Unhealthy histories: sports and addictive sponsorship

“Professional sport has been criticised for its role as a vehicle to market addictive products or services. Despite the harmful health effects on society, football audiences are inured to seeing sponsors of such products not only on pitch-side hoardings and shirts, but also embedded in television rights, competition names, prematch build-up, corporate hospitality, and social media. Tobacco’s successful movement into sports sponsorship established the template on which other addictive sponsors, notably the alcohol and gambling industries, built their strategies. The integration of sports and addictive commodities highlights strategies to influence consumption by those within the unhealthy commodities industry.

[..] historically and in the present day, few of these clubs or partners [English football clubs along with tobacco (since banned from television advertising in 1965), alcohol and gambling companies] have been willing to publicly express understanding of the potential detriments to health and wellbeing associated with their sponsors’ commodities. Neither do they seem to have considered the ethical conundrum of how pushing harmful products to fans aligns with their corporate and social responsibilities. This disinclination echoes a longer history of the tension between dealing with the health and social consequences of addictive products, on the one hand, and their economic and fiscal contributions, on the other. In 1981, a key UK Government report about alcohol in society steered away from raising the price of alcohol, despite evidence to suggest that this strategy could limit harmful drinking. Instead, the report recommended that the public be encouraged to “drink sensibly”. Persuading people to consume alcohol in moderate quantities was a task for health education campaigns. Health educators designed eye-catching, mass-media campaigns to encourage the public to give up smoking and drink in moderation. Similarly with gambling, gamblers are exhorted to “gamble responsibly”. The extent to which such campaigns achieve their goals is, however, open to question. Some commentators questioned the effectiveness of health education for lasting behaviour change. Although health education campaigns borrowed many of the tactics (and were sometimes even designed by the same companies) as those promoting addictive products, encouraging people to consume less, or stop altogether, was a more difficult task than getting people to buy them in the first place. The paradoxical nature of messaging around potentially addictive products was nowhere more apparent than in sports sponsorship. Watching professional sport could encourage healthy behaviours in spectators such as increasing their physical activity, but the presence of advertisements promoting such products as tobacco, alcohol, and gambling that could endanger health sat in uneasy tension with any more positive impact.

Furthermore, the individualisation of responsibility deflects focus away from the actions undertaken by the producers of these products, including how products are promoted to consumers and the complex nexus of commercial relationships that underlie partnerships between sports and addictive commodity producers. In 2022, it has been uncovered that some football clubs were given a proportion of the losses incurred from their fans who were referred to gambling websites. These types of commercial arrangements highlight the need for sports clubs’ affiliates of these producers to recognise their role in the harms generated. [..]

History shows us that once partnerships between addictive commodities and sports are established, they become difficult to undo without legislative intervention. As these relationships become embedded into business practices, profits override concerns of health promotion and protection. The history of sports sponsorship by tobacco and alcohol companies reflected a desire to use sporting contexts to promote their products and also because these offered a way to side-step the increasing regulation of advertising. At the same time, even as knowledge of the damage caused by alcohol and tobacco grew, more emphasis was placed on individual choice and personal responsibility to reduce harm, rather than addressing the actions of the producers of these substances. The expansion of gambling in sport sponsorship builds on such historical precedents. These precedents tell us little will change without government intervention, and even then, history also shows how adept these industries are at circumventing new rules and practices. What is needed is a broader-ranging set of regulations whereby businesses have a statutory duty of care to prevent harms and this priority is threaded through all business practices.”

Full article, A Greenwood, A Mold and H Wardle, The Lancet, 2023.1.7.