Intended for healthcare professionals

Feature Alcohol

Doctors and the alcohol industry: an unhealthy mix?

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: (Published 02 April 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1889
  1. Jonathan Gornall, freelance journalist
  1. 1Suffolk, UK
  1. jgornall{at}

Jonathan Gornall reports on an ideological schism over working alongside the alcohol industry that is dividing the public health community

Over two days in October last year, key figures in the international alcohol industry gathered in Washington, DC, to take stock of how the business had responded to the World Health Organization’s Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol, endorsed by the World Health Assembly 28 months earlier.1

For an industry well aware that it was in danger of following tobacco down the road to pariah status, the conference on global initiatives to reduce harmful drinking was an opportunity to show off what it had accomplished as a corporate good neighbour who could be trusted to self regulate.

On the final day of the conference, “in response to the call by WHO,” the chief executives of 13 of the world’s leading alcohol companies announced “a collective commitment to 10 targeted actions in five areas over the next five years.” The five areas they picked were “reducing under-age drinking; strengthening and expanding marketing codes of practice; providing consumer information and responsible product innovation; reducing drinking and driving [and] enlisting the support of retailers to reduce harmful drinking.” 2

On the surface, it seemed like a positive development. The commitment built on what the signatory companies called their “longstanding efforts to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.” Furthermore, it showed that they supported WHO’s global strategy and welcomed “the positive role it identifies for producers, distributors, marketers, and sellers of beer, wine, and spirits.”

Yet for a sizeable proportion of the international public health community the announcement served as a red rag to a bull.

An ad hoc group of public health professionals, health scientists, and representatives of non-governmental organisations, brought together under the auspices of the Global Alcohol …

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