Licensing trusts say they exist to sell alcohol responsibly. So why did a West Auckland trust ask people to recount their ‘craziest’ moments with hard liquor?
They market themselves as responsible sellers of alcohol, a locally-owned organisation controlling access to alcohol to minimise harm and give back to the community. But social media activity by West Auckland’s monopoly-holding licensing trusts has raised concerns that they’re encouraging excessive consumption.
The Spinoff has viewed a Facebook post by the retail arm of The Trusts from last month which may breach the stringent conditions attached to alcohol sales (and advertising alcohol) – specifically, those that prohibit encouraging excessive alcohol consumption.
The Trusts (the name given to the two licensing trusts in West Auckland, Portage and Waitakere) have monopoly status to both sell alcohol and run bars and taverns in West Auckland. The Trusts are “community owned”, in that West Auckland residents get to vote for trustees to sit on the licensing trust boards at each local body election. They operate a number of West Liquor and Village Wines and Spirits bottle stores and run bars from Avondale through to the border with Kumeu.
The post, which has now been removed from West Liquor’s Facebook page, asks people to share their “craziest memories involving one of the below drinks” – Jimador tequila, Jack Daniels, Jagermeister, Southern Comfort and Mount Gay. The post attracted more than 130 comments, with commenters recounting drinking until they lost consciousness, fighting, severely injuring themselves, having unprotected sex leading to pregnancy, wetting themselves, vomiting, and being arrested and spending the night in police custody.
Under the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, “a person commits an offence if, in the course of carrying on a business, that person… does anything that encourages people, or is likely to encourage people, to consume alcohol to an excessive extent, whether on licensed premises or at any other place”. Further, there is an advertising code (and guidelines) which cover promotion and advertisements related to alcohol sales which states ads “shall not feature, imply, condone or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking”.
Dr Nicki Jackson, director of alcohol harm prevention lobbyist Alcohol Healthwatch said the Facebook post and its replies were “horrific” and could be in breach of the advertising industry’s advertising code. After learning of the post, Alcohol Healthwatch yesterday lodged a complaint with the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA). The complaint says the user-generated content can be considered part of West Liquor’s advertisement and is in breach of the ASA’s principles governing alcohol promotion.
The complaint says the post and comments breach the Code for Advertising and Promotion of Alcohol Principle 1(a): “Alcohol advertising and promotions shall not link alcohol with daring, aggressive, unruly, irresponsible or antisocial behaviour nor suggest any association with, acceptance of, or allusion to, tobacco, illicit drugs or volatile substances such as glue and petrol; explosives and weaponry.” Further, it says the post and resulting comments breach Principle 2(b): “Alcohol advertising and promotions shall not feature, imply, condone or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking. That applies to both the amount of drink and the way drinking is portrayed.”
“We believe the comments posted … promotes, implies, and encourages irresponsible drinking,” the complaint reads. “The comments clearly portray excessive consumption of the products in the advertisement. Users clearly describe consuming large amounts of alcohol (half a bottle of JD, getting smashed etc).”
When asked about the Facebook post, The Trusts chief executive Simon Wickham told The Spinoff the organisation took full responsibility for the post, but that the sort of responses it attracted were unanticipated. “We should have removed the post earlier and or asked people to share more appropriate memories. We have removed the post completely as of today in case there is any suggestion that we would endorse such behaviours… We regret that the post led to such comments being posted on our Facebook page.”
Wickham said the post was not intended to encourage or promote excessive consumption or promote alcohol in an irresponsible way. He added that it was not a promotion The Trusts would repeat and that it had been a “learning curve”. “We do take our responsibilities under the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act seriously and regret this incident among many other more appropriate posts and advertising we do a better job of.”
Ross Clow and Linda Cooper, chairs of Portage and Waitakere Trusts, have not responded to requests for comment.
According to Hilary Souter, chief executive of the ASA, the Facebook comments are similar to conversations you might have at the pub. But what tips these conversations into a potential breach of ASA rules is whether a retailer has prompted or invited the comments. Souter said that organisations sometimes fail to appreciate that postings on Facebook and other social media can be advertising too; the ASA has been looking at breaches of the code on social media for about five years.
Under the ASA’s social media guidance, advertisers are warned they must “regularly” monitor comments on pages they have direct involvement with to ensure they comply. Risk areas for user generated comments include images of clearly intoxicated people, minors drinking to excess, sexual imagery linked with alcohol and risky behaviour –and “written comments may also be a problem particularly wording that encourages or reports excessive consumption of alcohol”.
