Why we should be concerned about the PHE and Drinkaware campaign

Together with fifty other key figures in the alcohol sector I signed a Alcohol Health Alliance letter in August to PHE. This expressed our concerns about the planned Public Health England (PHE) partnership with the alcohol industry-funded body Drinkware.

PHE ignored our concerns and went ahead, going further than the collaboration with Drinkaware by announcing a plan to work with the wider industry. In making its decision PHE ignored its own evidence review, World Health Authority advice and side-lined its own key advisor Professor Ian Gilmore prompting him to resign when the campaign was launched on the 10th September.

The campaign by Drinkaware and PHE has been and will be, in my view, extremely damaging to PHE’s reputation as an independent and trusted source of public health evidence and advice.

PHE has already stood by and watched as local authorities disinvested in alcohol services, despite already chronic massive underfunding. This disinvestment in some parts of London for example has reached 50% over 3 years. Now PHE is allowing the drinks industry to control alcohol health messages. What’s next? A PHE partnership with MacDonald’s to tackle obesity? Local authorities already have agreements with the alcohol retail industry that limit their ability to police underage drinking.

Despite my serious concerns I had not in my wildest imagination expected the messages that came out on the 10th September when the joint campaign was launched to be so obviously weighted towards the industry.

The alcohol campaign basically says it’s really hard for most people to have two alcohol free days and really, really hard for most people to reduce the amount of alcohol they have when they are drinking. So basically the message is don’t try to change it is too difficult and most people don’t succeed.

The PHE people responsible for this campaign should go and sit in a hotel room and read the note about reusing towels, which usually says something like:

“Most people choose to reuse their towel”

and compare this to;

“most people find it hard to reduce drinking”

Then lie down on the bed and wait for the light bulb moment. Need a hint, people like to conform.

The PHE Evidence Review (2016) of the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of alcohol control policies is the most comprehensive, scientifically robust review of what works to reduce alcohol harm. This review made clear the limited effectiveness of communications campaigns, on their own, to trigger behaviour change and highlighted in particular that campaigns from the alcohol industry have been ineffective.

Many companies which fund Drinkaware also fund alcohol industry trade associations which have advised their members not to communicate the new Chief Medical Officer’s drinking guidelines on their product labels, therefore actively denying consumers access to the latest available information on the health risks associated with drinking.

Funders of Drinkaware have joined alcohol industry bodies to launch a UK-wide campaign, Long Live the Local, which aims to raise public support for further cuts in alcohol duty – when the PHE Evidence Review states that increasing alcohol duty is one of the most cost-effective policy interventions to reduce harm, alongside minimum unit pricing (MUP). Drinkware’s funders were also among the coalition of alcohol companies which launched a legal challenge against the Scottish Government to block the introduction of MUP, a policy which promises to save lives, cut crime and ease the burden on our health and public services. These strategies and tactics are in direct conflict with the public interest and goals to reduce alcohol harm in the UK and beyond.

There is clearly an information deficit when it comes to alcohol harm but industry-funded messages and social marketing campaigns should not be a substitute for publicly-funded campaigns providing independent and evidence-based information.

There is growing evidence that Government have forced PHE to work with the alcohol industry. In the coming months I will be working with others to get a rational, public health focused Alcohol Strategy published. Sadly I suspect capitalism and profit will over-ride the health of England.

Scotland, Wales and even Northern Ireland take a different view and all for example have or seek to implement Minimum Unit Pricing in line with PHE evidence. I expect the uncaring England will stand shamefully once again in its failure to implement effective public health policy in relation to alcohol.

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