Deconstructing false narratives and tactics of industry

In a letter published in the national media this week, the drinks industry said that when talking about putting health warning labels on alcohol products, it’s not helpful to point out the ‘extreme’ harms that alcohol causes. 

If this sounds like an oxymoron, that’s because it is. But it’s not surprising that the industry would say this. The idea that we shouldn’t cast aspersions on a product that only some people develop a problem with is a well-worn industry tactic. Harmful industries such as alcohol and tobacco seek to individualise problems so that the person who develops a problem with a toxic, carcinogenic, addictive substance is the problem, and not the product.  

Harmful commodities industry tactics all share the same playbook and many of the tactics they use were on display in the Drinks Ireland letter to the Irish Examiner this week. 

Let’s deconstruct. 

Getting the facts – on the label 

Drinks Ireland, a powerful business lobby group, is saying that we shouldn’t put warning labels on alcohol to tell people about dangers to unborn babies, risks of cancer and liver disease from their product suggesting that these harms are at the extreme end of the scale. But that is simply not the case. For clarity, 

  • There is no safe level of alcohol use at any stage in pregnancy. 
  • Even light to moderate alcohol use, defined as 1-2 drinks per day carries a significant cancer risk  e.g. about half of all alcohol related breast cancers arise from this level of alcohol use. 
  • Regularly drinking above the low-risk drinking guidelines can lead to liver disease. Ie a consumer does not have to have an addiction problem to have liver damage. 

Prevention, as we all know, is where we need to be in terms of modern healthcare. Alcohol problems occur along a spectrum and usually develop over a period of time. Telling people upfront about the risks of consumption of a substance which is widely available from corner stores to supermarkets, is the right thing to do. That we are only doing it now is the most shocking part of the story.  

 Helpful ambiguity 

The second point in the letter is that the drinks industry says it does not support what it calls ‘misuse’ of its products.  

We could spend all day talking about what constitutes this ambiguous word ‘misuse’, but a few stats encapsulate the point well. The Health Research Board has found that Irish people who drink at harmful and hazardous levels often don’t realise it while in England research published in 2018 found that those drinking above low-risk guideline levels are estimated to account for 68% of total alcohol sales revenue. Not only that but a comprehensive report from the World Health Organisation highlighted that young people and heavy drinkers are increasingly targeted by alcohol advertising, often to the detriment of their health. So, when industry says they don’t want us to drink heavily, they don’t really mean it, because it would impact their bottom line.  

Undermining independent research  

In its letter, Drinks Ireland accuses Alcohol Action Ireland of citing ‘extreme’ statistics. But the truth is, all of the data around alcohol use in Ireland are at the extreme end of the scale, because we have one of highest binge drinking problems in the world. 

Stats from the Health Research Board  found that 14.8% of the population in Ireland – 578,000 people, show evidence of an alcohol use disorder (AUD), with 90,000 of those having a severe AUD problem. 

Would Drinks Ireland dispute HRB research? Likely not, but there is a new trend in industry circles whereby spokespeople do in fact dispute bone fide research/ data in order to cause doubt in the mind of the public. Again, this is an age-old industry tactic, as the seminal book, Doubt is their Product, highlighted. 

This tactic is on display in Drinks Ireland letter, as it attempts to cast doubt on an AAI survey that asked the Irish public through a well-known polling company a range of questions about alcohol labels and warnings. You can see the results here for yourself. The main finding was that more than 70% of people supported a right to be informed on the product and in advertising of the health risk from alcohol use. Drinks Ireland contends that there is something wrong with this survey, somehow intimating that Irish people maybe don’t want labels on alcohol products. But why wouldn’t the public want information that will help them make informed decisions about their health? We (consumers) have no vested interest in the business of alcohol, and we have a right to know what we are consuming. 

EU Single Market claims 

In its letter, Drinks Ireland said that Ireland should work with the EU for a harmonised approach to this labelling. This is a delay tactic and again follows in the footsteps of the tobacco industry who successfully delayed, watered down and changed health warnings on cigarette packets in the 1980s. It is also a frankly brazen call from an industry that so far has managed to avoid having to comply with the 2011 EU Food Information to consumers (FIC) regulations, for such consumer basics as providing a list of ingredients – something that is required on even a bottle of mineral water. 

Finally, the letter claims that ‘proposed labelling regulations will undermine the single EU market’. In fact, the European Commission has already indicated that they have no problem with the regulations. In a response to a European Parliamentary Question Stella Kyriakides European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety noted: 

In the context of the analysis under the FIC Regulation, the Commission considered that the Irish authorities demonstrated that the notified measures were justified on public health grounds considering the situation in Ireland and that any resulting restrictions for the internal market that the measures may have were proportionate to the objective pursued. 

There is also a claim that ‘smaller vineyards and drinks producers will pull out of Ireland.’ That remains to be seen, but we know that industry claims of economic woe in the face of modest regulations are usually found out in the end.  

The Irish public should also be aware that when Ireland’s labelling regulations are finally signed, 5 years after becoming law and after going through processes in the EU and at a World Trade Organisation level, the alcohol industry has another 3 years to implement this oh-so modest measure. The built-in time clause of three years was a ‘compromise’ given to the industry who lobbied to delay and water down our legislation and which is once again being fought at every turn when it comes to trying to implement it. Those are the facts.  So, whose interests are being served – yours, your loved ones, your children’s, or the alcohol industry’s?