In 2013 Thirsty Liquor was pinged for two Facebook posts which the ASA found “encouraged the idea that excessive consumption of alcohol was amusing and comical”. One was a cat lying on its back asleep beside two empty beer cans. The other showed an infant with a surprised look on its face, in a cot looking at a doll. The caption underneath read: “How much did I drink last night?
More recently a post by Moa Brewing which was published on Facebook and Instagram was found to breach the code. The posts featured a scuba diver in the sea drinking a bottle of Moa beer accompanied by the statement: “Post-dive refreshments.” And in 2016 a Facebook post with a Scrumpy Cider bottle mashed together with the mobile game, Pokemon Go, with the hashtag #GottaCatchEmAll also had to be removed from Facebook for targeting children.
In Australia concern has been mounting about alcohol companies encouraging excessive drinking via social media. In April cider brand Little Fat Lamb was exposed for “distasteful social media content” on its Facebook page including posts with people passed out and covered in vomit. The caption, “when the Little Fat Lamb hits / Give us a like if you can relate”.
Jackson says there is support for more stringent rules for alcohol advertising, and points to a UMR poll Alcohol Healthwatch commissioned earlier this year which found 62% support for restricting alcohol advertising and sponsorship in the same way tobacco advertising is restricted. She says Sweden has put forward legislation to ban alcohol advertising on social media and Lithuania banned all alcohol advertising this year.
Despite a Law Commission report in 2010 which recommended a staged restriction of alcohol advertising, and a Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising in 2014 which found the cost of alcohol harm was enough to justify further restrictions of alcohol advertising and sponsorship – no changes have been made to our regulations.
Jackson says current Health Minister David Clark wanted the new liquor legislation in 2012 to include heavy restrictions on alcohol advertising but more recently has said he needs more advice.
Police and local licensing authorities (Auckland Council, in the case of The Trusts and West Liquor) can also take action against alcohol retailers for breaches of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act, including fines or licence refusal. (The Spinoff contacted the police who referred us to Auckland Council, which hadn’t responded to our request for comment at the time of publication.)
The advertising bungle comes amid growing discontent towards The Trusts from some in the West Auckland community who say the licensing trusts do not give back enough money to the community, considering the organisations have about $14m in the bank and many millions in retained earnings. Collectively The Trusts gave away $1 million last year through its Million Dollar Mission initiative. The Spinoff’s previous coverage of The Trusts can be read here, here and here.
The group agitating for change, West Auckland Licensing Trusts Action Group (WALTAG), wants a vote on The Trusts’ monopoly in next year’s local body election. The last time there was a public vote on whether the monopoly should remain was about 15 years ago.
WALTAG spokesman Nick Smale called the Trusts’ Facebook post “disappointing”. “The community has an expectation (and The Trusts themselves espouse) that they are exemplary in their sales and marketing of alcohol. This very clumsy competition demonstrates a lack of judgement … I note too that this competition has been run on Facebook and does not ask if the user is 18+. I am astounded that they do not have the processes and controls in place to avoid mistakes like this.”
Concerns about licensing trusts have been building since a report by the Auditor-General in 2014 found a concerning lack of oversight into how they are run. “I have long been concerned that licensing trusts are one of the least scrutinised parts of the public sector. They have little or no visibility in parliament. They hold assets on behalf of their communities, and it is important that they are accountable to those communities,” the report says.
Last year parliament’s Justice and Electoral Committee considered the auditor-general’s 2014 report and a 2016 update, and recommended a public register model to improve oversight and accountability of the sector, which is estimated to control almost $400m in community assets.
This model would involve establishing a public register of licensing trusts under the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act 2012, similar to the registers that exist for companies, charities, and incorporated societies. Under a public register model, the registrar would be empowered to remove licensing trusts from the register if they failed to comply with their financial reporting; trusts would also have more stringent public accountability obligations. If a licensing trust was removed from the register it would be prohibited from selling alcohol.
“This would mean the industry body could continue to focus on its existing work without taking on a regulatory function. The costs of the model could be met by fees charged to licensing trusts. Although progress has been made to address the challenges facing licensing trusts, we consider that a review of the sector would be beneficial to establishing the next steps for these trusts,” the committee said.
It asked parliament to note the report, but whether or not anything changes will be up to the new government.
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