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.