Deakin researchers have confirmed that the role vested interests play in the development of alcohol policy is large and influential.
The tobacco industry fought a long, and ultimately losing, battle to prevent government policies affecting their bottom line, despite all the scientific evidence of the health risks of smoking.
The alcohol industry is fighting a similar battle using similar tactics, according to a Deakin University researcher.
“These tactics include political donations and lobbying, funding positive research studies, fostering a reputation as good corporate citizens and encouraging ‘personal responsibility’ when people consume their undeniably addictive product,” said Peter Miller, Professor of Violence Prevention and Addiction Studies at Deakin’s School of Psychology and Director of the University’s Centre for Drug, Alcohol and Addiction Research (CEDAAR).
“All of the major tobacco, gambling and alcohol companies have strategies to muddy the waters. At the global level, we know how to massively reduce addiction in the short and long-term, but our governments refuse to put in place sensible, evidence-based measures due to pressure from the industries involved.
“When you look at the tactics used, you can see how incredibly successful they are, and how they all derive from those used by the tobacco industry.”
Most people don’t associate addiction with alcohol, the most socially acceptable drug, but Professor Miller pulls no punches in describing the alcohol industry as a “drug dealer par excellence.”
“The mantra in Australia, and particularly in Victoria, is all about personal responsibility for drinking. That doesn’t hold up when 20 per cent of drinkers account for 75 per cent of alcohol sales.”
“The business model of the mainstream alcohol producers and big retailers is reliant on addicts – creating addicts, maintaining addicts and getting addicts to buy more of their product. Their advertising is about creating as many cues as possible for people who are addicted, or close to addiction.”
Despite this, it seems governments are reluctant to impose tougher restrictions on the industry. Prof Miller believes this is because vested interests have too much influence over political parties.
An Australia Research Council Linkage grant, in collaboration with the Cancer Council and the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), has helped him investigate the role of vested interests such as the tobacco, alcohol and gambling industries in preventing effective health policy.
During their recent investigation into the alcohol industry’s corporate political activity and political donations, Prof Miller and his fellow researchers from CEDAAR reviewed submissions to government, surveyed universities and the general public, and conducted qualitative interviews with politicians, ex-politicians and senior bureaucrats.
“Over the past decade, the two biggest donors in this space to political parties are hotels and casinos,” Prof Miller said.
“The interesting thing is that they give to both major parties. Now when you think about it, how does that work? It can only be buying influence. Nothing else makes sense.”
However, Prof Miller said political donations are not the only way in which vested interests in the alcohol industry act to sway governments towards watering down, or simply ignoring, evidence of the harm alcohol abuse causes individuals and communities, in terms of crime, violence and adverse health outcomes.
“The industry works across all layers of society to increase profit, and a key part of that is corporate political behaviour and public relations through front bodies,” Prof Miller explained.
“When a government flags change, they can have anywhere up to a hundred vested interests such as pubs, supermarkets and restaurants camping on the doorstep of every local MP. It’s very intimidating, and few other industries can match the reach.”
Prof Miller has real-life experience of the ways in which alcohol affects society, having worked as a bouncer for 12 years before joining academia. His experience of addiction in general goes back to growing up as the son of a pharmacist who ran a large methadone program.
“I grew up without the filters of older people and just saw the people who attended Dad’s pharmacy for their methadone as people who were on treatment. Some got better over time, some didn’t, and most were lovely to me and Dad,” Prof Miller recalled.
“When [then Prime Minister] John Howard stopped the trial of prescription heroin because of conservative views, despite the overwhelming evidence about the benefit to the community, something made me want to challenge that; or at least understand why evidence-based, humane and cost-effective policy got dumped because of ideology.”
As a vocal advocate of greater control over the sale and distribution of alcohol, Prof Miller is well known, but not well liked, by the alcohol industry, receiving threats of legal action and unwelcome attention from Internet trolls.
“Trolls are pretty harmless compared to dealing with such people in the nightlife – I just view them as being sad people who need help and are lashing out,” he said
“Vested interest trolls are different, but this is a war with millions of casualties every year across the alcohol, tobacco and gambling industries globally, so I view it as a part of the territory.”
Incremental successes along the way also encourage Prof Miller to keep up his research and advocacy work.
“As a result of our work, which helped inform the ‘Last Drinks’ measures in Sydney’s Kings Cross, we saw a drop of 20 per cent in sexual assaults and more than a 40 per cent decrease in grievous bodily harm,” he said.
“It’s actually quite easy. When governments act in the interest of the public based on evidence, we can save lives by the thousands.
“We just need to break the current system, which encourages our politicians to act in the interests of vested interests, rather than the community’s.”
This article was published by Deakin Research on 23 May 2017.
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