Auckland Council is currently seeking public feedback on signs and advertising at liquor stores. Dr Nicki Jackson outlines the compelling reasons to have your say.

There are more than 1000 off-licence businesses in Auckland that sell takeaway alcohol. More than half of these are standalone bottle stores, inequitably distributed to our most deprived communities. The majority of the remaining off-licences include online alcohol retailers that deliver the country’s most harmful drug to your door, and supermarkets and grocery stores that sell beer and wine next to your bread and milk.

As you walk, cycle or drive through your neighbourhood, it is often difficult to miss a bottle store. Its exterior is often painted in big, bold, bright colours, with numerous large signs and posters commonly advertising alcohol brands, products and discounted product prices. Outside the shop front, there may be an array of sandwich boards and flags cluttering the landscape.

Research demonstrates that bottle stores typically stand out from other retail, with more exterior signs. This situation isn’t unique to New Zealand. Communities describe the current appearance of bottle stores as “visual pollution”, an “eyesore”, or a “blight”. When young people in Clendon and Māngere were asked to show concerning features of their neighbourhood, they took photos of the pervasive marketing of alcohol.

In their substantive review into alcohol regulation, the Law Commission noted advertising and signs as a ‘secondary harm’ associated with liquor store density. They described the dominating, large, obtrusive and unkempt alcohol price advertisements and product branding on shop fronts, adjoining walls and sandwich boards. This was considered to result, in part, from the pressure to compete with surrounding liquor stores. The creation of these “alcogenic” living environments was noted to have the potential to significantly lower the aesthetic value of an area, which in turn has flow-on effects for the community.

No one should feel bad about where they live. It is well-recognised that residents attribute social meaning to community degradation. These subjective perceptions of neighbourhood degradation are strongly associated with negative health and social outcomes, including poorer physical and mental health, poorer self-reported health and life satisfaction, and lower levels of residential wellbeing and social trust. A sense of stigma about one’s neighbourhood can also exacerbate existing health, social and economic inequalities by acting as a barrier to accessing essential services such as welfare and housing. Improving visual amenity should be a key role of local government, given they are mandated by law to use sustainable development approaches to promote the social, economic, environmental and cultural wellbeing of its communities.

The second pernicious effect of signs and advertising at liquor stores results from the harmful effects of alcohol advertising exposure. Alcohol advertising remains ubiquitous in our environment, as marketers utilise multiple channels to get brands and advertising in front of us. Evidence shows that alcohol marketing is a cause of youth drinking. The more alcohol marketing a young person sees, the greater the likelihood they will begin to drink earlier and drink larger amounts of alcohol. Each exposure matters, whether that be via social media, sports sponsorship, billboards, or liquor stores. Research among children in the Wellington region found that outdoor advertising exposure (including shop fronts, sandwich boards) accounted for a significant proportion of total alcohol advertising exposure, with boys, Māori, and Pacific children showing disproportionately higher levels of exposure.

Individually and collectively, we have a duty to protect young people and reduce inequities in alcohol harm. Especially as this group experiences disproportionately more harm from their drinking than other age groups. Adolescence is also a period with heightened risk to the development of alcohol use disorders. Research shows that almost 50 percent of alcohol abuse and dependence cases in New Zealand are developed by the age of 20 years and 70 percent by age 25.

Many of the 500,000+ children and young people (aged 15 to 24 years) in Auckland reside in areas with high concentrations of liquor stores. The local boards with the highest proportion of children and young people living within them are Māngere-Ōtāhuhu, Manurewa, Ōtara-Papatoetoe, and Papakura. The inequitable spatial distribution of liquor stores in these areas has clear implications for exposure to, and harm from, store signs and alcohol advertising.

Children don’t get to choose where they live. They deserve to freely explore their neighbourhoods without being harmed by exposure to alcohol marketing. This may explain why 80 percent of New Zealanders support restrictions to alcohol advertising that children may see.

Restricting signs and alcohol advertising also protects the tens of thousands of Aucklanders with alcohol use disorders, of which the prevalence reveals stark and longstanding inequities. Persons with alcohol abuse and/or dependence may be particularly harmed by advertising exposure by being more responsive to alcohol advertising and imagery (particularly of their favourite drink, of drinking scenes, and alcohol products). This places them at risk of triggering acute craving, relapse and maintaining alcohol dependence. Reducing alcohol cues in outdoor advertisements is one mechanism to reducing harm to this population.

There is a clear rationale to require different rules for alcohol ads versus other ads in our local retail environments. Alcohol is a psychoactive, addictive drug. It is not an ordinary retail commodity. Any right to advertise a business should be weighed against the risk of substantial public health harm. Similar evidence and arguments underpin the reasons we don’t allow tobacco and vaping retailers to advertise.

More generally, signs and advertising at liquor stores also increase the visibility of alcohol, potentially contributing to the development of positive norms towards alcohol. When these norms persist or are reinforced over time, it can create the impression that alcohol use is omnipresent in our social and physical surroundings.

So, I congratulate Auckland Council for commencing public consultation on signs and advertising at liquor stores. Restricting signs and advertising at liquor stores can:

  • improve community wellbeing by improving visual amenity;
  • prevent and reduce inequities in alcohol use and harm;
  • reduce the normalisation of alcohol in our communities;
  • reduce exposure to alcohol advertising, particularly protecting children, young people and Aucklanders with alcohol use disorders;
  • assist in creating healthier environments with fewer cues or signals to drink, thereby supporting Aucklanders in their efforts to cut down their alcohol use and reap the many wellbeing benefits from drinking less; and
  • assist Auckland Council to achieve its goal “to be inclusive so that all can share in its benefits and reach their potential”.

Have your say on this important issue. While we continue in our efforts to reduce the inequitable distribution of liquor stores across Auckland, this is a concrete action we can take now. Consultation closes October 27.

Dr Nicki Jackson is an honorary academic in the Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences at the University of Auckland.

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