A conference bringing together interested parties with widely differing and deeply held views must be cautious in its aims. The Alcohol, Ethics & Society conference in Dublin last week will arguably have done little to change opinions on either side but was an invaluable exercise for all concerned in listening to the opponent's point of view. Ben Cooper reports.

Anyone who expected the disparate sides of the alcohol policy debate to be brought together by the Alcohol, Ethics & Society conference held in Dublin last week was, to put it mildly, being optimistic. Indeed, to their credit, the co-hosts of the conference - the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP) and the National College of Ireland - had ensured that such a wide range of views was represented, not only among the speakers but also among the delegates, that consensus would have been most unexpected.

Notwithstanding the considerable common ground, the public health community and the drinks industry hold widely differing views on alcohol-related harm. The objective of the conference was thankfully not to reconcile these differences. Rather, the aim was to explore the views and the rhetoric of both sides in the hope of finding a common language that could be a starting-point in the search for consensus. Judged on that basis, the conference organisers will, with justification, claim some successes, but might reluctantly have to admit to some failures too.

The very fact that the conference saw representatives from Diageo and the World Health Organisation sharing a platform must be taken as extremely positive. But the problem with the conference - and for that matter with the alcohol policy debate at large - is that it tended to focus in greater depth on issues where there is broad agreement but hold back precisely at the point where that consensus ends.

With the theme of corporate responsibility running through the conference, there were presentations from Peter Coors, chairman of Coors Brewing Company, and from Chris Britton, Diageo's director of global marketing. Both stressed their companies' desire to contribute to the alcohol policy debate in the most constructive way possible and to do all they could to reduce alcohol-related harm. They expressed extremely laudable sentiments, though little that the audience would not have heard before, and both conceded willingly that playing the corporate responsibility card was good business.

However, a presentation the following day by Hugh Birkitt, chairman of the advertising agency, Birkitt DDB UK, which looked at dubious and possibly irresponsible alcohol advertising included ads featuring both the companies' brands.

Mr. Peter Coors,
Chairman of the Coors Brewing Company

This would not have been lost on those who retain a more sceptical view of the industry's self-regulatory, corporate responsibility mantra. In spite of their representations, their actions did not seem to meet the high standards of their rhetoric. Although it would have been rather unfair to have put either "on trial" at this point, some deeper discussion of why such inconsistencies exist between action and words on the part of the industry might have been constructive.

Other than in smaller "break-out" sessions, there was little in the form of free open-floor discussion following speeches which is a pity given the range of academic and professional viewpoints represented among the delegates.

By the same token, many of the industry representatives and the academics present who remain unconvinced by some of the more extreme views held in the public health community, might have wanted more opportunity to challenge some of the assertions advanced by speakers from that side of the debate.

These speakers included Dr Joseph Barry, senior lecturer in public health at Trinity College, Dublin, and Leanne Riley, a scientist with the World Health Organisation in Geneva.

The inviting of these speakers and their acceptance ensured that this conference was not three days of industry navel-gazing and mutual appreciation. Both articulated the relatively uncompromising views held by many in the public health community regarding not only the negative effects of alcohol abuse, which the industry takes little issue with, but also the effects of alcohol advertising, where there is significant disagreement.

The issue of the effect of alcohol advertising on enlarging the total drinks market is an area of the alcohol policy debate where there is a fierce difference of opinion. The drinks industry holds that advertising is about brand-switching and market share while the public health community sees drinks advertising as being as much about recruitment and the expansion of the market. The two sides are at loggerheads over this and the conference did little to address this particularly knotty issue even though Dr Barry's assertions about the effects of advertising were challenged from the floor.

The industry would also like to see the public health community express a more positive view of the beneficial health effects of moderate alcohol consumption. From the absence of what they might see as a marginal but surely relevant subject from their presentations, one can only judge the level of priority this area is being given.

