Alcohol industry’s corporate social responsibility – marketing by another name
The alcohol industry sells a product that is dangerous for our health. As knowledge grows about the harmful consequences of alcohol use, and as government increase activities to protect public health, the alcohol industry has in recent decades invested significant resources to promote itself as a legitimate partner in reducing alcohol harm and consumption. These ‘corporate social responsibility’ (CSR) initiatives, are sophisticated campaigns by global alcohol corporations that promote them as good corporate citizens, and attempt to frame arguments to their own ends, such as focusing on the personal responsibility of the drinker rather than the producer and supplier of alcohol.
Organisations that carry out these activities on behalf of the industry are known as “social aspects” and public relations organizations (SAPROs). They operate at an international level and the most well-known of them include organisations such as Drinkaware, Drinkwise, the International Center for Alcohol Policies, the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility and the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD).
Researchers and academics contend these organisations are designed to skew the scientific evidence, placing doubt while furthering their own interests, and suggest that they may pose a threat to public health.
As noted by Dr Margaret Chan in 2013, then director-general of the World Health Organization:
“Tactics include front groups, lobbies, promises of self‐regulation, lawsuits and industry‐funded research that confuses the evidence and keeps the public in doubt. This is formidable opposition. Market power readily translates into political power. Few Governments prioritize health over big business… Tactics also include gifts, grants, and contributions to worthy causes that cast these industries as respectable corporate citizens in the eyes of politicians and the public. They include arguments that place the responsibility for harm to health on individuals, and portray government actions as interference in personal liberties and free choice.”
In Ireland, the Health Service Executive has had a policy since 2015 which states that it does not partner with the alcohol Industry on public health information in any way.
The Department of Health has also made it clear that it is not appropriate for any health providers to work with industry-funded organisations, a position which is supported by the Department of Education and Skills. However, in Ireland, Drinkaware still seeks to insert itself into a range of public health initiatives.
While individual countries will take different approaches, globally, there is a need to learn from the public health campaigns against tobacco. It has been suggested that a difference in perception of the alcohol and tobacco industries has allowed alcohol corporations to participate in the global governance arena in a way in which tobacco is no longer able.
As tobacco is regulated by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), which regulates the sale, use and marketing of tobacco products, so too must the price, promotion and availability of alcohol be governed through a global framework such as the FCTC.
Until this happens, the alcohol industry will continue to engage in lobbying, influencing, donating, obfuscating –in order to protect shareholder interests and business revenues to the detriment of public health.