Web of influence of the global alcohol industry undermines work to offset harm its product causes 

Which is worse, covert cups of coffee with the alcohol industry or a PR stunt in full view of public glare? 

It’s a toss-up, because both have a chilling effect on how government views and deals with harmful commodity businesses such as the alcohol industry. 

The most recent PR coup for the global alcohol industry in Ireland will have pleased its bosses and shareholders who profit enormously from the health harming product they sell.  

As Boston University alcohol policy expert David Jernigan so succinctly states: When you have a product that kills 3 million people a year worldwide, is carcinogenic, and is associated with more than 200 disease and injury conditions in the human body…you need to do a lot of marketing.”  

Yet none other than the Taoiseach himself was present at a photo call with Diageo in Dublin, a baffling move for a man who has previously asked the media not to work with industry funded organisation Drinkaware.  

But now he is doing a good PR job for the industry by his mere presence, his handshake, his photograph with the brand, a well-designed image to be used in glossy annual reports and shareholder briefings; a nod and a wink that Diageo is well in with the Irish government. It wasn’t just Taoiseach Simon Harris who was there, but also the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment Peter Burke, and Leo Clancy chief executive of Enterprise Ireland. 

It was no coincidence that in the media coverage, Diageo indulged in both ‘green washing’ through apparently more sustainable production techniques and ‘health washing’, via their 0.0 products but no mention was made of alcohol’s well known detrimental environmental impacts or of the cynical practices that Diageo is employing in using these products to attempt to circumvent the advertising restrictions in the Public Health (Alcohol) Act.  

While some might say so what, the fact is that this kind of photo call is exactly the kind of stunt that undermines the work that is taking place to try and ensure that governments are not ensnared in the web of influence that harmful industry’s weave. 

The story itself by the Irish Times– Diageo to spend €100 million to decarbonise St James’s Gate brewery by 2030 – could be deemed irrelevant only for the fact of its blatant greenwashing of an industry that helps to fuel the climate crisis in developing countries. 

It also informs us that the government is actually providing support for the project via Enterprise Ireland, which apparently has a ‘long-term partnership with Diageo.’ 

Previous media reporting highlighted that Diageo has already been awarded a grant of €7.5 million for its Newbridge plant. How much is St James’s Gate getting? And why doesn’t the article, full of figures about how great the industry is, tell us? 

This is astonishing. Money from the government’s coffers is being handed over to a company selling a product that is a drug and that costs Ireland 2.5% of GDP – €12billion annually in health, social and lost workplace productivity costs every year. Why does Enterprise Ireland have a ‘long-term partnership with Diageo? Or any kind of partnership at all. 

Expert in this field, Jonathan H. Marks, author of Corporations & health: the perils of partnership, was in Dublin this month presenting on his excellent and forensic work examining the webs of influence that companies build as part of corporate strategies to influence governments to help expand the sale of their products. 

He says that governments and civil society need to develop counterstrategies to insulate themselves from corporate influence and to preserve their integrity and public trust.  

“These strategies require a paradigm shift—from partnerships with the private sector, which are ordinarily vehicles for corporate influence, to a norm of separation,” he said. 

What we saw at Diageo’s production plant was the opposite of the separation that’s required for clear-headed policies that regulate harmful commodity industries. It showed a government under the influence, allowing private wealth to undermine public health.