June 28, 2017

Great power. Great irresponsibility.

liquor bottles

Corporate social responsibility. Great concept, isn’t it? Warm, fuzzy, giving a general impression of ethics, interest and trust. It is also a powerful shield for the alcohol industry.

Addiction journal has published a study into ‘The Hidden Harm’, the 2011 Inquiry into the prevention, diagnosis and management of Foetal alcohol spectrum disorders (FASD). Five of the submissions into the inquiry were from the alcohol industry. All five used their submissions to undermine public health concerns about FASD by promoting ‘the DrinkWise’ approach.

The submission goes on to discuss warning labels, suggesting that anyone who doesn’t ‘drink wisely’, whether pregnant or not, is simply an outlier. This tactic, reducing a community harm to the effect on a few irresponsible individuals, was studied in a systematic review on alcohol industry messaging.

Studies have repeatedly shown that the DrinkWise labelling initiative does not work. Still, it persists, and submissions to the FASD inquiry were found to regularly attack the credibility of public health researchers and organisations. They also put every effort into minimising concerns about FASD in Australia. Two out of the five downplayed the benefits of preventative action—people will always drink, so there’s no point warning anyone—all while still promoting the DrinkWise warning labels as the most effective prevention tool out there. The submission from the Distilled Spirits Industry Council of Australia (submission 32) argues that 97.5% of women ‘positively alter’ their alcohol intake during pregnancy, using this number to question benefits of raising awareness of FASD in the community at all.

Results of the study

This, as the authors of the Addiction study point out, is a seriously selective use of statistics. The number comes from combining the number of women who self-report abstaining (42%) or reducing (45.5%) their alcohol consumption during pregnancy in the 2010 Drug Strategy Household Survey, which did not include questions on the number of individuals who consume alcohol after they knew they were pregnant (the 2013 Household Survey does this). Recent reports from the Foundation of Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) also indicate that general awareness of FASD is much lower than the alcohol industry submissions indicated in the Hidden Harm Inquiry.

How low? Possibly as low as 50% in the2015 annual alcohol poll.

Multiple studies have shown that alcohol industry bodies use their public relations arm to be loud and proud about their corporate social responsibly while promoting industry-friendly interventions.

Trust us, it suggests. You’re safe. We’re responsible, and you deserve that drink. The submissions to the Hidden Harm inquiry by alcohol industry bodies show how smoothly and systematically the industry dilutes any attempt at public health.

DrinkWise, stripped of all adjectives, promotes an unhealthy drinking culture in Australia. Well done FARE and Addiction journal for bringing this to all our attention.

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