Alcohol campaign DrinkWise a farce
27 August 2009
The classic lines about not putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank or the fox looking after the chicken coop anchor the community's moral compass to the idea that those with competing, potentially harmful interests need to be kept well away from safeguarding the health, safety and well-being of those whom Blind Freddy knows they secretly covet.
So what should we all make of this week's spectacle of an alcohol industry stacked organisation sponsoring an advertising campaign urging parents to delay allowing their kids to drink because of the risk of neurological damage?
DrinkWise, who bring us the campaign, is an organisation set up by the alcohol industry in Australia, with the support of a $5m grant from the Howard Government. Half of its 12 Board members represent the beer, wine, spirits, liquor retailing and hotel industries.
Problem and underage drinkers cause the alcohol industry big PR headaches. Vivid images of vomiting, violence and road deaths are routinely invoked when calls are made to introduce serious control measures that we know can get us to the starting line and make a difference: alcohol tax increases, advertising restrictions, breaking the sport-alcohol sponsorship nexus, limiting pub opening hours, reducing outlet density, increasing penalties for serving intoxicated drinkers and raising the legal drinking age to 21, as it is in the US.
Problem drinkers are lucrative customers for the industry. The National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre has calculated that 39 per cent of alcohol is consumed in Australia at levels posing long-term health risks. Kids can put it away too.
Of all alcohol consumed by 14- to 17-year-olds, 80 per cent is drunk at levels deemed risky or highly risky for acute harm. The underage market turns over upwards of $218 million a year, of which the liquor industry earns $111m. This expenditure includes $44m on sugar saturated and sometimes caffeine fortified alcopops, designed for immature palates and vigorously promoted by the drinks industry as sophisticated trainer wheels for people who find the taste of alcohol unpleasant.
The industry knows how profitable alcohol abuse and kids' drinking is and so has gone for the time-honoured solution of education. They would know that knocking "education" comes a close second to national flag desecration. Industries under siege know this and so use time-limited, small budget public education as strategic bullet-proof "air cover" that they hope will distract from business as usual.
Just as we momentarily forget that the mafia boss who puts $5,000 in the church plate on Sunday still has his day job, we might forget that the alcohol industry bringing us these education initiatives is also lobbying hard against policies that might really reduce alcohol abuse.
A classic internal tobacco industry memo, now public, said of such initiatives: "This is one of the proposals that we shall initiate to show that we as an industry are doing something about discouraging young people to smoke. This of course is a phoney way of showing sincerity as we all well know."
And what is business as usual to the alcohol industry in Australia?
Can there be a five-year-old in Australia who does not know Humphrey Bear's kid-friendly cousin, Bundy Bear? Apparently no child or teenager ever watches the Bundaberg Rum sponsored Bledisloe Cup, but if a few manage to do so, the "drink Bundy" message only gets magically through to drinkers aged 18+, but not at all to their younger siblings sitting next to them with no aspirations to be a bit more adult.
Twenty20 cricket matches between teams sponsored by Johnnie Walker and KFC are safe too and will remain an entirely normal part of the summer landscape. Kids hate watching cricket, remember. VB's mobile billboard, the Australian cricket team, and those endless iconic ads about gawky people marching to the beat of different drums, have never been understood by a single 14-year-old either.
The distillers - whose peak body sits on DrinkWise's board - virulently opposed the Federal government's alcopops tax this year. More broadly, DrinkWise's CEO has reportedly stated that DrinkWise does not recommend 'fiddling with alcohol tax' because it is 'old thinking' and that 'the facts just don't stand up' and significantly noted that the organisation funded 'many educational programs across the country'.
No industry would support any initiative that was effective in seriously reducing the use of its products.
I have spent many years monitoring the tobacco industry's efforts to run anti-smoking campaigns. In the US, Philip Morris's youth education "just say no" campaigns have been shown to be either ineffective in influencing youth smoking, or to actually encourage it.
Earlier this year, 57 leading drug and alcohol and public health researchers, including former Australian of the Year Fiona Stanley and the president of the International Union Against Cancer Professor David Hill, signed a letter published in the Medical Journal of Australia urging researchers to reconsider their association with DrinkWise.
The amount of money the drinks industry contributes to campaigns like this one by DrinkWise is a small fraction of the money it earns from underage drinking each year.
If they are really sincere about not wanting kids to drink, let's all sit down together. We can work out how much they earn from this unwanted drinking and get them to pass it all to one of the many truly independent alcohol control agencies. Those agencies can then run effective educational campaigns and get on with uncompromised advocacy for policies that the alcohol industry opposes because of what it knows they would do to their sales.
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