What is it that differentiates alcohol from illicit drugs? Alcohol and drugs are both psychoactive substances that alter consciousness, mood and behaviour. Both are addictive and can cause physical damage to the body. Illnesses related to alcohol abuse significantly outweigh those related to illegal drugs however, and, according to a report published in The Lancet in 2010, alcohol is more harmful than heroin or crack (when all the dangers to the individual and society are taken into account). In spite of this, alcohol is legal and is a major, and accepted part of the mainstream, adult, social world – drugs, of course, are not.
The legality of alcohol means that governments are able and obliged to responsibly regulate and analyse the industry. Or so you would think. According to three academics who recently wrote a report in the Lancet, the government in the UK has shown itself to be completely lacking in ‘(a) clear aspiration to reduce the impact of cheap, readily available and heavily marketed alcohol on individuals and society’. If the decriminalisation of drugs is to happen, it’s going to have to be done with a lot more care and courage than this.
If you were the UK Home Office’s Director of Drugs, Alcohol and Community Safety, and had been charged with gathering a panel of experts to advise the government on how to challenge alcohol abuse in society, who would you request the guidance of? Presumably, you would turn to medical professionals and experts on alcohol-related illnesses. Groups like The Institute of Alcohol Studies, the Royal College of Physicians and the British Medical Association would probably rank highly on your list of esteemed invitees.
Mandie Campbell took a somewhat different approach last August. In addition to summoning key representatives from the medical and health communities, the woman who currently holds this position in the UK invited the drinks companies – and plenty of them - to the discussions. Before the election, with Labour in power, one or two representatives from the drinks industry were usually present at these bi-monthly panel meetings. Since the coalition government stepped in, that number has swelled to an average of six or seven.
This wasn’t a one-off incident. Indeed, it has seemed to become standard practice globally for representatives from Heineken, Diageo, Molson Coors and Bacardi to take their places at cross-governmental panel tables alongside highly-respected medical groups and health advisors. A conflict of interests? Undoubtably - and we are seeing more and more instances where politicians and leaders in business-friendly countries are failing to criticize or healthily regulate the industry because of their embeddedness in it.
In New Zealand a few months ago, for example, Katherine Rich was appointed to the Health Promotion Agency Establishment Board, a new panel that replaces the Alcohol Advisory Council of New Zealand and other of the country’s health-promotion initiatives. Professor Doug Sellman of Alcohol Action New Zealand is derisive of Rich’s involvement. ‘Katherine Rich has been one of the most vociferous defenders of the alcohol industry. (She) has used her role…to attack community groups advocating a stronger Alcohol Reform Bill for the sake of the health of New Zealanders’.
As the global alcohol industry becomes more formidable, with power concentrated in the hands of a few multinationals, its practices have become more aggressive, and its relationship with governments more questionably cosy. The developing intimacy between the state and the drinks companies means that politicians are effectively condoning the dodgy activities that are pursued by the alcohol industry to increase their profitability and secure favourable tax breaks.
The tax avoidance scheme that Diageo currently uses, for instance, resembles that made by Vodafone, and makes the company around $100 million a year. Similarly, SABMiller, a London-based brewing conglomerate is said to have as many as 65 tax haven companies, which enable it to reduce its global tax bill by around 20 per cent. As a result of these shadowy operations, SABMiller have, as reported by Tackle Tax Havens, deprived developing nations’ treasuries of 20 million pounds and have very successfully prevented smaller local competitors (who do pay their tax) from growing.
There was a burst of consternation a few months ago when The Independent newspaper looked at the minutes of recent alcohol and health panel meetings in the UK. Its findings revealed that this government has shown a worrying predisposition to put corporate interests before social ones, and has consistently been inviting more and more alcohol industry representatives to sit in alongside health advisory groups. The panel in question, previously known as The Alcohol Strategy Group, was recently amended to become The Government and Partners Working Group on Alcohol – a change of name that boldly communicates its new commercial bias.
As a result of such developments, in March last year, six groups refused to put their signatures to an alcohol strategy ‘responsibility deal’ put forward by The Department of Health. Organisations like Alcohol Concern and The British Medical Association complained that the ministers involved in the talks had been too soft on the alcohol industry, and demanded that any agreement was legislatively fortified. They complained that, in the meetings, they had not been allowed to discuss measures that have already been proven to have a central role in reducing alcohol-related death, such as introducing a minimum price on drink, which has been shown to drastically limit drink driving.
The responsibility deal they shunned, was founded, it seemed, on the muddy Big Society-esque idea that the alcohol companies would play their part in tackling problematic consumption in society by agreeing to a series of non-binding voluntary pledges based around labelling and pricing.
Don Shenker of Alcohol Concern, one of the groups that dismissed the deal, said that the government had to stop letting the drinks industry run the show. ‘There is nothing wrong with governments choosing to listen to different stakeholders’, he said, ‘but when representatives of the drinks industry are invited to form health policy, one has to question the value of this’.