leading change: a society free from alcohol harm

Alcohol industry’s CSR

Alcohol industry’s Corporate social responsibility – marketing by another name

Biomedical, epidemiological, and policy research is now documenting the global extent, costs and consequences of alcohol misuse and the evidence for prevention and harm reduction approaches.[1] As this knowledge has grown and is disseminated to wider audiences with a view to decreasing alcohol consumption and protecting public health, the alcohol industry has in recent decades invested significant resources to promote its corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives around the world. CSR activities, however, have been shown to be sophisticated campaigns by global alcohol corporations that promote them as good corporate citizens and framing arguments with a focus on the personal responsibility of the drinker rather than the producer and supplier of alcohol. [2]

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 who have been closely watching and monitoring this public affairs offense by the alcohol industry say these organisations are designed to skew the scientific evidence, placing doubt while furthering their own interests.[3] It also suggests that these organisations may pose a threat to public health. [4] Studies have repeatedly demonstrated the irreconcilable nature of their mandate with the interest of the public’s health and while alcohol industry CSR activities are unlikely to reduce harmful alcohol use, they do provide commercial strategic advantage while at the same time appearing to have a public health purpose.[5] [6]

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.”[7]

But while researchers and academics who are close to this topic are aware of the nature of these organisations, very often through their activities, SAPROs “position themselves ingeniously and can confuse media outlets, policy makers and the public, which often assume the information is coming from an independent reliable source.”[8]

This increasing activity of the alcohol industry in influencing the public health arena requires urgent and cogent action, and a much deeper and clearer understanding of the formidable reach of the alcohol industry into the public health sphere is required. [9]

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.[10]

The Department of Health has also made it clear that it is not appropriate for any health providers to work with industry-funded organisations while the Department of Education has issued Circulars to ensure Primary and Secondary schools do not seek industry funded teaching aids.[11] However, in Ireland, Drinkaware still manages to exert significant influence across a range of activities. [12]

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. Yet given the public health implications, the reason for the ongoing involvement with alcohol remains unclear.[13]

Clearly, the campaign against alcohol harms is in its infancy compared to the strides that have been made against tobacco. Just as the alcohol industry takes its strategies from the tobacco playbook, alcohol advocates and policymakers must too learn from those who tackled the tobacco lobby and won.

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.[14]

[1] Babor TF, Robaina K. Public health, academic medicine, and the alcohol industry’s corporate social responsibility activities. Am J Public Health. 2013;103(2):206–214. doi:10.2105/AJPH.2012.300847

[2] Babor T, Caetano R, Casswell S et al.Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity—Research and Public Policy. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2010; Worldwide Brewing Alliance. Global Social Responsibility Initiatives. 2nd ed. London, UK: British Beer and Pub Association; July 2007. Available at: http://ec.europa.eu/health/ph_determinants/life_style/alcohol/Forum/docs/alcohol_lib6_en.pdf. Accessed February 4, 2011; Anderson P. The beverage alcohol industry’s social aspects organizations: a public health warning. Addiction. 2004;99(11):1376–1377

[3] Miller D, Harkins C. Corporate strategy, corporate capture: food and alcohol industry lobbying and public health. Crit Soc Policy. 2010;30(4):459–471; Petticrew M, Maani Hessari N, Knai C, Weiderpass E. How alcohol industry organisations mislead the public about alcohol and cancer. Drug Alcohol Rev 2017. https://doi.org/10.1111/dar.12596.

[4] Alcohol research and the alcoholic beverage industry: issues, concerns and conflicts of interest, Thomas F. Babor; Mark Petticrew, Martin McKee and Theresa M Marteau, Partnerships with the alcohol industry at the expense of public health, The Lancet, 10.1016/S0140-6736(18)32320-1, 392, 10152, (992-993), (2018).

[5] Barbor et al, Is the alcohol industry doing well by ‘doing good’? Findings from a content analysis of the alcohol industry’s actions to reduce harmful drinking.

[6] Are “Drink Responsibly” Alcohol Campaigns Strategically Ambiguous? Sandi W. Smith,Charles K. Atkin &JoAnn Roznowski; Alcohol Industry CSR Organisations: What Can Their Twitter Activity Tell Us about Their Independence and Their Priorities? A Comparative Analysis; Vested interests in addiction research and policy. Alcohol industry use of social aspect public relations organizations against preventative health measures.

[7] Dr Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, Opening address at the Global Alcohol Policy Symposium, https://www.who.int/dg/speeches/2013/global_alcohol_policy_symposium_20130426/en/

[8] https://iogt.org/the-issues/advocacy/exposing-big-alcohol/

[9] The illusion of righteousness: corporate social responsibility practices of the alcohol industry.

Yoon S, Lam TH. Vested interests in addiction research and policy. Why do we not see the corporate interests of the alcohol industry as clearly as we see those of the tobacco industry? Moodie AR. Big alcohol: the vector of an industrial epidemic. Addiction 2014; 109: 525– 9. See also Why do we treat alcohol and the alcohol industry so differently from Big Tobacco? http://www.ias.org.uk/Blog/Why-do-we-treat-alcohol-and-the-alcohol-industry-so-differently-from-Big-Tobacco.aspx

[10] https://www.hse.ie/eng/services/news/media/pressrel/newsarchive/archive15/apr15/aaw.html

[11] The HSE and the Department of Health in Ireland recommend that educators do not involve alcohol industry funded initiatives in health education in their school. This policy is also supported by the Department of Education and Skills – https://www.hse.ie/knowthescore.

[12] See https://www.drinkaware.ie/ for a range of Drinkaware’s activities.

[13]Hawkins et al. Reassessing policy paradigms: A comparison of the global tobacco and alcohol industries.


[14] Industry Use of Evidence to Influence Alcohol Policy: A Case Study of Submissions to the 2008 Scottish Government Consultation, https://journals.plos.org/plosmedicine/article?id=10.1371/journal.pmed.1001431; McCambridge, Mialon, Alcohol industry involvement in science: A systematic review of the perspectives of the alcohol research community, Drug and Alcohol Review, 37, 5, (565-579), (2018). Benjamin Hawkins & Chris Holden (2013) Framing the alcohol policy debate: industry actors and the regulation of the UK beverage alcohol market, Critical Policy Studies, 7:1, 53-71, DOI: 10.1080/19460171.2013.766023