Industry messages on responsible drinking can be muddy

(Reuters Health) - The language used in industry-sponsored messages about drinking alcohol, such as “drink responsibly” and “drink properly,” doesn’t do a good job of explaining to the public what safe alcohol consumption means, suggests a recent study.

FILE PHOTO: Beer bottles from all over the world are on display at the Hop museum in Wolnzach on April 10, 2014. REUTERS/Michael Dalder

“We are increasingly aware of the harms associated with alcohol consumption, and we need to communicate what the harms are and how to reduce them,” said lead author Sandra Jones of Australian Catholic University in Melbourne.

“As the evidence of harm increases, the alcohol industry is trying the tobacco industry strategy of confusing people with messages while appearing to be doing the right thing,” she told Reuters Health in a telephone interview.

Alcohol consumption is linked with alcohol use disorders, liver cirrhosis, cancer, suicide, violence, heart disease and fetal alcohol syndrome, as well as socioeconomic consequences such as unemployment, loss of income and barriers to healthcare, Jones’ team writes in PLoS One.

The Australian Government National Health and Medical Research Council recommends having no more than two drinks per day and no more than four drinks in one session to reduce the risk of alcohol-related injuries and diseases.

“Responsible drinking” campaigns emerged in the early 1970s as a way to address risky drinking and consequences, and they were largely sponsored by public health agencies and organizations, the study team writes.

More recently, industry-sponsored messages have emerged. For example, DrinkWise, a public relations organization in Australia funded by the alcohol industry, recently promoted a “How to Drink Properly” campaign, which featured a handsome character similar to James Bond or Don Draper who told young adults how to drink. Public health experts criticized the campaign for glamorizing alcohol as sophisticated and stylish and for being unclear about “how much is too much.”

To gauge how the public perceives and understands such messages, the research team surveyed 180 people at malls in Melbourne and Newcastle and showed them six taglines: “Drink smart,” “Know when to say when,” “You won’t miss a moment if you DrinkWise,” “Drinking: Do it properly,” “Kids absorb your drinking,” and “Kids and alcohol don’t mix.” The researchers asked each participant what the statements conveyed and what particular words like “properly” and “kids” meant to them.

People gave a variety of responses with a wide range of meanings, most often associating the taglines with moderation, knowing limits and avoiding drunkenness. “How to drink properly,” however, confused 24 percent of participants who thought it meant “looking cool when you drink.” Another 21 percent thought it meant “drinking the right kind of alcohol,” and 8 percent thought it meant to drink more rather than less.

“What surprised us is that people mostly understood the messages - such as knowing your limit - but the message is subjective,” Jones said. “Once you’ve had a few drinks, you’re not the best judge.”

In addition, the taglines targeting parents about “kids” were vague regarding age. The legal drinking age in Australia is 18, yet only half of those surveyed thought the messages included 16- and 17-year-olds. More than 80 percent said it included 13- to 15-year-olds, and 75 percent said it included 7- to 12-year-olds.

The research team also surveyed 480 adults online after showing them four video ads with results that were similar to the first experiment. Most people interpreted the messages to be about moderation and knowing limits, other than the “How to drink properly” ad, which again was perceived by some as being about sophistication and drinking more rather than less. Participants also said that ad was least likely to change their drinking behavior.

“The key thing that stuck out was just how confused people are about what’s appropriate and proper,” said Peter Miller of Deakin University in Geelong, Australia, who wasn’t involved in the study.

Future research should investigate which messages work and then encourage the government to produce clear campaigns in addition to the vague ones being produced by the alcohol industry, said Miller, who studies alcohol messaging, policy and violence.

“People have to be critical about sources of information and where messages are coming from,” he told Reuters Health in a phone interview. “When we see the industry say, ‘drink properly,’ they’re still saying ‘drink.’”

SOURCE: PLoS ONE, online September 21, 2017.