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Australia

Mar 6, 2014

Health lobby v Bernard Keane: alcohol industry is the problem, not the solution

Curtin University professor of health policy Mike Daube responds to Crikey politics editor Bernard Keane's defence of the alcohol industry's DrinkWise campaign.

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Bernard Keane’s political commentaries are generally entertaining and well-informed, but I wish I could understand his obsession with criticising people who work in public health and the personal abuse that goes with it. That of course is his prerogative as a journalist, although it would be good to see his regular gripes about people who actually want to reduce the harms matched by the same level of cynicism about industries that knowingly expose children and young people to massive promotion of products that will harm their health.

His defence of the alcohol industry’s DrinkWise organisation quotes an unnamed “senior public health figure” who for reasons that are not explained speaks only “on condition of anonymity”. It is hard to know how seriously one can take a “senior public health figures” without knowing who they are, what experience and associations they might have, what rationale there might be for their comments, and why they want to hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

The unnamed source’s arguments are also flawed.

I am not aware of anyone in public health arguing against good public education about alcohol from health authorities. Many of us do, however, criticise education activities we regard as phoney emanating from industry organisations such as DrinkWise — and very specifically the latest tacky campaign, which promotes “proper” drinking, implies that anything short of being blind drunk is acceptable, and throws in expletives for good measure.

The comparison between working with the alcohol industry now and with the sex industry in the early days of HIV/AIDS is also misplaced. We worked with the sex industry and others to ensure the safety of sex workers and their clients — but unlike alcohol or tobacco, the sex industry was co-operative, accepted the advice of health authorities, and changed its behaviour dramatically on the basis of our advice. Would that alcohol companies were as responsible or health-conscious as many in the sex industry! There are, of course, also serious penalties for anyone involved in knowingly engaging in behaviour that might transmit HIV/AIDS (indeed, while I was director general of health for Western Australia, I had to authorise detention of individuals on those grounds — not something any of us suggest for aggressive alcohol advertisers or misguided journalists!).

And if the shadowy anonymous figure does indeed know something about public health, he or she must also know how misleading it is to assert that, “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”. Many of us have noted over and again that while the public health aim is indeed to see the end of smoking, the aims with alcohol are to reduce and minimise harmful drinking and to protect children. I am not aware of any significant public health figure who has promoted “banning alcohol altogether”. This kind of suggestion is mischievous nonsense that casts serious doubts on the credibility of the mysterious “senior public health figure”.

Keane quotes from a talk I gave in 1996, when I was working for the WA premier as chair of the government’s Task Force on Drug Abuse, in which I spoke about co-operation with the alcohol industry. Indeed, I tried — just as some of our predecessors tried working with the tobacco industry in the 1960s and 1970s. As I have frequently noted, some two decades ago I gave it my very best shot; met with some people who seemed thoroughly decent, and persuaded me that their intentions were good; encouraged talk of co-operation; and discussed a range of possible positive initiatives here and elsewhere. Sadly, it all came to naught. There was much fine talk about advertising curbs, protecting children and vulnerable groups, focusing only on lower-alcohol products, decent warning labels, supporting (and not opposing) government education programs, and so much more — but absolutely nothing came of it. I tried and tried hard — but concluded that I had been taken for a ride. The last straw for me was when one of the industry leaders who had seemed most decent came into my office with a carton of “Duff” beer, festooned with characters from The Simpsons (one of my 10 year-old son’s favourite programs), solemnly assuring me that this would have no appeal to children.

I think I was right to try — but also to learn from that experience, and the industry’s ever more irresponsible behaviour here and elsewhere in the intervening years. Many have taken a similar route and come to a similar conclusion. That is why the Director General of the World Health Organization, Dr Margaret Chan, says: “In the view of WHO, the alcohol industry has no role in the formulation of alcohol policies, which must be protected from distortion by commercial or vested interests.”

Crikey readers can choose whether to accept the views of Keane and his mysterious unnamed source or a range of experts who do not hide behind anonymity — and the World Health Organization.

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