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'Public health' initiatives by the drinks industry do not work and should not be allowed

Commercial interests have no place in public health, writes addiction counsellor Rolande Anderson.

THE ‘GOOGLY’ IS a deceptive delivery in cricket by a skilled spin bowler that turns the wrong way. In simple terms it moves in a direction you would not expect. In English speaking circles, it is called the ‘wrong’un’ because it is one that travels the wrong way.

The recent controversy around the ‘Stop Out of Control Drinking’ campaign, funded by Diageo and chaired by Fergus Finlay, continues to rumble on. There have been strong objections to this ‘new’ initiative.

To date, three of their stake holders have resigned from the board. A senior Diageo employee has also removed himself but the company continues to fund it to the tune of at least one million euro. At the same time they pay out many multiples of that figure on advertising and marketing for their products. The board cannot be independent from the vested interest. With due respect to some of the well-intentioned people still on that board, there are no public health experts, medical personnel or addiction counsellors involved.

Diluting real progress in public health 

Diageo is throwing in googlies to distract, dilute and diminish public health policy. The group indicate that they want to stop “out of control drinking” but they do not define what they mean. This has been the modus operandi of drinks industry groups and the tobacco lobby for years, in this country and beyond. They have deep pockets, of course, from incredible profits and so they can afford to employ marketing and public relations staff.

They say that a conversation about alcohol needs to be started? More spin. What planet are they on? We have been talking about our national predilection since the Famine! Forum after forum has been convened. The Steering Group Report on a National Substance Misuse Strategy was finally reported on in 2012, having sat for two years. A very welcome development was that – for the first time – alcohol was recognised as a ‘drug’ in officialdom and therefore incorporated into that strategy.

Most of the leading experts and agencies in the field were represented. The drinks industry was there too. Before the ink was dry on the official report they had published a large minority report, insisted on caveats in the official report and lobbied politicians about the contents in advance.

During the process there were big arguments as to definitions. The drinks industry only wanted to talk about ‘misuse’ while almost everyone else wanted to talk about ‘use and misuse’. They like to spin the idea that alcohol is an individual issue rather than a systemic problem in our culture. The way we use alcohol is a massive problem.

Commercial interests have no place in public health 

Stop Out of Control Drinking has argued that funding needs to come from somewhere to effect sustainable change. This is another dodgy delivery, another wrong’un, as all they have to do is to support the introduction of a ‘health’ tax on the drinks industry profits.

We already know what works to reduce the carnage; minimum pricing, restricted access, law enforcement, more controls on supply, and lots more besides. The drinks industry fears these measures and worries about independent regulation, other effective government public health measures, possible litigation from victims/families and health taxes. It supports mostly ineffective methods such as simple forms of education. No surprise there either, yet another curveball. I hope we can keep the drinks industry and its agents out of schools.

The drinks agency favours pithy slogans, eg ‘enjoy alcohol responsibly’. I prefer to talk about ‘low risk, hazardous, harmful and dependent drinking’ as per the World Health Organisation. The WHO explicitly states that commercial interests have no place in public health. The drinks industry’s tactic is to distance itself by setting up boards that do not use their brand name while obfuscating real progress. One phone call from the chair of Stop Out of Control Drinking to any expert in the field of alcohol and public health might have stopped this current fiasco.

Social responsibility

Diageo and Stop Out of Control Drinking have blamed social media for the furore – more skilful spin bowling from some of the same geniuses that invented Arthur’s Day. Imagine a few folk on Twitter being able to change the corporate industry’s plans!

The government can stop disingenuous campaigns by levying a social responsibility or health tax on the profits of the multinational alcohol producers.

To deal with a googly in cricket the skilled batsman or woman needs to pick it. They have to see it coming to be able to play it. In life, too, once you see something you cannot un-see it. In addiction treatment we say; ‘you cannot change what you cannot see’. The Irish public’s vision, honed by years of austerity, see the Stop Out of Control Drinking campaign for what it is – a lot of smoke and mirrors.

I am delighted some people and organisations have had the courage to withdraw and I hope others will do likewise. The people who have resigned should now add their voices to the work of Alcohol Action Ireland and/or support the Alcohol Health Alliance.

No more spin, no more googlies, no more interference in public health, no more wrong’uns. It’s just not cricket!

Rolande Anderson is an addiction counsellor and former National Alcohol Project Director of the Irish College of General Practitioners.

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