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Public Health England has failed to learn lessons over partnership with drinks industry

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Public Health England has failed to learn lessons over partnership with drinks industry

Voluntary agreements more likely to improve the reputation of global corporations than improve the health of the nation, warn experts

Public Health England (PHE) has failed to learn the lessons over its partnership with the drinks industry, warn public health experts in The BMJ today.

Last week, Ian Gilmore, a senior government adviser on alcohol policy, stepped down from his role at PHE after the agency partnered with Drinkaware, an alcohol education charity that receives funding from industry, for a new campaign encouraging middle aged people to have more alcohol-free days per week.

In an editorial for The BMJ, Gilmore and colleagues John Britton and Linda Bauld point out that voluntary agreements with the tobacco industry in the second half of the 20th century served to “undermine, dilute or constrain measures designed to curtail their activities.”

By entering into a voluntary agreement with Drinkaware, “PHE appear to have fallen victim to the delusion that a new partnership with the alcohol industry will somehow avoid the same fate,” they write. “In so doing they tread a path that, at least to those who have worked in tobacco policy, is depressingly familiar,” they add.

The press release for the new campaign encourages people to have "more alcohol-free days a week” (PHE quote) or “a few alcohol-free days” (Drinkaware quote), following the historical strategy of defining the problem in terms of the minority of people who drink every day, explain the authors. It does not make direct reference to harmful level of drinking on other days of the week, or endorse the CMO recommendation on the advised upper limit of 14 units a week for both sexes.

And they note that the campaign is badged as part of the broader One You campaign, which includes advice on smoking, physical activity and other ‘lifestyle’ determinants of health, “thus linking an alcohol industry-funded body with wider health messaging.”

Finally, they point out that senior PHE managers do not appear to have asked themselves why the alcohol industry is happy to fund a campaign that ostensibly aims to reduce alcohol consumption. Had they done so, they say the answer would be because it thinks the campaign will be ineffective, or will divert attention from other more effective policies to reduce alcohol consumption that the industry fears more, such as minimum unit pricing.

More importantly, however, through Drinkaware, “the alcohol industry gains valuable engagement with PHE, establishes working relations with PHE staff, and may even secure a seat at the table when other alcohol harm initiatives are planned and executed,” they explain.

It is right that the alcohol and other harmful commodity industries pay to prevent and treat harm caused by their products, they say, but payment “must be made through statutory levies, not voluntary agreements.”

This new campaign backed by high profile individuals telling drinkers to drink less “is all well and good,” says Tony Rao, Visiting Researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King’s College London, in a linked article. “But skirting around and dumbing down the specifics of existing guidelines does not bode well for providing a consistent health message to the public.”

He warns that, if we cannot maintain our government to observe the principle of being at ‘arm’s length’ from the drinks industry, “we wander into a storm that has the potential to capsize public health and all that it represents.”

link to paper: https://www.bmj.com/content/362/bmj.k3928

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