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Drunk on moral superiority: public health lobby’s nonsensical alcohol policy

Demonising the alcohol industry ignores evidence from previous successful public health campaigns, warns a senior public health figure.

The public health lobby’s unwillingness to engage with the alcohol industry is undermining campaigns to reduce drinking among at-risk groups, according to a senior public health figure who has hit out at the sector’s attacks on the latest binge-drinking campaign.

Last week DrinkWise, an alcohol industry-funded body that promotes healthier and more responsible drinking, released a series of ads aimed at encouraging more responsible drinking among young people. The “How To Drink Properly” ads — in which an older, elegant male character provides tips on staying “classy” while drinking and knowing your limits — were immediately savaged by public health figures.

Public health doyen Professor Mike Daube called them “appalling” and “pretty much the most irresponsible advertising I’ve ever seen”. Public health academics Adrian Carter and Wayne Hall used The Conversation to declare “these slick ads will encourage young people to drink”. Even commentators joined the fray, with News Corporation’s Susie O’Brien claiming the ads glorified alcohol. Marketing site Mumbrella also attacked the ads, running an opinion piece by an ad director attacking them.

None of the ads’ critics, of course, are the target audience of 18- to 24-year-olds. DrinkWise CEO John Scott, whose background is in public health, explained to Crikey that the ads were developed based on focus group research with young people to identify what messages would work. “We found that scare-based campaigns such as the ‘Don’t Turn A Night Out Into a Nightmare’ ads [a binge drinking campaign developed under the Rudd government that featured incidents such as violence and poor sexual choices resulting from drunkenness] didn’t resonate with young people,” he said.

It was partly a reaction to the tone of the ads — ‘don’t tell us what to do’ — and the sort of scenarios portrayed in those campaigns — young people saw them as far-fetched and didn’t think it could happen to them. We decided to try a different tone, acknowledging they’re drinking and giving them credible ways to self-reflect and moderate their behaviour.”

Scott says the hook for the campaign, developed with research based on over 1000 18- to 24-year-olds, sought to appeal to young people’s growing sense of self-definition by providing ways of appearing more mature and “classy”.

There are four segments we’re talking about. The ‘sensibles’ (19%) — they’re OK. The ‘hard and heavies’ (21%) — who are determined to get drunk and less likely to be in the reach of this campaign. Our target is the remaining 60%, made up of the ones who are out for a good time (49%), and those we call the ‘shamefuls’ (10%), who end up regretting things they did after a night out,” he said.

A senior public health figure, speaking on condition of anonymity, believes the reaction to the DrinkWise campaign reflects a deeper malaise on the part of public health movements than mere objections to a marketing campaign. The criticism of the ads extended to DrinkWise itself, probably the only industry-funded website that provides extensive detail discouraging people from using the industry’s products. DrinkWise, Carter and Hall claimed, “would do little to discourage consumption in the face of the tsunami of alcohol promotion, while ‘expressing the industry’s concern’ about the problem”. The campaign “shows yet again that the alcohol industry should have no part in alcohol education,” Daube insisted.

But the senior public health figure says they are missing the point. “That public health leaders and bodies maintain a relentless critique of DrinkWise’s campaigns is testimony to our failure to learn lessons from previous public health successes in Australia and overseas, which make it clear that you need to involve industry as a partner,” the figure told Crikey.

How destructive would it have been in the early 1990s if, on the basis that the sex industry was making a profit from prostitution, public health bodies had criticised the industry and excluded it from developing interventions or campaigns to promote sex workers’ use of condoms and other safe-sex practices? Especially if it was informed by credible data the industry had collected itself.”

Communications strategies focused on the specific fears and aspirations of vulnerable sub-groups may not be not shared by “middle-class, middle-aged highly educated public health academics and practitioners”, the figure said, but shouldn’t be dismissed as a shorter-term strategy while long-term strategies around pricing and tax are pursued.

Instead of criticising DrinkWise’s new campaign, public health advocates should invite credible industry-funded groups like DrinkWise to form a partnership to change our drinking culture,” they said.

Daube himself once agreed. In a speech in 1996 as head of the Western Australian government’s Task Force on Drug Abuse, he told the Australian Hotels Association:

[T]he experience of more than a decade working in and running government departments has taught me that pragmatism often achieves more than rigidity … [f]ar from being irresponsible as a norm, the industry has proved itself willing to take action that will reduce abuse of products … as distinct from tobacco, where the evidence is black and white and the case for action is black and white, with alcohol there are now so many grey areas that co-operation is the only sensible approach.”

Daube even noted he’d been attacked by other public health advocates for considering co-operating with industry. His Task Force report concluded that “there is much more scope for genuine co-operation than may have been accepted in the past” with industry and that:

… the time may be right to attempt a comprehensive approach based not on adversarialism but on co-operation. This will require some movement and trust on the part of both sides.”

The current public health lobbyist approach is very different now. A Cancer Council Victoria conference last year — “Alcohol Advertising and Young People: Taking Action” — explicitly banned representatives of the alcohol industry from attending. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education last year accused the industry of mimicking tobacco companies. Hall and Daube last year argued alcohol and tobacco industries were “intertwined” —  despite noting that unlike tobacco, there was evidence that moderate use of alcohol is actually healthy.

The logic of demonising alcohol as like tobacco, though, is obvious to the public health industry: work at it long enough and you might be able to restrict and then start banning alcohol altogether. Perhaps it also gives public health campaigners a warm moral glow that they’re fighting more forces of evil now that tobacco is receding as a threat.

