Alcohol firms funding charities in order to gain political influence, claims study

  • Post category:World News

Alcohol firms are adopting contentious tactics pioneered by the tobacco industry by funding charities in order to gain influence inside government, researchers claim in a new study published on Tuesday.

From the Guardian

Drink manufacturers, retailers and grant-making trusts have given five alcohol charities donations of up to  £1m each in recent years as they have deliberately “used corporate philanthropy as a political device”, according to research by academics at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Addaction, which works with people addicted to drink and drugs, has received  £1.56m during the past three years. That includes  £1m from Asda to work with young people aroundon harmful alcohol consumption and  £560,000 from Heineken for a variety of projects.

Similarly, the researchers’ trawl of Charity Commission records showed that Mentor UK, which seeks to prevent alcohol-related harm among children, took  £421,000 between 2008-09 and 2012-13. It has also accepted a further  £100,000 since. That included  £371,000 from the drinks company Diageo and  £100,000 from two trusts funded by profits from sales of alcohol.

The revelations have caused concern because both charities are the only health groups that remain involved in the coalition’s public health responsibility deal, which tries to reach voluntary agreements with food and drink firms on how to tackle the huge harms associated with obesity and alcohol misuse. They have continued to participate despite all other alcohol charities and medical groups that initially took part pulling out owing to concerns that the process – organised by the Department of Health, which lauds it as a vital contribution to solving public health problems – was too dominated by representatives of the alcohol industry.

“The fact that the only people left inside the responsibility deal process who are advocating for health are both industry-funded is a cause of great concern, because everyone else who was representing health walked out as they had no confidence in it,” said Dr Jim McCambridge, lead author of the paper, which appears in the European Journal of Public Health.

Alcohol industry funding for the two charities confers a legitimacy on the responsibility deal which it does not deserve, he added. “This [funding] is an example of the industry sowing division in the public health community. It keeps alive the responsibility deal, which otherwise might be dead.”

Katherine Brown, director of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, an independent, thinktank not funded by the industry, said Whitehall civil servants she had spoken to were unaware that both groups received money from industry bodies.

“Funding NGOs is a longstanding tactic used by tobacco and alcohol companies. It can help bolster corporate reputations, but, more importantly, it can provide greater access to government officials with the potential to influence public policy,” said Brown. She called for greater transparency about the backers of organisations lobbying government on alcohol.

Addaction said its receipt of such funding had not influenced its aims, policies or positions, citing its support for minimum unit pricing of alcohol, which the coalition pledged to seriously consider introducing, but then rejected last year and the alcohol industry is strongly opposed to.

Given its work with people whose lives have been wrecked by alcohol “it may seem incongruous – or even compromising – that the charity takes money from the UK alcohol industry”.

But it insisted that its partnerships had helped change the industry for the better.

“In 2008 Heineken senior management visited an Addaction service and learned that their high-strength white cider brands were overly prevalent among those seeking help for alcohol problems. Subsequently they delisted White Lightning and Strongbow Black and no longer sell any similar super-strength products.”

Mentor UK said it had not received any money from the alcohol industry since 2012 and denied that the Robertson Trust and Gannochy Trust, themselves charities, were industry bodies.

Robertson has a close relationship with the Edrington Group, which makes well-known whisky brands including Famous Grouse. Gannochy is funded by the profits from sales of Bell’s whisky. The two trusts jointly fund Mentor UK’s work in Polmont young offenders institution in Scotland.

Henry Ashworth, chief executive of the Portman Group, which speaks for the alcohol industry, staunchly defended links between firms and charities and the projects they lead to. “This campaign by the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine does great disservice to thousands of charities that have developed private sector funding partnerships to help them achieve their charitable objectives and it is outrageous to suggest they have a conflict of interest when they are transparent about their funding sources and have rigorous protocols in place to safeguard their independence,” he said.

“Much important research and many charitable services would not exist without corporate support.”

Prof John Ashton, president of the UK Faculty of Public Health, said: “The health messages and policies that the alcohol industry favours are frequently without an evidence base. Such policies are unlikely to have any real impact on the tens of thousands of deaths, or hundreds of thousands of hospital admissions, that alcohol causes ever year.”

The research also uncovered that three other charities active in the UK alcohol policy process – Drinkaware, the Robertson Trust and British Institute of Innkeeping – “receive almost all their income from the alcohol industry or from people working in the industry”. None, though, is involved in the responsibility deal.