The Scottish capital bills itself to American tourists as being “soaked in the whisky industry”, with the Scotch Whisky Experience, the Holyrood Distillery and the much-lauded Johnnie Walker Experience on Princes Street being particularly prominent, as well as the huge number of prominent window displays, specialist whisky shops and bars in the Old Town.
And yet, the amber spirit may soon disappear from view along Edinburgh’s streets, and the rest of Scotland’s town centres, if new plans to ban alcohol advertising come to fruition.
The Scottish Government is consulting on plans to prohibit all forms of advertisement of alcohol, including television, outdoor billboards, through sports and events sponsorship, as well as through branded merchandise and online.
The ban may also include shop windows, such as those seen along Edinburgh’s Royal Mile.
The consultation reads: “In order to reduce exposure to alcohol in the retail environment, we are considering whether the restrictions around the alcohol display area need to be tightened.
“This would prohibit window displays from being included within the permitted alcohol display area, which would reduce the visibility of alcohol from outside the shop itself.
“Evidence shows that shop-fronts are a source of marketing exposure for both children and young people as well as those in recovery.”
The World Health Organisation recommends restrictions on alcohol availability and alcohol marketing as two of the three most cost-effective measures for reducing alcohol-related harm.
Industry bodies, however, are concerned about the proposals.
A spokesperson for the Scotch Whisky Association said: “We welcome the opportunity to discuss the future of marketing and sponsorship of alcohol with the Scottish Government.
“We share many of the same goals, including reducing harmful consumption and protecting children from alcohol advertising. But we do have concerns about sweeping new advertising restrictions suggested in the consultation.
“The Scotch Whisky industry has a robust marketing code in place, which regulates how brands are advertised globally. We want to share the lessons of regulations already in place, so that there are no unintended consequences, including a reduction in the vital support that many brands provide to communities across Scotland.
“We will continue to consider the scope of the consultation in full and work constructively with the Scottish Government to ensure our shared aims of promoting moderation, tackling alcohol misuse and supporting growth in the Scottish economy can be achieved.”
The Portman Group, an alcohol industry trade association that accounts for the majority of alcohol products sold in the UK, described the proposals as “entirely disproportionate”.
Speaking when the consultation was published, the Portman Group’s chief executive Matt Lambert said: “The majority of adults in Scotland are moderate or non-drinkers and it is encouraging that binge drinking, alcohol-related crime and underage drinking have all significantly declined.
“These recommendations are entirely disproportionate and inhibit consumers’ ability to make informed choices, and restrict the ability to trade for producers and retailers who ensure that alcohol is sold responsibly.
“The Portman Group’s codes of practice have played a significant role in helping to achieve reductions in underage drinking, through extensive commitments to ensure that marketing and sponsorship does not target under-18s or vulnerable consumers.
“The Scottish Government’s own health survey published in November shows that average weekly intake has fallen to well below the official UK Government weekly guidelines. This has all occurred at a time when the amount of advertising spend has increased, suggesting there isn’t an immediate correlation between them.
“However, there is still work to be done in addressing the small minority that drink to harmful levels and they require targeted health led interventions.
A 2018 study in New Zealand found neighbourhood off-licence alcohol retailers were associated with increased childhood exposure to alcohol marketing, and ultimately the consumption of alcohol by children.
While the ban could affect high-profile tourist areas like Edinburgh’s Old Town, it would also greatly affect poorer areas which are frequently home to discount alcohol shops, argues Alison Douglas, chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland.
“You’ll see alcohol in the shop window in poorer communities,” said Douglas. “And in my experience, those products tend to have quite a lot of youth appeal, such as very colourful packaging and liquids. So essentially, the shop window is acting as an advert for these products.
“With tobacco, we’ve put it behind screens. We had young people in a focus group who went out and took photos, and they were struck by the fact tobacco was hidden from view, but right next to that there were all these bright, shiny bottles behind the tills.
“The visibility of alcohol, and the amount of shop space that’s given over to it, is encouraging high levels of consumption and the harm that flows from that.
“There's clear evidence there’s a causal connection between young people's exposure to alcohol marketing, and then starting to drink alcohol and then having an increased likelihood of going on to develop an alcohol problem.
“The evidence around children and young people is really well established.”
This week, the Office for National Statistics published figures showing the rates of alcohol-specific deaths in the UK.
Overall, in 2021 there were 9,641 deaths (14.8 per 100,000 people) from alcohol-specific causes registered in the UK – the highest number on record.
Scotland and Northern Ireland had the highest alcohol-specific death rates last year, with 22.4 and 19.3 deaths per 100,000 persons respectively.
“We have a huge problem with alcohol in Scotland, and we need a proportionate response,” said Douglas.
“Most of us probably wouldn't really miss alcohol marketing if it wasn’t there. From that point of view, it's not a great loss to the public, but it could potentially have a significant effect in starting to challenge the normalisation of alcohol consumption, and the glamourisation of alcohol.”
The Scottish Government’s proposed restrictions also take aim at how alcohol is presented in stores, citing research that shows more than half (58 per cent) of children and young people surveyed in the west of Scotland report seeing alcohol marketing in-store.
The consultations reads: “Visibility of alcohol in the retail environment may influence children to think of alcohol in the same way as other everyday consumer goods sold at shops like food, clothes and medicines, and contribute to the normalisation of alcohol.
“This may create positive attitudes around alcohol, which later influence consumption decisions.”
Certain countries outside of the UK already more heavily restrict the types of outlets that can sell alcohol. In Australia, for example, supermarkets in certain states are not licensed to sell alcohol under stricter consumption legislation.
Protecting recovering alcoholics from relapse is also a key motivation behind the potential legislation, according to the consultation report’s authors, who state: “People in recovery in Scotland have reported that retail-based environments are their single biggest challenge to recovery.
“Key factors included the visibility of alcohol in shops and in-store marketing and price promotions. Those in the early stages of recovery cited the everyday difficulties of negotiating the city space whilst avoiding alcohol triggers.
“Participants who avoided alcohol outlets spoke not only of avoiding premises themselves, but also of the need to avoid the alcohol aisles due to both the presence of alcohol and in-store marketing and price promotions.”
Douglas said: “Seeing that alcohol marketing is a real risk to them sustaining their recovery. But in some cases, it has provoked a relapse.
“That obviously puts their health at risk. People in recovery talk about having to devise strategies to avoid exposure to alcohol in the retail environment, for example, so in the early stages of recovery, having to get other people to shop for them.”
The consultation ends on March 9, 2023.