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Media Release

Study to probe alcohol companies’ use of the metaverse to recruit new young drinkers

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Associate Professor Taisia Huckle

Associate Professor Taisia Huckle

In one of the first studies of its kind, New Zealand researchers will soon be delving into the immersive next-generation version of the internet – the metaverse – to discover how the marketing and engagement practices of alcohol companies could be playing a role in the real-life drinking experiences of young people.

Lead researcher Associate Professor Taisia Huckle, an expert in alcohol policy, consumption and alcohol-related harms at Massey University, says the metaverse1, powered by advanced machine learning, is built on business models that translate experiences online into real-life consumption – something alcohol companies are keen to exploit.

“Alcohol companies are assertively developing ways of embedding legal but health-damaging products into consumers’ lives in the metaverse. While 41 percent of 18 to 24-year-old drinkers report drinking six or more drinks on one occasion at least monthly2, some millennials and members of Generation Z are drinking less, and alcohol companies are looking at new and innovative ways to recruit them,” says Associate Professor Huckle.

“Alcohol marketing in this digital environment poses significant new health risks, particularly to our rangatahi and young people who are enthusiastic adopters of new digital technologies.”

Associate Professor Huckle and her team, including Professors Antonia Lyons, Tim McCreanor, Helen Moewaka Barnes and Ms Georgia McLellan, have been awarded an Explorer Grant from the Health Research Council of New Zealand (HRC) to carry out this research, which will involve working closely with young people who are users of the metaverse.

“The metaverse is currently unregulated and completely hidden from the scrutiny of health researchers,” says Associate Professor Huckle.

“Virtual drinks are being linked to their real-world products, with metaverse users sent six-packs of actual alcohol, and young consumers interacting in virtual bars.”

“It’s critical we do these early studies to understand what is happening before this new form of ‘immersive commerce’ expands and potentially leads to excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harm in our rangatahi and young people,“ says Associate Professor Huckle.

HRC Chief Executive Professor Sunny Collings says the metaverse has the potential to reproduce or even increase health inequities from the real world.

“This study will open up a new research area and also likely stimulate interest in how other legal but unhealthy product producers are targeting young people in the metaverse,” says Professor Collings.

The HRC has awarded 17 Explorer Grants this year for a combined value of $2.55 million. All Explorer Grants must be potentially transformative, and this year several are focusing on the digital side of health, including using digital technology to drive innovation in the medical field and deliver better healthcare.

See below for the full list of 2023 Explorer Grant recipients.

1 The metaverse combines aspects of augmented reality (a digital overlay projected on the real world), virtual reality (accessed using a virtual reality headset), social media, online gaming, and cryptocurrencies.

2Ministry of Health. New Zealand Health Survey - Annual Data Explorer. 2020/21.

2023 Health Research Council Explorer Grant recipients

Dr Claire Badenhorst, Massey University
Our flow: increasing access to health screening through menstrual blood
24 months, $150,000

Dr Renoh Johnson Chalakkal, oDocs Eye Care
Robotics system for rapid deployment of teleophthalmology
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Christopher Brown, University of Otago
Rapid identification of leads for antimicrobials
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Louise Brough, Massey University
Investigating iodine supplementation in pregnancy
24 months, $149,687

Associate Professor Aniruddha Chatterjee, University of Otago
A novel methylation-editing screen to identify epigenetic drivers of metastasis
24 months, $150,000

Mr Joe Chen, University of Canterbury
Wearable ultrasonic array for non-invasive imaging and manipulation of the body
24 months, $150,000

Dr Cate Curtis, University of Waikato
Injuring oneself, injuring others: Distinctions and commonalities
24 months, $135,674

Dr Joanna Hicks, University of Waikato
Avoiding detection: How does gonorrhoea survive within host cells
24 months, $149,994

Associate Professor Taisia Huckle, Massey University
The metaverse – new health risks
24 months, $149,882

Professor Peter Lockhart, Massey University
Searching for novel antimicrobials
24 months, $149,992

Professor Simon Malpas, the University of Auckland
Transforming the care of people with heart failure through proactive monitoring
24 months, $150,000

Dr Vanessa Morris, University of Canterbury
Do shed a tear for me: novel biomarker methods for Parkinson’s disease
24 months, $150,000

Professor Anthony Phillips, the University of Auckland
A revolutionary solution to a chronic healing problem
24 months, $150,000

Dr Rohit Ramchandra, the University of Auckland
Developing novel devices to relieve congestion in heart failure
24 months, $150,000

Mrs Angelique Reweti, Massey University
Wāhi Kōrero: “I felt too whakamā to go to the doctor…”
24 months, $150,000

Associate Professor Susanne Roehr, Massey University
Co-exploring dementia risk reduction from a planetary health perspective
24 months, $150,000

Dr Shinya Uekusa, University of Canterbury
Transforming crisis communication for linguistic minority communities
24 months, $150,000