Our study considered accord among Australian alcohol policy researchers and advocates about two core alcohol control policy options. Our findings offer insights from experts that may assist future advocates to join the public conversation and for all advocates to present a united front, arguing the case for evidence based pragmatic solutions for alcohol related problems.
All informants readily agreed that price is a key focal area for reducing alcohol problems. However, the consensus among those interviewed about the regulation of alcohol advertising and promotion was comparatively “general”: when prompted to discuss explicit restrictions on advertising, differences emerged. While there was broad consensus that “something needs to be done” about controlling alcohol promotions, there was little consensus on exactly what should occur and with what priority. This is echoed in public discussions, where news-coverage of alcohol advertising controls shows similar divergence of opinion concerning what kind of advertising is the focus and what form regulation should take
. While the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol (NAAA) now has a clear position statement on advertising reform
, the organisation was in its early stages at the time of interview and these suggestions had yet to result in a clear ‘cut through’ message that advocates repeatedly endorse in public statements or the private discussions reported here. The field would thus benefit from wider sectoral agreement on a policy platform on advertising controls, specifying and arguing for an explicit set of reforms, with the NAAA being well placed to support such activity.
The high degree of unity within the alcohol control field regarding the importance of a volumetric tax is notable. While informants expressed dismay that the current political climate was unsupportive of this measure, the consensus causes consistent messages to be voiced on this issue. That said, there was some lack of agreement over whether the tax should follow a flat rate based purely on volume of alcohol, or whether there should be allowances made for higher taxing in higher bands tied to volume. Thus, advocacy efforts focussed on existing policy platforms articulated by the NPHT and the NAAA regarding the likely form a banded-volumetric tax would take may provide important reference points to “sign on” all organisations which support reform
. While the introduction of a volumetric tax is not imminent, the consensus about reform on this issue among researchers and advocates is unlikely to see it disappear as a repeated core demand when alcohol advocates repeatedly provide public news commentary on “solutions” to alcohol problems in the community.
The rate of progress of policy reform in other fields provides encouragement for ongoing long-term advocacy despite the political conditions. For example, plain tobacco packaging legislation has been recently introduced after first being proposed in 1986
. Clearly, advocacy for volumetric taxation will require a long-term commitment to continuing advocacy, while producing the evidence necessary to arguing the case.
Our findings also suggest a clear opportunity for a united vision regarding minimum or floor pricing of alcohol to emerge in the public debate. Some informants pointed out that public health improvements to be gained from such a policy are clear and evidence based
[60, 61]. Given the current assessment that a volumetric tax is unlikely, minimum pricing proposals potentially represent an alternative strategy for those advocates who support pragmatic solutions which may have a greater chance of being adopted in a given political climate. Minimum pricing for alcohol has been trialled in the Northern Territory and is the focus of a current issues paper for the Australian National Preventive Health Agency
. However, minimum pricing is contested by sectors of the drinks industry, who contend that a minimum price would adversely affect moderate drinkers and low-income households while having limited impact on heavy drinkers
. There are also questions about whether minimum price policy would be considered ‘anti-competitive’ and breach existing trade agreements. This was found not to be the case in the UK and is seen as viable in Australia
. Clarification of these points represents a substantial opportunity for united advocacy in the future.
At present, the government has rejected outright proposals to introduce a volumetric tax yet has opted for ‘continued monitoring’ of alcohol advertising. While this is far from ideal for those urging the introduction of legislated controls on advertising, the possibility of such measures being introduced in a subsequent, more favourable political climate remains. Focusing on greater specification about the message concerning alcohol advertising may be a key strategic move for Australian advocates.
Previously, this issue received scant and poorly focussed news coverage
. The NPHT report recommended that an initial focus on restricting alcohol advertising should attend specifically to underage exposure and promotions associated with sport. Our interviews did not show consensus on the same focus, with differences of opinion about priority risk groups, whether it was the timing, frequency or content of advertising that should be addressed nor on how to approach the issues of alcohol sponsorship in sports beyond a very general concern that it was a problem. Only one respondent reported an organisational focus on ending sports sponsorships in line with the NPHT recommendations. There is currently no national policy platform that appears to be supported publicly by all leading figures in the field, despite national recommendations and a clear policy position adopted by the NAAA. Securing the understanding and support of such agencies for these national policies would ensure a more clearly articulated vision about the specific controls on advertising that are needed.
Informants were clear that the implementation of the ABAC guidelines were not effective in reducing underage exposure to advertising. Capitalising on this consensus will be a sensible point of reference in stimulating further, more focussed and precise policy discussion. Indeed, the Alcohol Advertising Review Board
 is also adjudicating complaints about alcohol advertising, providing a point of comparison to a drinks industry administered mechanism where complaints are assessed and rejected at a high rate
[38, 42]. This seems likely to further highlight the problems with the current self-regulatory system. Although this alternative adjudication system has no powers to order changes in advertising, nor does the ABAC system, and it remains a useful tool to highlight the major shortcomings of the present industry self-regulation.
A key area of concern for regulation of alcohol advertising is the internet and its social media networks. While the NAAA mentions the internet in its policy priorities, the current NPHT recommendations do not address online alcohol advertising. This neglect was raised by few informants in our study. There are indications that pages with branded material on social networks like Facebook are becoming more common and recently were found by the ASB to be a form of marketing that falls under the ABAC guidelines
. This is an important ruling for alcohol control, and should stimulate alcohol control agencies to develop policy positions on internet promotions. There are several examples of explicit policy priorities that advocates and experts in the field of alcohol control can consider
[14, 58]. However, the current differences reported here indicate that not all Australian alcohol control agencies are united on what these should be and ensuring that all members of the sector promote the same vision. Some have argued that an internationally agreed framework convention on alcohol control is of high importance
 in achieving clearly articulated and agreed upon policy reform steps.
Some limitations to interpreting the results of this study include the fact that not all experts identified could participate and we note there may be candidates for inclusion who were not identified by our sampling approach. While we made efforts to identify experts in public roles regarding alcohol advocacy, it is possible that further input from other experts could advance the current discussion. Likewise, other research foci were covered in the interviews that could not all be included here and restricting the focus of this paper to pricing and promotions policies may have limited the scope of these findings. We also note that after the research was conducted, new policy alliances were created that are working towards common policy goals, for example, the NSW/ACT Alcohol Policy Alliance (NAAPA)
. Likewise, the aforementioned National Alliance for Action and Alcohol
 and the Alcohol Advertising Review Board
, though formed, were still in the early stages of refining policy positions when the research was conducted. It is likely that such organisations are already assisting to move the sector forward on unified approaches to alcohol policy solutions.
Finally, our findings point to a need for further research to answers questions about the evidence base, which could be used by advocates in future policy advocacy. Namely, clearer answers are required about whether harm-taxes for specific drinks are warranted, what impact advertising restrictions would have, whether any restrictions short of a total ban would have the desired impact, and the kind of sporting sponsorship that should be tackled first. These would help to clarify and unite positions taken by experts across the whole field.