A recent Scottish Government report proposing the restriction of alcohol advertising and promotion has been met with criticism by the Scotch whisky industry.

The report has many far reaching recommendations that include: banning sports sponsorship by alcohol brands; prohibiting adverts for alcohol in public places; restricting visibility of alcohol in retail spaces; banning the sale of alcohol related merchandise such as branded clothing or glassware.

These proposals are in line with the World Health Organisation’s suggestion that restricting alcohol advertising is an important measure in reducing and preventing alcohol related harm. Curbing the country’s relatively high number of alcohol-related deaths and hospitalisations is an understandable priority for the Scottish Government.

Much of the fury towards the report thus far has been targeted at its claim that all alcohol products are “essentially variations of the same thing” without marketing. Subsequent headlines have thrown out reactionary words like “livid” and “ignorance” - ‘how dare the government imply my precious Scotch even be compared Buckfast, Tennents or, dare I say it, Glen’s Vodka?!’

And it’s understandable. Centuries of skill and tradition are seemingly being dismissed. Scotch whisky often positions itself as a premium product, and it’s a position earned across the world through years of craftsmanship from a long line of whisky makers. Good marketing may have helped a little, but that marketing wouldn’t count for much without a quality product behind it.

Nevertheless, from a purely public health perspective, it doesn’t really matter if you’re an internationally recognised premium product or not. Whether the spirit was lovingly crafted and has spent decades maturing or if it has been bottled straight off a production line, all alcohol is equally harmful, potentially.

So, from my comfortable position on this fence, I can understand why the whisky world might feel insulted at the report’s wording but I can also see why any recommendations might not give any special dispensation for whisky. However, there’s clearly issues beyond how closely related whisky and other spirits may be.

The Scotch Whisky Association have raised concerns about the wider content of the report, noting that alcohol advertising is already tightly regulated and that further restrictions could have a negative impact on the whole economy. Whisky exports exceeded £4.5billion in 2021, and it would be an act of economic self sabotage for the government to introduce any measures that could harm that.

On top of that, whole communities are built around places where whisky is produced, and it seems little consideration has been paid to the potential social as well as economic consequences in these often remote areas.

It’s important to remember that the report is still at the consultation stage. No formal legislation has been introduced, and the Scottish Government have promised to speak to the industry. It’s always possible that any restrictions introduced won’t be as far reaching as the current proposals recommend. There’s scope for compromise and middle ground.

One possible solution could be to change the nature of alcohol advertising. One of the objectives of restricting advertising is to “prevent the influence of social norms relating to [alcohol] consumption”. While it’s not a universal truth, it also wouldn’t be unfair to say one of the stereotypical social norms of Scottish drinking culture is a lack of moderation. (Examining this idea in relation to Scotch whisky and your average whisky drinker is something that I will strategically [spinelessly] shy away from for now).

A current advertising campaign by one of our Irish cousins helps to “prevent the influence” of this particular social norm by challenging it head on. Jameson’s latest advert features the slogan ‘Easy Does It’ and shows various scenarios that highlight the social pressures that can lead to overconsumption. The ads encourage pouring smaller measures at home and tell us that it’s not weird to not want to drink at all. Normalising these behaviours is massively important in changing attitudes to alcohol, and these adverts aim to prove that ‘responsible drinking’ doesn’t have to be as cold and joyless as the phrase may suggest.

This example obviously doesn’t go as far as the government report recommends, but it would doubtlessly be a positive step if someone within the Scotch whisky industry were to borrow and promote this idea. Could anyone argue against a whisky company running a campaign saying ‘you don’t need to have a drink’?

Since the report is still under consultation we still have some time to wait to see what restrictions will actually be introduced and how that may or may not affect the Scotch whisky industry in the long-term.

If you wish to have your say on the matter, you can complete the questionnaire on the Scottish Government’s consultation page, Citizen Hub.