Big Alcohol and Big Tobacco – boozem buddies?

The tobacco and alcohol industries have more in common than it seems. Benjamin Wilken

In Australia, the most effective and efficient ways to reduce alcohol-related harm – increasing taxation, and restricting availability and alcohol promotion – are politically unpopular. This mismatch between evidence and public support says much about the successful lobbying of the alcohol industry and its “independent” apologists.

Alcohol is not like tobacco, the alcohol lobby constantly remind us: tobacco smoking kills half of its regular consumers but alcohol can be used in ways that don’t harm drinkers. Indeed, in low doses, they argue, alcohol may even be good for us – although as the National Health and Medical Research Council notes, even this is debatable.

Alcohol can indeed be used in moderation to enhance sociability and the enjoyment of food. But sadly most of the alcohol consumed in Australia is not used in these ways. If it were, the alcohol industry would be a great deal less profitable than it is.

Around four-fifths of all alcohol consumed in Australia by people between the ages of 14 and 24 is used in ways that put drinkers and others’ health at risk. This is why the industry opposes policies that will reduce alcohol-related harm – they will also reduce their profits.

The claim that alcohol and tobacco are different belies the fact that the two industries have long been intertwined. Big Tobacco used its ill-gotten profits to buy into the alcohol industry and senior executives and board members are on the boards of major alcohol industry players (and vice versa).

These companies have long worried that “Big Alcohol” is vulnerable to many of the same criticisms as Big Tobacco. Even in the 1990s, documents linked to the US alcohol industry argued that like tobacco, the liquor industry is vulnerable to the charge that it markets its products to young people.

So we shouldn’t be surprised that the alcohol industry is now using many of the same tactics as Big Tobacco. It has followed the example of the tobacco industry by funding supposedly “independent” groups, such as social aspects organisations Drinkwise in Australia and Drinkaware in the United Kingdom.

These are industry-funded and influenced groups that claim to be interested in reducing alcohol-related harm while failing to support public health policies and favouring plausible but largely ineffective approaches favoured by the industry, foremost among which are soft media campaigns.

The alcohol lobby constantly reminds is that alcohol is not like tobacco. –arpad–/Flickr

These bodies serve a number of purposes for the industry. They address the problems that the industry likes to claim are caused by the “minority” who abuse their products, without actually doing anything to reduce their profitability. They can obtain government funding for what amounts to alcohol industry promotional activities. And their members can secure a seat at the public policy table, where they express solemn concern about the problems their funders’ activities help promote.

These organisations promote alcohol policies that serve the industry’s interests by funding small media campaigns and occasional public relations activities. These are vastly outweighed by the tsunami of alcohol industry promotions that spend billions on massive, meticulously researched and carefully targeted campaigns promoting alcohol use by young adults and others.

These organisations distract from – and do nothing to encourage – effective alcohol control measures that are analogous to those we know have driven down tobacco smoking in Australia. These include measures (some even recommended by research that they themselves have funded) such as:

  • increasing alcohol taxes;
  • reducing the hours of alcohol trading where public drinking causes public disorder and violence;
  • controlling the massive, unregulated promotion of alcohol in our community;
  • more effective licensing enforcement to penalise sales outlets that sell alcohol to intoxicated customers; and
  • hard-hitting, well-funded, sustained media campaigns independent of industry.

Such measures are sometimes condemned (especially by the industry and its fellow travellers) as “nanny state” interference with the free choices of adults, but none of them prevent adults from drinking. At most, the access recommendations make it marginally more expensive and difficult to drink some types of alcohol, at any hour of the day or night. They simply move drinkers, especially young adults (who drink the most) toward better drinking choices.

Another effective measure would be to increase taxes on alcohol. This would address the fact that alcohol harms not only drinkers but also many others in their social settings, such as family members, neighbours and workmates. And a tax on alcohol that increases in proportion to the harmfulness of alcoholic beverages extracts compensation for damage caused in proportion to the amount of alcohol that each person drinks. Moderate drinkers pay very little, while heavy drinkers pay the most, as they should.

Until recently, the alcohol industry had free rein to spread misinformation about alcohol policy. This is changing. There’s now a consensus for action among leading health, law enforcement and related organisations and this has resulted in the formation of a national organisation advocating effective public health policies to reduce alcohol-related harm.

The road to effective tobacco control took over 60 years and had to happen in the face of concerted industry obfuscation of the health risks of smoking and opposition to effective public policies. Public health advocates have learned valuable lessons from that success that should reduce the time taken to introduce effective policies that will substantially reduce the major public health problems caused by alcohol use in Australia.

This is the seventh part of our series looking at alcohol and the drinking culture in Australia. Click on the links below to read the other articles:

Part One: A brief history of alcohol consumption in Australia

Part Two: Social acceptance of alcohol allows us to ignore its harms

Part Three: My drinking, your problem: alcohol hurts non-drinkers too

Part Four: Alcohol-fuelled violence on the rise despite falling consumption

Part Five: ‘As a matter of fact, I’ve got it now’: alcohol advertising and sport

Part Six: Advertising’s role in how young people interact with alcohol

Part Eight: Explainer: foetal alcohol spectrum disorders

Part Nine: ‘Valuable label real estate’ and alcohol warning labels

Part Ten: Forbidden fruit: are children tricked into wanting alcohol?