit Survey. It asked Scots whether they would back a ban of alcohol advertising sports clubs, events and competitions.
Almost half (47 per cent) said they would back a ban, and a further 27 per cent said they were unsure, while the remaining 26 per cent said they would not support a ban.
‘Wake-up’ call on alcohol and sports link
SHAAP, a partnership between the Medical Royal Colleges in Scotland and the Faculty of Public Health, said it demonstrated that the public was “waking-up” to the fact that alcohol sponsorship was “completely at odds” to sport.
But both the Scottish Football Association and Scottish Professional Football League have warned of the “significant unintended consequences” if the ban goes ahead, and have highlighted the “potential multi-million pound cost to the national game”.
Recent research has shown that Scotland has a higher proportion of alcohol sponsors in the Scottish Premier League when compared to other European nations.
Campaigners claim the cost to lives outweighs the financial risks to elite sport.
The Scottish Government launched its restricting alcohol advertising and promotion consultation last month. The measures proposed – are considered to be public health measures by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
Enforcing bans or comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, sponsorship, and promotion is one of five evidence-based recommendations made by the WHO for reducing alcohol harms.
Advocates for the ban claim high financial stakes are driving fierce lobbying by the alcohol industry to counter these recommendations.
Entries in the lobbying register show influential alcohol industry organisations, including Diageo and the Scotch Whisky Association, met with MSPs from the SNP, Scottish Conservatives, Scottish Labour and the Scottish Lib Dems to raise concerns about the Scottish Government’s proposals to put limits on alcohol advertising.
The Ferret also found two meetings recorded in the lobbying register about the consultation between industry representatives and government officials – despite a commitment made in the Scottish Government’s alcohol and drug prevention policy not to consult with the drinks sector over health policy matters.
On 13 June this year the first minister’s special advisor Davie Hutchison met a representative from Diageo in which, according to the lobbying register, they “discussed public health policy on alcohol-related issues, with a view to understanding the Scottish Government plans to consult on proposed alcohol marketing restrictions”.
A few months later, on 1 August, the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA) met Permanent Secretary John-Paul Marks to discuss a range of issues including industry “concerns re the forthcoming proposed alcohol marketing restrictions consultations, specifically how this could impact smaller members and their growth”.
Dr Alastair MacGilchrist, chair of SHAAP, said that the Scottish Government needed to take its steer from public opinion in its proposals to limit alcohol advertising and said the harms caused by alcohol and the health benefits of sport were “completely at odds”.
He added: “The public is waking up to the fact that alcohol marketing should have no place in sport.
“It’s simply a means for alcohol producers to capitalise on the emotional connections fans have with their clubs and sports to increase sales of their products, despite the resulting damage to health.”
He also expressed concerns about lobbying activity around the consultation.
“The alcohol industry has a legitimate right as a stakeholder to respond to the Scottish Government’s consultation on proposed restrictions to alcohol marketing but allowing their representatives to meet with government officials to discuss public health policy looks very like involvement with health policy development,” he said.
MacGilchrist claimed that in other countries which had proposed restricting alcohol marketing, including Ireland, the industry “comes out in force to try to water down or stop such plans in their tracks”. “This is classic lobbying activity that comes straight from the tobacco playbook,” he added.
Scottish Labour Monica Lennon MSP, also expressed concerns about the links between the alcohol industry and health policy. “While the Scottish Government rightly promised to keep big alcohol away from health policy development, worryingly the lobbying register tells a different story,” she added.
Lennon, who is the co-convener of the Scottish Parliament’s cross–party group on drug and alcohol misuse, has spoken out about how the role alcohol played in her own father’s death.
She added: “Alcohol is one of Scotland’s biggest killers and measures to restrict how it is marketed, including alcohol sponsorship in sport, are long overdue.
“Polling indicates strong public support for action to curb alcohol marketing, and people have every right to expect the Scottish Government will lead a fair and transparent consultation.
“We wouldn’t want big tobacco to have its fingerprints all over Scotland’s public health policies, and the same should apply when it comes to tackling Scotland’s harmful relationship with alcohol.”
