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Alcohol policy conflict of interest

A fundamental conflict of interest has been identified by researchers at the University of York, the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN) and the University of Newcastle, Australia when the alcohol industry gives policy advice on alcohol consumption.

International research has consistently shown that measures such as increasing price, reducing advertising and reducing availability are effective ways to reduce alcohol-related harm, and yet government alcohol policy hasn't yet responded to this message in England. Instead, policy-makers have been influenced by the alcohol industry, which advocates a ‘harm reduction’ approach that doesn’t aim to reduce overall alcohol consumption in the population. As a result the situation has worsened in England, with alcohol related hospital admissions doubling during that period and other indicators such as liver disease death rates rising in England while they have been falling in other western European countries.

In the paper the researchers argue that the alcohol industry has appropriated the concept of harm reduction which was originally developed in the field of illicit drug misuse. This ‘Corporate Capture’ of the concept has been used to undermine effective measures to reduce alcohol related harms and has been presented as an alternative to reducing whole population alcohol consumption.

The report compares tactics of the alcohol industry to those previously used by tobacco industries where doubt is systematically generated on independent evidence to restrict the actions policy-makers can take. They identify the tendency for alcohol industry lobbyists to move the argument into the ‘ideas’ world where harm reduction appears appealing and evidence on efficacy is demoted to being just another consideration alongside whether those who promote public health issues related to alcohol should be caricatured as paternalistic and part of a ‘nanny state’. The minimum unit pricing introduced during the HM Government 2012 alcohol strategy is a case in point as it was welcomed by the public health community for responding to evidence, but dropped in a U-turn on alcohol policy the following year in the context of considerable industry lobbying.

“Harm reduction as a concept applied to alcohol policy has so far served the interests of corporations, rather than public health,” said Colin Drummond, Professor of Addiction Psychiatry at the IoPPN at King’s College, and an author on the report. “It would be more helpful to apply the term harm reduction to any effective strategies that reduce the harm done by alcohol. The most effective of these strategies are increasing price and restricting availability.”

A recent statement from the Director-General of the World Health Organisation Margaret Chan emphasised that, at the global level, the alcohol industry has no role in the formulation of alcohol policies. The Organisation estimates that alcohol is responsible for approximately 6% or all deaths, and a leading contributor to global disease.

McCambridge J, Kypri K, Drummond C, Strang J (2014) Alcohol Harm Reduction: Corporate Capture of a Key Concept. PLoS Med 11(12): e1001767. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1001767

For further information contact Tom Bragg, Press Officer at IoPPN, King’s College London, on +44(0)2078485377 or email