Feature Alcohol and Public Health

Under the influence: 2. How industry captured the science on minimum unit pricing

BMJ 2014; 348 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f7531 (Published 08 January 2014) Cite this as: BMJ 2014;348:f7531
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1Colchester, Essex, UK
  1. jgornall{at}mac.com

Jonathan Gornall examines how the alcohol industry has worked to give scientific respectability to its views

When David Cameron unveiled the coalition government’s alcohol strategy in March 2012, the public health community celebrated what seemed to be a cast iron commitment to minimum unit pricing, underwritten by the determination of the prime minister to do “the right thing.”

All that remained was for the government to decide the level at which that minimum price should be set, and this was one of the objectives of the Home Office consultation on the strategy that started at the end of November 2012.

At that moment, the alcohol strategy “seemed like a triumph for health and commonsense,” recalled Professor Mark Bellis, then cochair of the Responsibility Deal Alcohol Network as a representative of the Faculty of Public Health. “People were bolstered—they thought that people were listening, that the evidence that was presented over many years was finally having an impact.”

But the celebration proved premature. The public health community had reckoned without the reach and influence of a drinks industry determined to defend its profits and ready to pull on every one of the many levers of influence at its disposal.

What health campaigners saw as a done deal, the alcohol industry viewed as anything but.

“I think the question that was being asked by the press and by people in the legislature [at that time] was not just about the price, it was about the principle of minimum pricing as well,” Nigel Fairbrass, SABMiller’s head of global communications told me. “I mean, I know the government indicated that it was just a price base question, but a lot of the people we spoke to, inside and outside parliament, were actually debating the principle.”

Role of think tanks

The opening public salvo of a concentrated lobbying offensive …

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