Is the DrinkWise organisation as independent as it claims?

Mike Daube, Professor of Health Policy and Director, Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA, Curtin University of Technology, has had a critical look at the evidence, and writes:

A group of academics recently published a letter in the Medical Journal of Australia calling on researchers not to accept funding from the DrinkWise organisation established by the drinks industry.

In this week’s MJA, the chair of DrinkWise, Trish Worth, defends her organisation, suggesting that the letter was “besmirching the good work of DrinkWise and its Directors”.

Ms Worth argues that “DrinkWise Australia is not an industry-dominated body” – claiming that “It has a balanced Board of six members from the alcohol industry and six distinguished community members”, although only five of the latter are currently in place.

A sceptic might argue that for an alcohol education organisation, six out of eleven board members who are drinks industry CEOs provide a strange form of balance.

Ms Worth notes that “In criticising DrinkWise they also attack the reputations of Board members” including Professor Ross Kalucy and Noel Turnbull.  There is no intention to attack their reputations. Professor Kalucy is a very distinguished psychiatrist who has for many years advised the brewers on research. Mr Turnbull is a successful public relations practitioner listed on the DrinkWise website as a Director of Growth Solutions Group whose website in turn lists four wine industry campaigns among its success stories. They undoubtedly bring valuable skills to the DrinkWise Board, but it may be drawing a long bow to describe them as “community representatives”.

Ms Worth argues that “DrinkWise does not advocate for or lobby Government in respect of alcohol taxation policy”, although – as pointed out in the original letter to the MJA – its CEO has recently been quoted in the media as arguing against “fiddling with alcohol tax”.

Ms Worth also claims that “DrinkWise does not advocate for or lobby Government in respect of alcohol taxation policy” because “Alcohol industry leaders advocating or agreeing on matters affecting price could constitute a breach of the Trade Practices Act 1974 (Cwlth)”.  Does this mean that DrinkWise is not free to advocate for policies known to be effective? It certainly does not prevent the drinks industry from lobbying against increases in tax on their products.

Ms Worth also asserts that “DrinkWise Australia…has no associations with any international alcohol or tobacco groups”.  It is difficult to reconcile this claim with DrinkWise’s collaboration with the US drinks industry’s International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP), with which DrinkWise has held a joint workshop.

The DrinkWise website quotes a Board member, the CEO of the Australian Hotels Association in Victoria, as claiming that DrinkWise is “a genuinely independent community and industry partnership”.  Another Board member, the President of the Australian Liquor Stores Association, claims that DrinkWise is “a truly independent organisation”.

Some of us might think that an organisation where at least half the Board members are drinks industry CEOs and whose CEO supports the alcohol industry’s opposition to increased taxes is less than “genuinely” and “truly independent”.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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