Mentor UK, Diageo and Me – A Personal Ethical Perspective

Jim McCambridge and his colleagues at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine have usefully explored in various publications the operations of the alcohol industry in trying to influence alcohol policy. For example, ( they have drawn attention to the behaviours of a number of economic operators to misrepresent evidence on Minimum Unit Pricing as the policy was being considered by the Scottish Government in 2008. In a recent article in the European Journal of Public Health, Lyness and McCambridge continued their investigations,( ). However, in doing so, I feel that they may have inadvertently damaged by insinuation and misrepresentation the reputation of Mentor UK, the charity of which I was Chief Executive from 2000 – 2009. I think it’s therefore important to provide some clarification. This is a personal perspective, and I am not writing in my capacity as Director of SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems).

I was Chief Executive of Mentor UK from 2000 – 2009. Mentor UK, as a drug (including alcohol) misuse prevention charity, always found it difficult to get funding. Year on year, there was always a worry about whether we would even have sufficient unrestricted income to make it into the next year. Not unusual, of course, for a small charity. We had to fundraise from trusts, foundations, individuals and government, just as other charities do. However, it was always difficult to bring in unrestricted income and most funding was restricted for project work. Our focus throughout all of our work was on expanding the evidence base for prevention and we always therefore included evaluation, ideally by external experts, in all of our projects.

In 2006, with other colleagues at Mentor, I designed the CHAMP Awards project which gave three cash awards each year to local projects working in the field of prevention and with three categories – young people-led, school and community. In addition, we provided external support, with equivalent funding to the awards, to help agencies evaluate and review their activities and disseminate their findings. The funding was provided by Diageo, the global drinks producer. We were totally up-front about Diageo’s involvement. This was at my insistence, so that there could be no accusations of inappropriate behaviour or relationships. As stated by Mentor UK on its website,
( , accessed 28th June 2014):

“The company’s sponsorship of the competition was wholly transparent: it was published in our annual accounts, as well as mentioned in press releases, annual reports and at the Awards ceremony itself, which was attended by Diageo representatives.”

Mentor UK trustees debated the ethical issues associated with accepting funding from Diageo before going forward with the arrangement and the project was consistently reviewed in line with the charity’s written ethical policy.

The winners of the CHAMP awards were selected by a jury with substantial prevention expertise. At no stage was Diageo involved in shaping the project, influencing the criteria for decision making or selecting the winners. To the best of my knowledge, ie even now, four years after my own involvement, they never tried to influence what we were doing.

My understanding is that the CHAMP Awards project had a significant impact on improving the operations of some of the agencies with which we worked. For example, the Greater Easterhouse Alcohol Project expanded its delivery from 38 to 100 primary schools.

From looking now at Mentor UK’s website ( , accessed 28th June 2014), it seems that the project supported the development of the evidence base for effective prevention:

“The evaluation would not have gone ahead without this money”

and in some cases, even kept small local charities afloat:

“ I don’t know how we would have paid for what we did. It kept us going – it meant we could pay our bills.”

In fact, the funding also helped Mentor UK stay afloat, given the funding pressures to which I have alluded above.

The only other involvement I had with Diageo when I was at Mentor UK was when they came to events, in making a brief video about the awards scheme and when I facilitated a workshop for their staff about evidence-based prevention. Bearing in mind Mentor UK’s mission, this focussed on evidence for effective individual interventions and education. This was not to ignore the importance of actions on Price, Availability and Marketing and in my current role as Director of SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems – ), I have consistently challenged industry opponents, including Diageo on these issues. It is however erroneous, as claimed or implied by many who argue for population level measures that there is no evidence of effectiveness of individual and educational interventions. Rather, it is the case that too few projects are evaluated and there is consequently a lot of poor practice. Mentor in the UK and internationally plays an important role in trying to improve the quality of prevention work.

I left Mentor UK in 2009. I understand that Diageo ceased its funding of the CHAMP Awards a short time after that. Lyness and McCambridge’s article states that:

“In 2008/9 Mentor UK received 25% of its income from Diageo and continues to receive funding for CHAMPS”.

In the interests of clarity and fairness, it would have been appropriate to stress that the 2008/9 funding was restricted for the CHAMP project. The statement that they continue to receive funding for the project is simply untrue.

It is important to recognise that relationships with funders often present challenges for charities. However, at Mentor UK, I felt more directly under pressure from Home Office politicians not to criticise the UK Government’s drug policy while they funded the Drug Education Forum, which we hosted and I chaired, than I ever did from Diageo.

The only other contact I had with Diageo before joining SHAAP was when I was commissioned by Comic Relief to undertake a confidential review of their relationships with the alcohol industry. This indicated their recognition of the need to think carefully about these matters.

The first publication produced at SHAAP after I joined ( ) was titled “The (Ir)responsibility Deal?: Public Health and Big Business”. The title deliberately alluded to the ethical tightrope that has to be walked in managing relationships with economic operators. Our paper drew attention to similarities between large parts of the Alcohol, Tobacco and Food industries and challenged specifically,

“some tactics employed by the alcohol industry to subvert or circumvent legitimate public health policy interventions …in spite of the precedence given in domestic and EU law to the protection of human health over economic interests.”

I was not involved with Mentor UK when the UK’s Responsibility Deal was set up. I am not able to comment on whether it was appropriate for Mentor UK to join it or to remain in it. However, I disagree with Mentor UK’s assertion (, accessed 28th June 2014) that:

“It is…disingenuous to assume that the alcohol industry is deliberately using corporate philanthropy to gain influence inside government and sow division in the public health community.”

Although this may not be the only reason for alcohol industry corporate giving, my experience as a player in the battles on Minimum Unit Pricing in Scotland and at EU level lead me to conclude that it is often, perhaps always, a motivating factor. With colleagues, I have headed our assault on what we believe to be outrageous behaviours by some alcohol industry operators, including Diageo, in challenging evidence-based public health measures to reduce alcohol-related harms. (For example, , ).

Notwithstanding this, in my view, it does not benefit the Public Health cause to misrepresent the ethical positions and actions of charities like Mentor UK, which have left the charity feeling accused of (, accessed 28th June 2014),

“a dishonesty that could damage our reputation as a leading voice against alcohol misuse among young people.”

I am certain it was not the intention of the researchers to do this. However, and also as a researcher myself, I am always conscious that I operate in a complex and political environment. I therefore have a responsibility in relation to checking out what I assert in publications and thinking about the resultant impact. That’s my personal ethical position.


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