In Canadian ads, alcohol cannot be shown to enliven an otherwise dull party. Celebrities, athletes, or anyone who might be a role model to minors, are out.
Actors can’t be shown actually drinking the product, or even holding a half-empty glass. A game of “spin the bottle” is not acceptable. Ditto parties on a public beach. A couple at dinner cannot have a bottle of wine on the table – that would imply they are having more than one drink each.
These are just a few of the restrictions on television ads for beverage alcohol. (Similar limitations apply in other media.)
Now, as the federal government prepares to introduce legislation legalizing recreational marijuana use in Canada, booze companies have been pushing to ensure that this nascent industry will face similar restrictions.
That includes – but is not limited to – strict rules around marketing.
“As an industry, we’ve talked to various officials, provincially and federally, about the rationale for certain rules regarding beverage alcohol and how they’re probably applicable to marijuana, whether around labelling or celebrity endorsements,” said Andrew Oland, president and chief executive officer of Moosehead Breweries Ltd. and a board member of the industry association Beer Canada. That group took part in consultations with the federal task force on marijuana legalization and regulation.
“Things that are not permissible in beverage alcohol shouldn’t be permissible in marijuana,” he said.
Beer Canada declined to share its submission to the task force. Spirits Canada shared its submission, which included more than a dozen recommendations on marketing and labelling regulations that should be imposed on recreational marijuana producers.
Many of those recommendations are similar to the rules applied to alcoholic drinks, including that marketing should not “imply directly or indirectly that social acceptance, social status, sexual performance, personal success, or business or athletic achievement” are connected to marijuana use, or that it is “essential to the enjoyment of an activity or event.”
Drinks manufacturers are not allowed to imply that a higher alcohol level is preferable; Spirits Canada suggests the same for marijuana’s THC levels. (THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, gives marijuana its intoxicating effect.)
The association’s submission also suggests parallel restrictions on implying immoderate consumption, or suggesting a “need” for marijuana in the same way that ads cannot imply that someone needs a drink. And any risk of appealing to minors – whether through flashy characters, or in the choice of venues where ads are placed – should be eliminated.
Alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical drugs all face some of the tightest restrictions in marketing and advertising in Canada.
“If you’re going to introduce another drug into the marketplace, why would you not subject that to exactly the same kinds of things that have proven to be effective in beverage alcohol?” said Jan Westcott, president and CEO of Spirits Canada. “Certainly, the advertising and marketing rules are there for a reason. … The underlying philosophy is, you don’t want to promote overconsumption.”
The alcohol industry’s requests are not limited to advertising considerations: Mr. Westcott suggested that something like the Smart Serve program in Ontario, which mandates training for servers in “responsible” alcohol service, would be helpful for those selling marijuana. Establishing a minimum age for legal consumption is another industry focus, as is taxation.
“If they price marijuana too high, they’re going to allow the black market to flourish, and they don’t want to do that. Yet at the same time, you have some of the highest beer taxes in the world, in Canada. I’m not sure how you can sell marijuana at a low price and continue to tax beer at some of the highest prices in the world,” Mr. Oland said.
Spirits Canada’s submission also asked for taxes “no less than” those imposed on alcohol. It pushed for prohibiting the sale of marijuana at any retailer that also sells alcohol, though Mr. Westcott suggested that the provincial liquor boards could be involved in wholesale distribution. And the association believes that recreational marijuana use should not be allowed in public places.
Many of these priorities were reflected in the task force’s recommendations for legalization and regulation of cannabis, released in November. The report recommended a minimum purchase age of 18, while recognizing the right of provinces and territories to set the age at the same level as their restrictions for buying alcohol. The report also recommended strict restrictions on advertising, similar to those faced by tobacco – such as requiring plain packaging and prohibiting advertising appealing to children, as well as other limitations.
The report recommended balancing pricing and taxes to discourage illicit sales, but did not specify taxing pot at the same level as other substances such as alcohol. And it recommended not selling marijuana alongside alcohol.
Ahead of the legislation, seven licensed marijuana producers have written to the federal government asking for permission to use branding to compete with illegal sellers.
Whether advertising is allowed or not, the marijuana industry has work to do build trust with Canadian consumers: In a recent survey from Environics Communications, just 13 per cent of people agreed that they trusted the marijuana industry to “do what is right for Canada, Canadians and our society” – the lowest trust level reported out of 21 sectors, ranking it behind social media, energy and pipelines, and pharmaceutical companies.Report Typo/Error