The tone of both Dr Barry's and Leanne Riley's speeches will have left few observers in any doubt about how the battle lines are drawn in this debate. Those in the industry wishing to play down the adversarial side of the debate - and the conference itself was after all aimed at finding common ground - would have cringed.

Dr Barry concluded his presentation, beguilingly entitled "Alcohol in Ireland: A lot of damage done, more to do", by suggesting that a new industry body set up in Ireland to be known as MEAS (Managing the Enjoyment of Alcohol in Society), could more appropriately stand for Minimising Effective Action by the State. If it was at least in part a joke, it went down like the proverbial lead balloon. But in illustrating the scepticism with which certain quarters of the public health community clearly view industry-led initiatives, it was extremely articulate.

But the drinks industry hates to see its initiatives viewed in such a way. Indeed, it is hard to see any way in which industry-funded initiatives like sensible drinking messages and designated driver programmes cannot be positive. As one of the underlying purposes of the conference was to help create an environment where the opposing sides can work together on matters where there is consensus, Dr Barry's snipe at industry-led initiatives was unfortunate.

In the same way, Leanne Riley's concluding remark that the drinks industry has a choice, either to be part of the problem or part of the solution did little to advance the construction of consensus. ICAP is an industry-funded organisation. The conference hall was teeming with industry professionals. Whether motivated by social conscience or simple self-preservation, the drinks industry is already demonstrating a willingness to be part of the solution and Ms. Riley was arguably looking at extremely compelling evidence to support that fact. She should be commended for accepting the invitation to come and speak but might have been prepared to give a bit more credit where it was due.

Interestingly, a far more conciliatory note had been struck in the opening address to the conference by Michael McDowell, Ireland's Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. While pointing to an increase in per capita consumption in Ireland and agreeing with the principal findings of the country's Strategic Task Force on Alcohol, which also informed much of Barry's thinking, the tone of McDowell's speech seemed to be more in keeping with the spirit behind the conference.

Prof. Joyce O’Connor,
President of NCI

He said that, "effective action will involve partnership and dialogue" but also questioned whether alcohol advertisers were pushing back the bounds of what is acceptable. And even though his solutions tended to centre on regulatory rather than self-regulatory interventions, he had constructive and practical ideas on how public order problems stemming from alcohol abuse could be tackled, which did not simply revolve around demonising alcohol.

His presentation, however, was in sharp contrast to the speech given by Ireland's Minister of State for health, Sile de Valera, at the conference dinner, which was almost bruising in tone and bore all the hallmarks of the more uncompromising elements in the public health community. But once again, the fact that all sides of the argument had an opportunity to come together and listen to one another had to be positive.

Along the way, the conference also heard presentations from experts and academics, some aligned closely with the industry lobby and others not. The issue of the ethics of alcohol research was tackled in one session with presentations on this subject by, among others, Dr John Luik of the Janus Center in Canada, and Dr Mark Morgan, head of the Education Department of St Patrick's College in Dublin. Both touched upon key questions regarding the funding and implementing of research into alcohol abuse.

Morgan also provided well-founded analysis of the effectiveness of prominent anti alcohol abuse measures, including research questioning the efficacy of some well-established school-based education programmes. Luik expressed strong views concerning the way research funded by the alcohol industry tends automatically to be viewed as "bad science" by the public health community. This is a vexing issue for the industry and Luik offered valuable insights into how more successful partnerships could be built and how mutual trust and respect for each side's integrity might be fostered.

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Luik also made the valid point that partnership does not necessarily have to mean consensus and, to a degree, that sentiment should inform an evaluation on how successful this conference has been. One would not expect these sides to agree on some issues but the manner in which they listen to one another and respond to each other's arguments could tell us much about the real viability of future co-operations.

This is the first in a series of articles over the coming weeks in which Ben Cooper will examine the main bones of contention between the public health community and the drinks industry, including alcohol education, the funding of research and the advertising of alcoholic drinks.