If there is one thing I’ve learned from my sporting days, it’s that alcohol and sport go hand in hand. Multinational alcohol companies have more than reaped the benefits of sport’s status in our country.

It’s a no-brainer that this connection between alcohol and sport plays a role in our drinking culture. Of course our kids notice the alcohol logos on playing jumpers and training kit. Their idols and heroes are wearing it. The logos are all around the ground, being beamed right into our kids’ identities. I will never forget when my kids could name loads of alcohol brands when they were less than 10-years-old. That was a turning point for me.

Here we are in 2020, still allowing alcohol companies to use sports sponsorship to get to our kids, their prospective customers. We leave it in the hands of the Advertising Standards Authority to protect them from alcohol marketing, through their voluntary Code for Advertising and Promotion of Alcohol, which specifies the rules when advertising alcohol or sponsoring events.

This week the Advertising Standards Authority released its revised standards for alcohol advertising and sponsorship. They will do nothing to meaningfully protect our kids from the harms of alcohol sponsorship. I can’t believe it is now six years since I chaired the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship and tabled our government-commissioned report calling for stronger action on advertising. A report, like many others, that has gathered more dust than interest, with no government taking up the opportunity to formally respond to it. The release of the ASA Code also takes place in the same year the alcohol sponsorship contracts for the New Zealand Warriors and NZ Rugby have been up for renewal.

There is no lack of government reports and inquiries into alcohol advertising in New Zealand. No shortage of evidence-based recommendations. Our forum report was just one among many. What has clearly been lacking is political will for action.

Our report made a bunch of recommendations. We had our game plan, and that was to end alcohol advertising in sport. We were not out to attack community-level sport — we knew they needed the money and still do. But let’s be realistic — we are talking about small sponsorship money for grassroots sport in our country. It’s $1000 here or some in-kind contribution there that subsidises equipment, uniforms, stock for the clubrooms and so forth. It’s not a lot of money to replace, but it means the world to each club or association. We recommended the government do the right thing and replace it, like they did in the 1990s for tobacco.

People cried back then that the sky would fall in for clubs. It didn’t. To stand alongside community clubs following the replacement period, we recommended that they be supported to develop their capacity and skills to generate a broad base of non-alcohol sponsorship.

For elite sport, we felt that there was already an army of highly skilled, commercial managers who had the ability and time to find alternative funding. I still believe this to be true.

On the final day of our forum meetings, I asked the members to think over the weekend if it was right that kids were exposed to alcohol marketing.

I said that if you answer “no”, then you support marketing restrictions. It’s that simple. We can’t compromise when it comes to the wellbeing of our kids. We knew we had the backing of many New Zealanders, as public support for greater restrictions was, and still is, high.

We must have a plan to end alcohol sponsorship. The scoreboard must show the wellbeing of our young and vulnerable is given priority status over the privilege to market alcohol. We must accept that the current voluntary approach is not working to protect our kids. It’s unlikely it ever will. We owe it to this generation and the next to do the right thing. Replacing sponsorship of grassroots sport won’t break the bank.

If we can look back at the epic league battles and cricket matches in disbelief at all the tobacco sponsorship, one day we can do the same for alcohol.

Sir Graham Lowe is a former rugby league coach who was knighted in 2019 for services to youth and education. In 2014, he was appointed to chair the Ministerial Forum on Alcohol Advertising and Sponsorship.

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