The Alcohol Debate: From the Other Side - Introduction
February's just-drinks management briefing takes an in-depth view of the 'anti-alcohol lobby'. In this introduction, Ben Cooper looks to define as clearly as possible who makes up this powerful force in the alcohol debate.
The ‘anti-alcohol lobby’ is an umbrella term often used to describe individuals or groups holding views considered hostile to the alcohol industry. It is fair to say that, while temperance advocates of the 19th century demonised alcohol itself, campaigners today are far more focused on the drinks industry.
Within the broad range of non-industry participants in the alcohol policy debate, there are certainly those who are against drinking and believe the world would be a better place if drinking alcohol were prohibited by law. The term neo-prohibitionist has been coined to describe this school of thought.
Neo-prohibitionist is also often applied to those who hold no realistic aim of having alcohol banned but believe that, by the introduction of a highly punitive regulatory environment and vocal campaigning about the harmful aspects of alcohol abuse, the social and cultural acceptability of alcohol can be hugely reduced.
However neo-prohibitionists might be aiming to wean societies off alcohol, such groups can be said to represent the extreme end of a spectrum of sceptical or hostile viewpoints facing alcohol industry advocates. The majority, comprising academics, campaign groups, alcohol charities, think-tanks and organisations representing health professionals, believe in, and lobby for, tighter alcohol regulation and hold a sceptical view of industry-led responsibility initiatives, but would fall some way short of calling for alcohol consumption itself to be prohibited.
In debates over public policy, the engagement of pressure groups and campaigners voicing opinions and backing them up with reasoned argument and objective evidence is not only entirely acceptable, it is surely to be welcomed.
But, there has been criticism from industry that some groups, which are effectively campaigning organisations sometimes with links to the temperance movement, do not present themselves openly as such.
The question of transparency, particularly if organisations are conducting or funding research, is clearly paramount.
The drinks industry itself actually funds relatively little research into alcohol-related harm nowadays. There is a feeling that, even if the highest standards of transparency and objectivity are ensured, industry-funded research will be viewed sceptically. Academic institutions, meanwhile, are wary about how their acceptance of funding from the industry might be viewed.
That said, there is a considerable amount of research conducted - or funded - by organisations which could be said to have at their core a negative view of alcohol and the alcohol industry. Once again, provided that relevant affiliations are made clear and the research is carried out objectively and exposed to scrutiny through peer review, this need not necessarily be a problem. The ‘think-tank’ world is full of organisations with campaigning agendas which also carry out research. But, those that produce objective and balanced work are likely to be taken more seriously by their opponents, the media and by governments.
As it would undoubtedly be expected to do the same, industry is arguably entitled to call for all organisations to be completely transparent about their funding, for research to be conducted objectively and for conclusions and policy recommendations to be evidence-based.
Statutory public health bodies make up a third non-industry constituency in the debate. These organisations may conduct or commission research into alcohol-related problems, run official harm mitigation programmes and play an important role in shaping alcohol policy.
Inter-governmental agencies, notably the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Union Directorate General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco), can also be said to perform a role in shaping public policy on alcohol.
What such organisations have to say with regard to alcohol policy – which tends to focus on lowering consumption and often errs towards greater regulation – carries great weight with politicians, the public and the media.
In an ideal world, what they contribute would be universally accepted as being objective and science-based. But, the question of whether such organisations do hold a neutral position or instead carry predetermined judgements and agendas, or are unduly influenced by health campaigners, has become a point of discussion in the alcohol debate. Also, the balance between public bodies reflecting the views of an elected government - and shaping policy through the advice they give politicians - is particularly salient to the alcohol policy arena.
Libertarian thinkers would say that what you gain from research depends on the questions you ask, so even research funded by official public agencies cannot be assumed to be completely free from bias. Certainly, industry advocates have been known to question the findings of government-commissioned research into alcohol-related harms and to accuse official bodies of having a predetermined agenda.
So, the term ‘anti-alcohol’ is unhelpful not only because many proponents of tighter alcohol legislation are neither anti-alcohol per se nor neo-prohibitionist, but also because it suggests the industry is debating with one cohesive group with a unified position. That is certainly not the case.
This management briefing looks at the range of groups and individuals which represent contrary views on alcohol policy from the industry and where they stand in current debates in the US, the UK and the EU around alcohol-related harm.
Cick here to read Part I of this management briefing.
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