McCambridge et al (“Industry Use of Evidence to Influence Alcohol Policy: A Case Study of Submissions to the 2008 Scottish Government Consultation”, PLOS Medicine, 2013) have asserted that whereas the tobacco industry has been excluded from direct influence in policy making in many countries, alcohol industry actors continue to exercise a strong influence on alcohol policies across the world. Protecting their profits, they consistently oppose whole-population approaches, promoting instead targeted interventions that focus on a supposedly problematic minority of drinkers and emphasising the role of individual responsibility. In Scotland, hiding behind the ‘gloss’ of Scotch Whisky, as a front to purvey their cheap vodkas, Big Alcohol has blocked the implementation of Minimum Unit Pricing, despite the legislation being enacted to introduce this life-saving policy with no Parliamentary opposition (apart from the one unfortunate MSP who pressed the wrong button when voting).
McCambridge et al state that the alcohol industry is actively involved in drafting policy documents in low-income countries. However, we ought not to be complacent about what happens closer to home, and in Europe specifically. Alcohol is the world’s number one risk factor for ill-health and premature death among 25-59 year-olds, a core of the working age population. Europe is the heaviest drinking region of the world and alcohol is a major threat to the public health, safety and economic prosperity of EU citizens. Consumption levels in some EU countries are around 2.5 times higher than the global average. There is clear and comprehensive evidence that reducing alcohol-related harm across the EU requires regulation to reduce alcohol consumption, through the whole population. This includes actions on availability, marketing and price, all of which are consistently opposed by global alcohol producers.
The World Health Organisation has provided clear guidance that the alcohol industry’s activities should be restricted to their core roles as developers, producers, distributors, marketers and sellers of alcoholic beverages and that they should have no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.
My current experience in Europe indicates that the governance arrangements to ensure that this happens may be insufficient to protect this position.
I represent Public Health interests as a member of the EU Alcohol and Health Forum, which also includes industry representatives. The governing document of the Forum and all guidance related to it makes clear that EU policy on Alcohol should be determined by member states, with no interference from industry. Current events, however, demonstrate that industry knowingly influences policy. Member states are currently working on an EU Action Plan, which conveniently ignores measures to reduce alcohol consumption across the whole population. In line with industry’s priorities, the focus is on binge or problem drinking, young people and reducing foetal alcohol harm. No danger to Big Alcohol’s profits if the rest of us keep on drinking as usual, encouraged by their advertising and promotions.
The main business of the Forum is to deliver and report on commitments in relation to existing EU policy. However, this week its members have been asked to supply commitments in relation to the draft objectives in the latest draft of the new Action Plan, although the latter has not yet been signed off by member states. By asking for commitments before objectives are finalised, the Commission is opening the door for Forum members – including the alcohol industry – to influence which objectives end up in the final version of the plan. (For example, if SAB Miller look at draft Objective 1 and make 20 commitments to it, you would expect that draft Objective 1 would be likely to stay and be prioritised.)
EU Commission officials continue to hold the line that the Forum does not influence policy. However, the industry are confident of their ability to do this. In an email sent to me in error yesterday by Carlsberg’s representative, (in Danish), discussing my objections to what is going on, he stated:
“It is an absurd discussion around policy in general. Of course we all influence policy.”