Home   Contact Phil 


Phil Mellows is a freelance
 journalist living in Brighton 

Hear about the latest on this site at Twitter ...
Phil on
Posterous ...    Phil's blog on the CPL Training website ...

        The politics of drinking

May 02, 2013



The drinks industry and alcohol policy: why all the fuss?

Should the drinks industry be excluded from the debate on alcohol policy? The question was raised in no uncertain terms last week by a case study of submissions to the Scottish Government’s 2008 consultation paper Changing Scotland’s Relationship with Alchohol, which famously proposed minimum unit pricing. The document itself, and the responses, can be found here.

The case study authors, led by Jim McCambridge, aim to demonstrate that “industry actors ignored, misrepresented, and otherwise sought to undermine the content of the international evidence base on effective policies in order to influence policy”, meaning that “evidence-based policy-making is more difficult to achieve where industry actors are involved”.

If you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, a good, if uncritical, summary was written for The Guardian by Suzi Gage. Also worth reading is Will Haydock’s interesting contribution

Five years after the event, the McCambridge report comes as a bit of a surprise and to me seems strangely disproportionate.

I haven’t read all the industry submissions, but the arguments offered are hardly shocking revelations. They have been in the public domain since 2008 and are perfectly familiar.

McCambridge et al base their allegation of misrepresentation of evidence on the industry’s divergence from the policy measures recommended in a single text, Thomas Babor et al’s Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity. It’s too easy to dismiss this book as the medical temperance bible, but treating it like an infallible document is asking for it – and getting its apocalyptic-style from libertarians like Christopher Snowdon.

The case study authors seem almost to scoff at the industry’s favour for “targeted interventions that focus on a supposedly problematic minority”. “Supposedly”? Are they suggesting that a “problematic minority” does not exist? Have they reduced the total consumption model of alcohol harm to that? They should read Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity. All right, I’ll read it for them. It says (p38):

“It is not only the level of total alcohol consumption that is relevant to the health and social problems from drinking; the drinking pattern and societal relations to drinking are also of considerable importance… The large variation in total consumption and drinking patterns across population subgroups also implies that alcohol-related problems will be very unevenly distributed within a given country.”

It therefore seems valid to accept contributions that seek to emphasise the uneven distribution of problems in a critique of a whole population approach and, specifically, minimum pricing. Indeed, MUP has since been reformulated as a policy targeted at young and heavy drinkers.

Another problem McCambridge finds with the industry case is that it fails to provide evidence for its alternative “policy mix”. Tell me about it.

Some of us have been frustrated for many years by the drinks industry’s failure to come up with a coherent theory that might inform alcohol policy. It is almost purely reactive, and therefore tends to reinforce the agendas and assumptions of the health and law and order lobbies, even while criticising them. It is tactics without a strategy. Which is not helped by the fact that it is virtually impossible for the industry to sponsor research and have it taken seriously.

On the positive side, drinks companies and, especially, retailers have valuable experience of what the alcohol market and the alcohol consumer are actually like. They can make a practical contribution to the way that alcohol policies play out on the ground, and for that reason alone should be welcomed into the debates around how those policies are formulated.

And yes, this is all driven by “underlying commercial interests”. Of course it is. Does the industry need to keep acknowledging this interest in every sentence? Is it trying to pretend it’s something it’s not? And getting away with it? Of course not. Greene King might say there is a moral basis for its support for minimum pricing, but I don’t have to believe it.

So why the fuss? It may be a coincidence but in the same week that the case study was published the World Health Organisation responded to a Statement of Concern about drinks industry influence on government alcohol policy signed by 500 public health bods.

The McCambridge report joins a gathering campaign to exclude the drinks industry from the debate. The Statement of Concern was initiated by GAPA, the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance.

GAPA is a child of IOGT International, formerly known as the International Order of Good Templars, a religious prohibitionist group that can trace its roots back to the political temperance movement of the mid-19th century.

Is there not some vested interest there, too?

Back to diary archive




Writing... Journalism... Research... Awards Judging... Pub Business Advice... Pub Crawls
Contact Phil