December is here and so is party time. Long weekends, Christmas festivities and year-end get-togethers will all be the order of the day. No such occasion is considered complete without a bottle of beer, a glass of wine or a pint of whisky.

Socialising is assuming a new meaning these days. Alcohol consumption is gaining acceptability, Indians are beginning to drink at much younger age and there is a range of products to choose from. Instead of raising a toast to all this, a new report from the Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) has raised concern over the spectre of alcohol-related diseases in the country.

Alcohol consumption, like tobacco, is declining in the developed world, but it is on the rise in emerging economies such as India and China.

It seems both the industries are adopting similar marketing tactics to reach out to newer customer segments – youth and women – and are deploying similar undercover moves to circumvent bans on advertising and promotion. Despite the fact that alcohol companies are legally barred from advertising on any media, their advertising and marketing budgets are galloping, and are up to 5-10 per cent of their turnovers.

On a high “This is a favourable time for the alcohol industry in India,” says the PHFI report which is the first attempt to scan the Indian alcohol business through the prism of public health. Factors that favour the industry’s growth are these: expanding cities, demographics tilted in favour of younger populations, changing social norms, rise in disposable incomes, increased alcohol accessibility and availability.

In addition, the industry is booming thanks to relaxed overseas trade rules, availability of alternative means of targeted marketing and promotion such as social media, and propagation of beliefs such as the so-called health benefits of alcohol consumption.

On the reported health benefits of alcohol, the PHFI report quotes available scientific evidence to note moderate alcohol consumption might yield benefits for some, but certainly not for Indians because of their drinking patterns.

Though per capita alcohol consumption in the country is low, hazardous drinking (binge drinking and solitary consumption to the point of intoxication) is the hallmark of alcohol consumption here.

This pattern is observed in more than half of Indian drinkers. Secondly, most Indians prefer to drink brown spirits with high alcohol content (whisky and rum) rather than beer, wine and other products with lower alcohol content. So, forget about beneficial effects of alcohol among Indians.

Surrogate advertising is the main strategy the industry employs to boost alcohol consumption and penetrate newer segments of the market, says the report.

This is worrying because exposure to alcohol advertising and promotion has been directly linked to increased likelihood of people (including those in impressionable age groups) initiating drinking, or increasing their consumption of alcoholic products.

The association between exposure to alcohol marketing and youth drinking behaviour is now well established through studies. That the age of initiation to alcohol has already dropped to 17 years in India makes surrogate advertising a critical factor.

India has fairly strong policies on alcohol advertising, promotion and sponsorship, but enforcement over surrogate advertising is extremely weak, according to the report. Such advertising involves promoting non-alcoholic products that use the same brand name as alcohol products.

This is an age-old technique, but has now become more sophisticated and is widely used. Bottled water, CDs, apparel, among others, are being used to promote alcohol brands. So, Tuborg makes a soft drink and Miller watches. These companies also sponsor many events for endorsing their alcohol brands.

There are achievement awards, cricket teams and even an airline in the name of alcohol products. Teacher’s Achievement Awards and Officer’s Choice Salaam India Awards are examples of high visibility sponsorships. In addition, new product categories such as new flavours, mixed-category variants, ready-to-drink mixed cans and pouches are being used to lure new consumers.

Product placement in movies, including Bollywood, has become blatant. Such placements serve a key marketing communication need.

“The aim of such product placement is to nudge the viewer into recalling and recognising the brand at the time of purchase,” the PHFI report points out. Alcohol brands are presented actively and sometimes passively.

One recent example of active presentation is the suggestively titled movie, Cocktail , in which certain multinational alcohol brands were advertised. References to alcohol are becoming common in blockbuster movies, particularly in songs.

Recent examples include “Daaru Desi” ( Cocktail ), “Humka Peeni Hai” ( Dabangg ), “Chikni Chameli ....Pauva Chadha Ke Aayi” ( Agneepath ), “Talli Hua” ( Singh is King ) and “Talli ho gayi” ( Ugly Aur Pagli ).

Such references to alcohol in popular films, the report notes, contribute to making alcohol use acceptable in a society where it has always had negative connotations. Also seen is the use of social media and mobile phone messaging to directly promote alcohol brands. Kingfisher, a youth-focused brand, claims 360 degree engagement with the youth through Instagram, Flickr, reddit, Facebook and Twitter.

Uncorck action Liberals and industry bodies often argue that if alcohol and tobacco are so bad, why not ban them altogether. Public health advocates concede that it is not easy to ban alcohol completely. State governments derive a large part of their revenues from this industry.

The demand in some markets is so high that banning alcohol may lead to an increase in spurious, illicit liquor.

At the same time, the state can’t ignore adverse impacts of alcohol consumption — health effects, accidents and injuries, domestic and other forms of violence, indulgence in high risk behaviour, absenteeism and low productivity at workplaces and addiction.

Therefore, the PHFI report suggests a multi-pronged strategy for alcohol control and a national legislation to regulate production, sale, distribution, and licensing of alcohol.

At present, alcohol-related policies are fragmented. For instance, it is illogical to licence alcohol retail outlets on highways when data shows most accidents are caused due to drunken driving. Surrogate and other surreptitious forms of alcohol advertising are illegal, but there is no regulation or monitoring. Treatment and de-addiction facilities are also lacking.

There are no mass media campaigns that highlight advantages of reduced consumption or communicate the ill-effects of heavy alcohol consumption. The time has come to examine all these issues seriously.

The author is a science journalist and author in New Delhi.

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