Others supportive of a ban of alcohol sponsorship in sport including the Scottish Women’s Football, which already agreed not to take sponsorship from either the alcohol or gambling industries.
A recent survey of over a hundred Scottish Women’s Football National Performance League players – the elite youth league – found 74 percent agreed with a ban on alcohol sponsorship of the game, and only three per cent disagreed. One in ten have experience of someone who drinks harmfully.
Role models in sport
Scottish Women’s Football chair, Vivienne MacLaren, said it made the decision because it “takes the wellbeing of our players at all ages very seriously, as well as the importance of visibility and role models in building our sport”.
“It is widely acknowledged that alcohol has a negative impact on both,” she added. “What’s more, on top of our evident social responsibility, we feel our stance has been financially justified and supported by the sponsors we have attracted to the game in recent years. It has helped the image of the sport, rather than hindered it.”
One Glasgow mother, whose child has been struggling with her problematic drinking for four years, urged the Scottish Government to act to save lives and reduce harms caused by alcohol. We agreed not to name her to protect her daughter’s identity.
“Alcohol is totally embedded in our culture,” she said. “Looking at something like elite sport – where people are meant to be fit and healthy – what is the sense in using that to promote something that is so harmful? People might still drink, and that’s fine, but it’s about breaking that link between alcohol and sport, especially for young people.”
She said it was important for people to understand the harms that alcohol could cause. “It can be devastating,” she added. “My 28-year-old daughter has tried to take her life five times. And it feels like there is nowhere to turn.
“I think that’s the hardest thing – there is all this money sloshing around for alcohol sponsorship but my daughter cannot access proper support.”
Tom Bennett, who has experience of addiction and is the rights and recovery officer for Scottish Recovery Consortium, added: “Sponsorship is triggering and makes us drink – it’s extremely effective – that’s why the industry invests so much money in it.
“Sports sponsorship sends completely the wrong message. It’s completely unacceptable that people are bombarded with alcohol sponsorship when attending their favourite sports events.”
The drinks industry claims it already works hard to promote responsible drinking and contributes to programmes to address problems caused by alcohol. Diageo runs education programmes in the UK and claims its theatre programme has reached over a million people across 25 countries.
In April 2021 it introduced “voluntary health warning” labels on some of its spirits, with a QR code which led to advice on harmful levels of drinking.
The Scottish Whisky Association launched the Scotch Whisky Action Fund in 2013, which gives grants to projects taking “an innovative approach to addressing the issues around alcohol misuse”.
A spokesperson for the SWA said: “We welcome the opportunity to discuss the future of marketing and sponsorship of alcohol with the Scottish Government. We share many of the same goals, including reducing harmful consumption and protecting children from alcohol advertising.
“But we do have deep concerns regarding the sweeping proposals set out in the consultation. It is important that the Scottish Government consults all relevant stakeholders – including the alcohol industry – to obtain a broad perspective and understanding of the impact and to identify any unintended consequences.”
They insisted the Scotch Whisky industry had “a robust marketing code in place” and said it aimed to work constructively with the Scottish Government “to ensure our shared aims of promoting moderation, reducing harmful consumption and supporting growth in the Scottish economy can be achieved”.
A spokesman for the Scottish Government claimed alcohol-related harm was “one of the most pressing public health challenges” Scotland faced and the reason behind initiatives such as minimum unit pricing (MUP) “in the face of significant challenges from some quarters of the alcohol industry”.
“Representatives of the Scottish Government routinely meet a wide range of external organisations, where we have no control over the matters the organisations choose to raise,” they said. “The alcohol industry has not been involved in the development of health policy.”
Public Health Minister, Maree Todd, has already been “clear that there is clear evidence that adverts which glamorise drinking can encourage young people to drink alcohol”, they added.
“The Scottish Government is determined to tackle Scotland’s problematic relationship with alcohol and the current wide ranging consultation is an important step in doing that,” the spokesperson said.
This story was published with the Sunday National.