There’s a useful lesson that Irish politicians can learn from Public Health England, the policy-making body of the NHS: watch out for the drinks industry lobby.
In the British media there is a furore over the drinks industry’s influence over Public Health England’s policy on alcohol.
Professor Ian Gilmore, Public Health England’s adviser on alcohol, resigned because the agency refused to end its cooperation with Drinkaware — an NGO that is part-funded by the drinks industry.
In addition, 46 health experts sent an open letter to Public Health England saying “industry-funded messages and social marketing campaigns should not be a substitute for publicly funded campaigns providing independent and evidence-based information.”
The health experts are outraged that the drinks industry have managed to manoeuvre themselves into a position where they are seen as part of the solution, when it’s clear that they are actually part of the problem.
This collaboration also gives the drinks industry much needed credibility.
The health experts also point out that the advice being pushed in this particular campaign (have two abstinent days per week) just doesn’t work. What does work, they say, is more tax on alcohol but that’s a message which would threaten the income of the UK drinks industry (over 60 billion euro a year according to this source).
Public Health England have some good arguments in their defence. They are a relatively small agency and, like much of the NHS, underfunded. This tie-up with Drinkaware, which has a big reach through social media, gives them a bigger voice.
The problem is that it’s easy to get persuaded by the drink industry’s view of the problem; that they recognise the harm done by alcohol; that only a few are affected; it’s a matter of choice (and freedom); and if only people would exercise a bit more self discipline all would be well.
An addiction therapist’s view
Chris Burn, one of the first therapists to work at Smarmore addiction treatment clinic in County Louth, worked in finance in the City of London before becoming a therapist.
Chris believes that public health services, in the UK and perhaps in Ireland as well, “have fundamentally different aims.”
He says, “Public Health England want us to drink responsibly whereas the drinks industry, whatever they may say, basically want us to drink as much as possible. Therefore any ‘collaboration’ is going to be a pretence.
“They should of course communicate with each other but it’s not logical to think you can collaborate when both parties have such different aims.”
This headline in the Guardian illustrates the point: Alcohol firms would lose £13bn if drinkers in England stuck to limits
This Guardian article describes the conflict of interest between the drinks industry and Public Health England and quotes an alcohol policy expert as saying:
“The government should recognise just how much the industry has to lose from effective alcohol policies, and be more wary of its attempts to derail meaningful action through lobbying and offers of voluntary partnership.”
The article also points out that heavy drinkers account for 77% of revenue for beer producers and cost the health service an estimated £3.5 billion in health care.
The lobby in action
Chris Burn has seen drinks industry representatives at addiction conferences arguing that “total abstinence is not needed in recovery from alcohol addiction. The lobby also resist messages that point out that very cheap alcohol has a bearing on addiction.”
He says, “their message tends to be put across casually, and it demonstrates their real agenda: sell as much as possible but try to look responsible as well.”
The alcohol lobby in Ireland
On the face of it Ireland doesn’t seem to be affected by the same level of lobbying as the UK, at least there’s no big scandals like the one embroiling Public Health England or this report about selling off the public services to the Americans in a post-Brexit dystopia.
However, the impact of the alcohol lobby in Ireland is not hard to see. The following story is a classic example of how the drink’s industry agenda is represented by a supposedly independent media channel:
“The Irish pub is under threat from tourists flocking to a ‘more affordable’ Britain,” claimed this article in The Journal.
The arguments presented by DIGI (the Drinks Industry Group of Ireland) are quite convincing: the falling pound is driving tourists away, Ireland has the second highest rate of tax on alcohol in the EU and this threatens jobs.
But it’s an interesting example of a lobby group’s approach: only shows one side of the problem, invent a new threat (to the Irish pub and to employment), and use wider economic points (the fall of Sterling) to legitimise their own demand for lower tax on booze.
The lobby will always ignore or belittle the health impacts of alcohol. However, according to the Irish Medical Organisation “Per capita, Ireland’s alcohol consumption remains one of the highest amongst the world’s developed states…This figure is all the more troubling when it is considered that approximately 21% of all Irish adults report abstaining from alcohol entirely.”
Watch out for the alcohol lobby
The obvious conclusion is that politicians, the press and the public should be aware of the power and influence of the alcohol lobby on health policies.
The alcohol industry can afford to pay for the best PR, marketing and lobby experts on the market and they will be constantly on the lookout for opportunities to legitimise their views.
As long as we’re aware of their tactics we can ensure that our health service is genuinely working in the public interest.
This article was written by the team at Smarmore Castle Addiction Treatment Clinic in celebration of Recovery Month.
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