The leaders of Britain’s nurses, A&E specialists and hospital doctors are among those urging ministers to outlaw the sort of deals that have seen Everton and Celtic football clubs agree multimillion pound tie-ups to advertise beer and cider brands on the front of their players’ shirts.
In a letter to the Guardian, a group of medical leaders, public health campaigners and health charities are calling for the action because alcohol sponsorship of sport has become “as commonplace as advertising for cereal or soap powder”.
Their intervention comes as millions of sports fans prepare to attend or watch on television a packed Boxing Day programme of football, racing and rugby, all of which have struck deals to help promote alcoholic drinks.
The letter says: “Shouldn’t our national sports be inspiring our children to lead healthy and positive lifestyles? It would be considered outrageous if high-profile teams like Everton or Celtic were to become brand ambassadors for tobacco, and so why is it acceptable for alcohol?”
Everton, who are 11th in the Premier League, have been sponsored by the Thai beer producer Chang since 2004 and earlier this year agreed a three-year extension worth a reported £16m. Celtic, the Scottish champions, are in the second season of a three-year sponsorship deal with Irish cider firm Magners, which earns them an estimated £1.5m a year. They, and Glasgow rivals Rangers, were both sponsored until last year by the lager brand Tennent’s and have previously been simultaneously sponsored by Carling, another beer brand. Both clubs declined to respond to the letter.
The letter claims: “Self-regulation of alcohol advertising isn’t working when it allows drink brands to dominate sporting events that attract children and adults, creating automatic associations between alcohol brands and sport that are cumulative, unconscious and built up over years.”
The signatories also bolster their plea to ministers by adding: “Importantly, evidence shows that exposure to alcohol advertising leads young people to drink more and to drink at an earlier age.”
The letter’s signatories include Professor Jane Dacre, president of the Royal College of Physicians, which represents hospital doctors; Dr Peter Carter, chief executive of the Royal College of Nursing; Dr Mark Porter, chair of council at the British Medical Association; and Dr Clifford Mann, president of the College of Emergency Medicine, which speaks on behalf of A&E doctors.
They want the government to intervene, and claim that public opinion supports introducing a ban on alcohol advertising of sport. “Let’s take action to protect our children by ensuring that the sports we watch promote healthy lifestyles and inspire participation, not a drinking culture. Let’s make alcohol sports sponsorship a thing of the past,” they say.
“Evidence from the UK and abroad shows exposure to alcohol sports sponsorship leads schoolchildren and sportspeople to drink more. Given the hundreds of thousands of pounds channelled into sponsorship deals, it’s not surprising they boost sales,” said Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, an independent thinktank.
“It’s obvious that children growing up idolising sporting heroes with beer brands blazoned across their chests will develop deep-rooted positive attitudes towards drinking. It’s also obvious that high profile alcohol advertising via sponsorship deals work to normalise what is in fact an unnatural association between drinking and sport,” Brown added.
France has banned alcohol sponsorship of sport since 1991. The major European rugby union club competition, the Heineken Cup, is known as the H Cup in France because of the country’s restrictions on alcohol advertising.
Such restrictions have not prevented France successfully hosting major sporting events since, such as the football and rugby World Cups, Brown said. “This goes to show alcohol is by no means a necessity for success in sport.” Russia, Ukraine and Norway also already have such a ban. Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the Republic of Ireland are considering following suit.
However, the UK government made clear it was happy with the alcohol sponsorship code drawn up by the Portman Group, which speaks for the industry, in conjunction with sports governing bodies. Existing controls on alcohol advertising are intended to ensure that it does not target young people.
“The Portman Code has brought industry together to promote responsible alcohol sponsorship agreements in the UK and we have seen examples such as Everton football club not including the alcohol sponsor they have on children’s replica shirts,” said a government spokeswoman.
Working with the industry the government has helped promote responsible drinking, for example by banning the sale of cheap, usually high-strength products that cost less than duty plus VAT.
The Portman Group said a ban was unnecessary and wrongly conceived. “Calling for a ban does not reflect the reality of what is happening in the UK, where official government statistics show that rates of binge drinking among 16- to 24-year-olds are in significant decline and the number of children even trying alcohol is at a record low,” said a spokeswoman.
“Alcohol sponsorship of events in the UK makes a significant contribution to the country’s vibrant and diverse economy, and provides essential support, allowing investment in grassroots and youth programmes nationwide,” she added.