Diageo’s funding of a programme in the UK to train midwives in informing women about alcohol consumption during pregnancy has been criticised by health professionals. Ben Cooper believes Diageo’s move might have been viewed less sceptically if the Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal had demanded more substantial undertakings from industry.

The UK government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, unveiled in March, gave the alcohol industry an opportunity to engage in public health education initiatives. It has been an opportunity Diageo has been quick to grasp.

The world’s leading spirits producer made the headlines at the weekend when it was revealed that it will fund a training programme for midwives aimed at informing women about the dangers of alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

That Diageo is the first alcohol company to participate actively in the Responsibility Deal is not a surprise. The company’s size certainly gives it the resources to make such an investment but it has already been something of a pioneer in responsibility messaging, having become - in 2008 - the first company to run its own responsible drinking ad campaign.

Diageo’s own sensible drinking campaigns drew some criticism from public health practitioners and this most recent move has attracted even greater controversy. Campaigners and medical professionals question whether it is appropriate for an alcohol marketer to engage in such activity.

Diageo’s previous work could at least be seen as a company working on its own initiative to mitigate harm and – as the company would see it – exercising its own corporate conscience.

Under the auspices of the Conservative-controlled government’s Responsibility Deal, however, this is a case of industry funding a mainstream training initiative aimed at professionals working within the NHS. The reputational benefits for a company associating so directly in a public health initiative are clear to see. The campaign itself is being run by an NGO, namely the National Organisation on Foetal Alcohol Syndrome – UK (NOFAS-UK), lending Diageo further credibility.

In straightened economic times, many ask what harm is there in this. Defenders of the Responsibility Deal say the Government is simply taking advantage of a new source of revenue to help fund important work. Public Health Minister Anne Milton said the initiative was a "great example of how business can work with NHS staff to provide women with valuable information".

There is widespread acceptance that the initiative has merit in its own right. According to Department of Health (DH) research, around 66% of women in the UK continue drinking during pregnancy. Officially the DH advises women to avoid drinking when pregnant, and if they do to limit this to one to two units once or twice a week.

However, while the sponsorship might allow an initiative to go ahead which may not have found funding, health professionals believe it is fundamentally wrong for an alcohol company to be directly involved in a public initiative of this nature.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has suggested that such involvement represents a conflict of interest for alcohol producers. It advocates that, if industry does wish to donate money for such initiatives, it should be given first to a "third party" or "honest broker".

The idea that public health awareness messaging about alcohol could in any way become dependent on funding from industry is seen as highly undesirable, while campaigners are also worried that industry can use such programmes as reputational ‘window-dressing’. Indeed, Alcohol Health Alliance UK has described the move as a "diversion".

The industry may disagree and plead that an initiative such as this should be taken at face value, as an attempt to assist in tackling a serious problem, but the reservations from health professionals are valid.

One aspect of the Public Health Responsibility Deal which may help unpick the argument is Government’s insistence that it is precisely that, a ‘deal’. However, the agreement is not that the company provides funds and in return gains credibility and PR capital. Rather, it should be that, in return for having the opportunity to contribute to such programmes, industry has to fulfil certain obligations. The fulfilment of those obligations reduces the need for legislation and regulation, something both industry and the Government would welcome.

One of the reasons why the Diageo move has attracted criticism is because many health professionals believe the Government has not asked nearly enough of drinks companies. The undertakings made were in essence no different from general responsibility commitments the industry has already made, critics observed.

Indeed, in March, six prominent health groups withdrew their support for the Public Health Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network (RDAN), criticising the level of industry influence and the lack of effective action. Among them was alcohol charity Alcohol Concern, which moved swiftly to criticise the Diageo move, describing it as "deeply worrying".

The suggestion that the Deal has not extracted sufficiently progressive undertakings from alcohol companies has left the way open for the Deal to be characterised as a sop to industry from a laissez-faire government beholden to corporate support.

For Diageo and the drinks industry, as long as the Public Health Responsibility Deal retains that image, its involvement in such initiatives will be slightly tainted. That it has gone ahead, however, suggests the reputational kudos to be gained outweighs such concerns.

As far as the Government is concerned, if it wants its inclusive policy to be taken seriously by all sides, it should review what it is requiring industry to do. Sceptics may still object to the idea in principle but if what is being offered is seen as genuinely progressive, then doubters may take a more pragmatic view and even begin to accept that companies can usefully participate in public health initiatives.