What’s needed, the public health figure suggested, is a national platform for a collaborative approach in which Commonwealth, state and territory and local governments, NGOs, research/academia, industry stakeholders (including church groups), community and affected individuals are brought together to plan and invest in co-ordinated long-term action.

The alternative runs the real risk of undermining the effectiveness of targeted campaigns designed to achieve the very outcomes public health advocates say they want.

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  • 1
    Dez Paul
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    The Puritans are at it again. Those DrinkWise ads are clever and likely to work, judging by the comments on Youtube.

  • 2
    Philip Darbyshire
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 1:25 pm | Permalink

    Whatever would we do without Bernard! Spot on again. There are times when my fellow health professionals’ self-righteousness and moral certitude makes me sicker than a few nice cold beers ever could.

  • 3
    Tamas Calderwood
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 1:51 pm | Permalink

    Great article Bernard. The wowsers are at it again.

  • 4
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

    Prohibition could be fun though…

  • 5
    Salamander
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 4:40 pm | Permalink

    So what make Mike Daube change his approach? As an academic he probably has a reason.

  • 6
    Dianne van Dulken
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 4:46 pm | Permalink

    I saw this yesterday on upworthy absolutely applauding the ads. I do think a bit of humour goes a long way and the ads are fanatic.

  • 7
    johnquiggin1@mac.com
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 4:47 pm | Permalink

    Use of an anonymous source is bad practice. The critics are on the record, and this person wants to slam them from behind a veil of anonymity, while maintaing the cred of “senior public health figure”

  • 8
    Andrew Pengilley
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    The alcohol industry sells alcohol. Ergo, nothing it endorses will reduce the amount of alcohol sold. Lots of people like drinking, ergo people will resist anything that reduces the amount of alcohol available to drink. Many people are in denial about the cost and health effects of alcohol consumption, ergo they will endorse anything which pretends that a non-challenging, fun campaign will be effective, and they will shoot any messenger which says otherwise. Public health does not have a problem with smugness, it has a problem with being the field of medicine most involved in telling people things they just don’t want to hear. Generally, eventually, people either stop listening - and society just lives with the downside - or people wake up - and something effective gets done like reducing access, increasing cost and dispensing with ineffective genuflections to the pretence of education influencing the behaviour of rational actors. I guess we’ll just have to see what the chronic disease, violence, and general mayhem tolerance of Australia is. The US has 30K gun deaths each year and I don’t see them listening to any smug advice, so when you can get people turned around a society can put up with quite a bit.

  • 9
    Northy
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

    Bernard is one of those commentators who also decries any restrictions whatsoever on alcohol, despite overwhelming evidence that it’s effective. I’m pretty sure Bernard would have been vehemently opposed to the NSW government’s 3am alcohol cut-off. Yet we’ve seen stunning results in Newcastle from a similar approach, with multiple studies coming out recently showing the dramatic reduction in violence that can be achieved through reduced trading hours (4000 less assaults over the past 5 years). Meanwhile, the first big weekend of the new laws in Sydney already had St.Vincent’s hospital thrilled with the lack of emergency admissions (and it was Mardi Gras weekend!) and the Police equally excited based on early signs. Yet the industry couldn’t have been more opposed to these laws; laws that will help to change the alcohol culture in Sydney and save lives.

  • 10
    Michael Jones
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 7:36 pm | Permalink

    The logic of demonising alcohol as like tobacco, though, is obvious to the public health industry: work at it long enough and you might be able to restrict and then start banning alcohol altogether. Perhaps it also gives public health campaigners a warm moral glow that they’re fighting more forces of evil now that tobacco is receding as a threat.”

    Pretty clear who’s got the issues here.

  • 11
    TheFamousEccles
    Posted Wednesday, 5 March 2014 at 8:12 pm | Permalink

    The prohibitionist “war on drugs” has an inflexible, morally superior outlook, ergo it is currently having a negative net effect on manufacture and distribution.

    I just used the term “ergo” in a sentence, ergo I am an utter tosser.

    Alcohol availability is not the problem, and taxing it to the bejeebus will not help. Changing attitudes to alcohol consumption ie how much and when, will. And this is a generational thing, it will not occur overnight. The public health lobby need to realise this and take the blinkers off, or they are no better than those hell-bent on getting a skinful and starting a fight.

  • 12
    Shaniq'ua Shardonn'ay
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 12:45 pm | Permalink

    I have serious concerns about the the cancer council at the moment, having largely won the battle against tobacco they seem at a loss at what to target next and sound bizarrely extreme every time they open their mouths. After hearing one of them on ABC News breakfast describe “the coming tsunami of cancers” because older people aren’t dying of heart disease anymore I think they have a serious problem with accepting the fact that we are all going to die someday.

  • 13
    rhwombat
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 1:29 pm | Permalink

    Well said John Quiggan, Andrew Pengilly, Northy & Michael Jones.
    This is desperate, strawman bullshit, BK - if Tamas Calderwood agrees with you, you know you have got it wrong.

  • 14
    rhwombat
    Posted Thursday, 6 March 2014 at 4:52 pm | Permalink

    Shaniq’ua: Um. Not even we deluded, self-important, morally-oh-so-superior medico’s think we can prevent death. What most of us in the “hypocritical” health-industrial complex try to do is minimise the suffering on the way to death. Just because it hasn’t happened to you yet, doesn’t mean you and those who you care about are going to be spared. You can’t buy your way out, and biology beats denial every time. You do realise that alcohol is a co-carcinogen don’t you?

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