After dishing out the bad news on alcohol all week, we thought it only fair to shout the industry a round. Normally, Sydney spin doctor Martin Palin would charge clients around $10,000 to develop a strategy for countering adverse publicity, but today he’s dispensing his advice freely. Here’s how he would advise the industry* to counter concerns about alcohol’s impact on health and safety.

  • Its top priority must be to portray itself as an advocate for responsible drinking. It should support programs that promote this, especially if they help to highlight problem drinking as the fault of irresponsible individuals. (Along the lines of the slogan that’s been so successful for another industry — guns don’t kill people, people kill people …)
  • Stress the industry’s contribution to the economy and jobs. Frame concerns about alcohol as being “anti-industry” rather than pro-health.
  • Portray public health advocates as “wowsers” and “unAustralian”, and suggest that their comments are offensive to the millions of responsible Australian drinkers.
  • Support governments that are “tough on drugs” — illicit drugs, that is. Promoting public alarm about the dangers of illicit drugs is extremely convenient in diverting the spotlight from the legal drugs (alcohol and tobacco) that research has shown cause far more harm than the illegal ones.

We’d add another tactic that’s been so successful for helping the pharmaceutical industry create an overly optimistic view of its products. This involves funding research examining alcohol’s potential positive effects on health, as well as conferences, publications and media campaigns raising awareness about the benefits of alcohol consumption. Ideally, these should feature apparently independent third parties such as doctors or scientists.

Palin, a former manager of the Quit campaign for NSW Health, found it far easier to come up with advice for the alcohol industry than any suggestions for the public health brigade.

“Man, that’s hard,” was his response when asked about this.

“The challenge is to get the community to see the alcohol issue through completely different eyes and to see it in an entirely different context. I can’t see it changing without very strong government leadership. What you need is the PM to draw a line in the sand and say, ‘I’m here to announce a new start for our relationship with alcohol in this country. That this country is known as the beer-drinking, fun-loving nation, but today we announce plans for us to look at that in a completely different context and to see the other side of that coin — that our attitudes, behaviours and history lead to an enormous amount of harm for children and families across this great land’.”

Somehow, that just doesn’t sound likely, does it?

* With only minor modifications, much of this advice will also be useful for governments wanting to be seen to be responsive to community concerns about alcohol, while not actually doing anything meaningful.