Alcohol advertising

The Ministry of Social Affairs and Health is responsible for preparing the legislation and for managing and steering the supervision of alcohol advertising.

The National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health (Valvira) supervises compliance with the Alcohol Act at national level and steers the supervisory activities at regional level. The Regional State Administrative Agencies supervise compliance with the Alcohol Act in their areas.

Restrictions to alcohol advertising entered into force at the beginning of 2015. The aim was to protect children and young people from negative effects of alcohol by limiting the chances of children and young people being exposed to alcohol advertising.

The comprehensive reform of the Alcohol Act would not introduce any major amendments to the advertising regulations, since they are fairly recent.

In the new Alcohol Act the concepts of advertising and sales promotion would be combined under the concept of marketing. Restaurants and bars would be allowed to have happy hour promotions, and an exception to the ban on advertising of strong alcoholic beverages would be introduced, allowing beverage producers and restaurants to present their products in the internet. Retail stores would no longer be allowed to pay customers rewards or bonuses for the purchase of alcoholic beverages.

Questions and answers

What kinds of alcohol advertising regulations were there before in Finland?

The advertising of strong alcoholic beverages has been prohibited since 1977. In 1995 the ban on the advertising of mild alcoholic beverages was partly lifted; now the Alcohol Act contains a list of prohibited ways of advertising (e.g. advertising must not be aimed at minors, time limits for advertising on TV).

Why impose new restrictions in 2015?

Longitudinal research results indicating that alcohol advertising increases drinking among children and young people could be obtained only after allowing the advertising of mild alcoholic beverages. Advertising can influence the drinking habits even after the age of 20. Naturally advertising is not the only contributing factor to alcohol use, but it has effects similar to those of affordable prices and easy access.

The old legislation allowed a significant amount of advertising that had potential to influence children. The amendments that took effect at the start of 2015 focused on measures that protect children and young people from alcohol harm. Outdoor advertising was banned, because anyone can see it anytime. Alcohol advertising on TV and radio was allowed only after 22 o’clock. Competitions and lotteries and social media advertising were banned because they were becoming popular.

Are not these grounds false? Advertising does not increase overall alcohol consumption; it is only a means of dividing the markets between rivalling companies and products.

Overall alcohol consumption is at a relatively high level in the developed western countries. When there is only a little growth potential, advertising does not increase overall consumption, instead it maintains it. The restrictions are based on scientific evidence of the effects of alcohol advertising on alcohol use among children and young people.

Children and young people use the more alcohol, the more they see alcohol advertising, according to a 2009 report by an expert group appointed by the European Commission. Advertising is associated with a lower age of first use of alcohol and with increased use among those who have already started.

Studies on the effects of alcohol advertising have been criticised constantly. Why are you not taking the criticism into account?

There are nearly a thousand research publications on alcohol advertising. They all have been taken into account in the drafting phase, using six scientific review articles as main sources.

Review articles are extensive scientific articles that survey and summarise the most important studies published on a topic. They put the results from individual studies into a broader perspective and give an overview of the existing research on the topic and of the strength of the evidence available.

Scientific research aims to challenge previous research and offer counter arguments. While this research has been criticised, the criticism has not been sufficient to change the prevailing scientific understanding.

Do you not care about people’s opinions when you draft laws?

The government proposal is based on research results, not on opinion polls. The Government and Parliament are aware that some people are support advertising restrictions, some are against them, while others are indifferent. Politics is about making choices, and in this case we chose to protect children and young people.

Will these advertising restrictions stop children from drinking alcohol?

The advertising restrictions will not stop children from drinking alcohol, but they do reduce children’s exposure to advertising. For example, alcohol education in schools has more chance of succeeding when there is less competition from alcohol advertising.

Are not the advertising restrictions in breach of the Finnish Constitution and EU law? People must have the right to freedom of expression, and the EU must have free markets.

The Constitutional Law Committee of Parliament has approved the government proposals. Individuals’ right to freedom of expression is not breached; they can still talk, write and express themselves freely even about alcoholic beverages. Advertising, on the hand, has a commercial purpose, and is possible to impose restrictions on it (as has already been done in the Tobacco Act and the Alcohol Act).

The Finnish restrictions on alcohol advertising are not the strictest in Europe, and for example France, Sweden and Norway have imposed even stricter restrictions. The restrictions aim to protect public health, and they have been found to be in line with EU law.

Do not the restrictions on alcohol advertising weaken the domestic business and industry in relation to foreign competitors?

Obviously, you see alcohol advertisements on foreign TV channels and on foreign internet sites even when they are banned in Finland. On the other hand, the restrictions imposed by law apply to the most visible forms of advertising. You can see alcohol advertisements every day when they are on bus stops or on television in the commercial breaks of popular shows, but not that many people see every day foreign alcohol advertisements on YouTube, for example.

The European Court of Justice has issued opinions on the competition impacts of advertising bans in certain countries. It has stated that advertising bans favour well-known products and discriminate against less-known products of foreign competitors, which are harder hit by the restrictions on advertising. In other words, advertising bans might even favour domestic producers.

Restrictions on alcohol advertising increase price competition and price advertising, and therefore also alcohol harm. Does it make any sense to restrict advertising?

Advertising the price of mild alcoholic beverages will still be allowed. Children are less interested in the price of beer than in a colourful advertisement on the school bus or a raffle to win tickets to the concert of their favourite artist. If price competition lowered the price level for alcoholic beverages, the Government could easily restore the higher price level by increasing the excise duties on alcohol.

Will there no longer be any ways to advertise high-quality domestic products?

The main rule is that the advertising ban applies to strong alcoholic beverages. You can still advertise mild alcoholic beverages, as long as you do not target minors.
It is not allowed to advertise mild alcoholic beverages on public places (e.g. outdoors advertising), on television and radio before 22 o’clock, or on social media. The restrictions do not apply to advertising on printed media or internet sites.

Where can I find more precise answers on what advertising is allowed and what is banned?

The National Supervisory Authority for Welfare and Health (Valvira) has published guidelines on the existing restrictions. The most recent restrictions entered into force on 1 January 2015, and the guidelines were published by Valvira in November 2014.

Yhteystiedot – Yhteystietonosto

Ismo Tuominen, Senior Counsellor 
STM, Hyvinvointi- ja palveluosasto / HPO, Asiakkuus ja toimintaympäristö -yksikkö / ASTO, Hyvinvoinnin- ja terveydensuojelu -tulosryhmä / HYT 0295163341