The paper by Meier and colleagues makes an important contribution to the alcohol policy research field [1]. There is a clear elucidation of some key research questions, the answers to which will allow for more informed discussion of alcohol marketing policy. It also contributes an excellent overview of the research evidence on mechanisms by which advertising has its effects and critique of some earlier alcohol marketing research.

The methodologies used in the alcohol marketing research field in the past 40 years, and particularly the dissemination of the findings, reflected not only contemporary research knowledge but also the degree of contestation in this area, illustrating the importance of marketing to the industry. Meier's paper provides an analysis of the reasons why a major focus of earlier alcohol advertising research (econometric analyses using expenditure on advertising in traditional media as a proxy for advertising and relating this to total population consumption) has failed to contribute greatly to our understanding of the impacts of alcohol marketing. The seminal publications of Henry Saffer laid out the methodological weaknesses in econometric research in several publications more than a decade ago [2–5] and some limitations had been described much earlier (e.g. [6]). These econometric data, however, have continued to play an important role in the alcohol marketing policy debate and are still cited to substantiate the industry claim that the effect of marketing is inconclusive or unreliable [7,8].

Research has now moved beyond the limitations of this approach. An important development building on this econometric research has been the US research, which has incorporated data specific to consumer groups. It has taken advantage of different levels of exposure due to regional advertising budgets and linked this with survey data of young people's drinking. This quantitative research has shown a significant relationship, suggesting that youth in markets with greater alcohol advertising expenditure drink more [9,10]. Some indications of the size of these impacts have been provided and the results have also suggested that the effects are likely to be cumulative, with increases in drinking levels continuing into early adulthood in regions with higher exposure [9].

These data are part of a now considerable and robust body of research on the impact of marketing on young people, data which are of considerable policy importance in their own right. However, as Meier emphasizes, there is a need to go beyond this target group to look more broadly at marketing impact. One important group comprises current heavy drinkers, whose decision to reduce or stop drinking may be influenced by the relationship with their brand, established and reinforced through exposure to marketing. Qualitative work with those in alcohol treatment or in recovery has been suggestive of such an effect, with nearly all the participants saying that, at some stage of their sobriety, alcohol advertising had made it difficult to abstain and also, importantly, that feelings of exclusion were increased by the advertisements which communicated that drinking is the social norm [11]. Some commented on the effects advertisements had had in encouraging them when they were drinking [11].

The body of research now available has accumulated at a time of rapid and extensive development in alcohol marketing, and at the same time a conspicuous lack of policy response. Unlike issues of supply and pricing, which have been active policy areas for millennia and topics of research for many decades, in the past 50 years alcohol marketing (along with marketing of all consumer products) has expanded dramatically and developed in sophistication. There is a need for research to inform the design and implementation of policy approaches that have the capacity to restrict exposure to (and perhaps content of) alcohol marketing. More data on the size of marketing's effects and the range of those affected will contribute to the policy debate, but we also need to research the policy response itself. What restrictions are feasible in a context of rapidly changing technology and sophistication (as the recent failure to achieve inclusion of the internet into the Loi Evin illustrates [12])? What techniques does the industry use to fend off challenges to the policy response (industry ‘self regulation’), despite ample evidence of ineffectiveness [13]?

The current paper confines itself to one aspect of alcohol marketing (what the industry calls ‘consumer education’). The field also needs to pay attention to the extent, nature and impact of stakeholder marketing. The engagement of producers and their front organizations in disaster relief (distributing water in bottles labelled with company name and logo [14]), international political events (Diageo's sponsorship of the G8 Summit held at Gleneagles, Scotland in July 2005 [15]), strategically ambiguous Drinking Responsibly campaigns [16], conference sponsorship [17], publications (e.g. [18]) and policy development [19] is beginning to be documented. This stakeholder marketing, ubiquitous throughout the world, and its potential influence on the uptake of effective alcohol control policy, requires further elucidation and may turn out to be one of the most important contributions the research field could make to achieving effective change to reduce alcohol-related harm.

Declaration of interests