On October 7-9, the city of Seoul, Korea served as host for the third Global Alcohol Policy Conference. At the conference, more than 850 participants from 45 countries discussed the current state of science-based alcohol policies, recent successes in the alcohol policy field, the prospects for improvement, and the challenges facing alcohol policy advocates.
One important theme running through the conference was the role of the global alcohol industry in maintaining and intensifying alcohol-related harm through its tactics and practices.
Dr. Thomas Babor of the University of Connecticut, for example, stressed reasons to doubt the sincerity of the global alcohol industry in its insistence to be part of the solution to alcohol problems. This is particularly true, given that the strategy of the multi-national alcohol producers and their industry associations and social aspects organizations is clearly to increase overall consumption – a strategy which is inimical to public health and public safety. Additionally, the industry clings to “self-regulation” – a strategy Babor described as “spectacularly ineffective” in actually preventing industry misconduct or associated alcohol-related harms.
Other plenary speakers and workshop presenters illustrated specific cases of alcohol industry efforts either to prevent evidence-based policies from taking effect or to render such policies ineffective. Dr. Ronald Laranjeira (Professor of the Federal University of São Paulo [UNIFESP], Brazil; Director of Alcohol and Drug Research Unit of UNIAD) described the almost total lack of functional alcohol policies in much of Latin America. He called attention to the suspension of a national ban on the sales of alcohol beverages in soccer stadia during the forthcoming 2014 World Soccer Cup in Brazil. The removal of the ban was forced by the Fédération Internacionale de Football Association (FIFA), linked to that organization’s multimillion-dollar contract with Anheuser-Busch InBev’s Budweiser brand.
Similarly, Dr. Evelyn Gillan, Chief Executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS), Scotland’s national alcohol charity, addressed the tactics of the Scotch Whiskey Association to work to prevent or delay implementation of the Scottish Government’s Minimum Unit Pricing policy.
In South Africa – and the rest of that continent – multinational brewer SABMiller has made clear its intention to “grow per capita beer consumption.” Dr. Charles Parry, Director of the South African Medical Research Council’s Alcohol & Drug Abuse Research Unit (ADARU), described the efforts of SABMiller and other alcohol operators to resist a proposed total ban on alcohol advertising. Specifically, he listed the various arguments marshaled by industry groups and related associations and media outlets – all of which should be familiar to public health advocates vying with health-harming industries:
- Casting doubt on the underlying science (the “scientific evidence is not uniform”)
- Attacking public health advocates (the Minister of Health is a “Nanny from Hell,” and his allies are akin to the Nazi and Apartheid regimes)
- Warning of the “unintended consequences” of regulating industries, including dire economic consequences
- Claiming that the measures would be disproportionately burdensome to small businesses (“hurt the little guy”). (Dr. Parry noted that this claim begs the question: if this measure is so beneficial to big business, why would SABMiller raise such vigorous opposition?)
Finally, one of the workshops at GAPC 2013 specifically addressed alcohol industry influences in the alcohol policy process.
During that session, Professor Jeff Collin (Director of the Global Public Health Unit at the University of Edinburgh) called out the disconnect between the British government’s ostensible embrace of a multi-sectoral approach to global health in its “Health is Global” framework – and the reality of its trade policy, including the active promotion of hard liquor as a key export.
Sven-Olov Carlsson, International President of IOGT International, compared the tactics of Big Alcohol to those of Big Tobacco and found many parallels, including the creation of front groups to “fill the policy space.”
Sri Lanka’s Shakyra Nanayakkara detailed the various legal maneuvers utilized by alcohol industry interests to undermine that nation’s National Authority on Tobacco and Alcohol (NATA) Act – which prohibits the sale of alcohol and tobacco to person under the age of twenty-one. These maneuvers include legal challenges and infiltrating the NATA training panel with industry-funded lawyers.
A key takeaway of the conference is that understanding the current gap between alcohol policy science and alcohol policy practice is impossible without taking into consideration the machinations of an industry which profits handsomely from underage and excessive adult alcohol consumption.
Thus, reducing the global burden of alcohol-related harm will require advocates to effectively counter that industry influence – through reliance on the best science, savvy media advocacy, and robust grassroots organization.
By Robert Pezzolesi is the Founding Director at NY Center for Alcohol Policy Solutions/NY Alcohol Policy Alliance