A report published last month and reported on in The Guardian says that industry lobbyists are hijacking government alcohol policy reform discussions and hampering efforts in Australia and the UK to curb drinking rates, health experts say.
Despite alcohol consumption being the leading cause of death and disability globally, the alcohol industry wields a significant amount of political power, a study published in the journal PLoS Medicine found.
Researchers from the University of Newcastle in Australia and King’s College and the School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine in London said the influence of the alcohol industry was particularly concerning in Australia, where the government was developing a new national alcohol strategy.
And in Britain, a mix of industry self-regulation, campaigns that targeted only binge drinkers, and school-based education had not reduced alcohol harms there, the study found.
Rates of alcohol-related hospital admissions have almost doubled within a decade. Liver disease deaths have also risen markedly, despite falling in many other western European countries.
Alcohol-related injury epidemiologist and author of the paper, Professor Kypros Kypri, said when he was invited by the Australian department of health in November to attend a meeting about reducing alcohol-related harm, he was shocked to find representatives from the Australian Hotels Association and other alcohol industry bodies there.
“I was invited as an expert to give evidence about the impact of trading hours in Newcastle, and it was framed to me as a discussion that would help inform the national alcohol strategy,” Kypri said. “It never occurred to me to check whether industry people would be there because I thought it would be an obvious conflict of interest.
“I have come to the conclusion that it is no longer useful for us to be engaged in these meetings with government because as health experts, all we are doing is giving their process credibility so they can tell the public they consulted with experts when in fact the so-called experts include industry lobbyists.”
A department spokeswoman said Wednesday that the meeting had not been one to form policy, but there was value in liaising with any organisation that had a role to play in reducing alcohol related harms.
“As the primary purpose of this meeting was to discuss potential ways to reduce alcohol related violence and harms, including in and around licensed premises, on this occasion it was considered appropriate to include industry representatives,” she said.
The researchers also found that by developing and funding their own public health campaigns, such as Drinkwise, the industry was ignoring the most effective evidence for curbing drinking and misleading the public.
By suggesting excessive alcohol consumption was an individual choice rather than being a result of the wide availability and affordability of alcohol, the industry was avoiding focusing on proven strategies to curb alcohol consumption such as placing a volumetric tax on alcohol and reducing alcohol industry trading hours, the study found.
“Civil society must not allow the concept of harm reduction to be defined in ways that serve corporate interests at the expense of public health,” the researchers concluded.
“Advocacy inspired by libertarian ideas is at odds with the evidence on how to reduce alcohol harm in the population.”
The Australian Hotels Association chief executive, Stephen Ferguson, said industry always worked cooperatively with regulators, the police, and organisations and bodies that sought to minimise misuse of alcohol.
“This shared approach ranges from a local liquor accord right up to funding bodies like DrinkWise and other community groups that are seeking to positively change Australia’s drinking culture,” he said.
“The AHA, Drinkwise and wider industry are transparent about being involved in campaigns to minimise misuse of alcohol. Academics and activists are not the font of all knowledge regarding alcohol or any other matter. Good policy draws widely from the insights of all interested or affected parties.”
He said the voice of responsible consumers was not being heard in the alcohol debate.
Data released last month from a national survey by the Australian institute of health and welfare revealed that the number of people who drank alcohol daily declined from 7.2% to 6.5% between 2010 and 2013. However, it also found almost five million Australians aged 14 and over were victims of an alcohol-related incident in 2013.
The director of the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth, Professor Mike Daube, said the legitimate public health concept of “harm reduction” had been hijacked by the alcohol industry.
“Harm reduction has a legitimate role in relation to illicit drugs, where the nature of the problem is vastly different to alcohol and tobacco,” he said. “It does not translate readily into areas like alcohol, where reducing harm is just one part of an overall strategy, where we are dealing with vastly greater numbers, and where the product is actively promoted by a massive and powerful global industry.
“Governments have to choose between supporting public and community health, or working with the alcohol industry. So far, the industry is winning.”
The Foundation for Alcohol and Research Education chief executive, Michael Thorn, said while there was a legitimate argument for working with the alcohol industry, their representatives should “never” be involved in policy discussions. He likened it to inviting big tobacco to advise on smoking reform.
“I think it reveals a sad state of policy-making in Australia and internationally where industries with vested interests can threaten governments and have an impact on the way they behave,” Thorn said.
Hear, hear to this studies research findings. What is it going to take to stop the alcohol industry juggernaut steam-rolling over our individual health and social well-being and to reverse the obvious corporate capture that has happened to Govt by the drink’s industry??