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Exclusive: Partnering with alcohol industry on public health is not okay, WHO says

BMJ 2019; 365 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.l1666 (Published 09 April 2019) Cite this as: BMJ 2019;365:l1666
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. London, UK

The World Health Organization will not engage with the alcohol industry when developing alcohol policy or implementing public health measures, its staff have been told, and any government seeking advice from a collaboration with industry should be warned of the dangers.

The message that partnering, collaborating, taking funding, and even talking with the alcohol industry on some subjects is not acceptable has been laid out in an internal note to WHO staff.

“The public health objectives of WHO in relation to alcohol should serve as the basis for any interaction with the alcohol industry,” says the email, seen by The BMJ.

“The nature of interaction between the WHO secretariat and the alcohol industry should be limited to a dialogue and exchange of information for achieving positive outcomes for public health. Interaction with the alcohol industry within a given framework should not lead to or imply ‘partnership,’ ‘collaboration,’ or any other similar type of engagement that could give the impression of a formal joint relationship, the reason being that such engagements would put at risk the integrity, credibility, and independence of WHO’s work.”

WHO stopped short of recommending that other organisations and governments should follow its policy.

Governments seeking advice from WHO on the appropriate level of engagement with the alcohol industry will be told that this decision is “at the discretion of each member state,” although the potential risks of engagement should be pointed out, WHO staff have been told. These include conflict of interest and “undue or improper influence” on public health work, especially in policies, norms, and standard setting.

Governments will also be warned that engagement may be used by the alcohol industry primarily to serve their interests with limited or no benefits for public health; could be conferred as an endorsement of the alcohol industry’s name, brand, product, views, or activity; and considered as “a whitewashing of the alcohol industry’s image.”

Several governments and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) have been criticised for partnering with the alcohol industry.

The Global Fund to Fight HIV, Tuberculosis, and Malaria has been criticised for partnering with Heineken because of a conflict of interest with the fund’s objective to tackle the burden of HIV and AIDS and because it gives Heineken credibility in its marketing to consumers and legitimacy as a partner to governments.1

The Global Alcohol Policy Alliance, a network of NGOs who advocate evidence based alcohol policies, free from commercial interests, said that all global health and UN organisations should follow WHO’s lead.

Last year, Ian Gilmore stepped down from his role advising Public Health England because he objected to the agency’s partnership with the industry funded charity Drinkaware,2 which he argued would undermine efforts to protect public health.3 His concerns were backed by at least 40 health organisations including Alcohol Health Alliance, the BMA, the Faculty of Public Health, the Royal Society for Public Health, and Alcohol Concern.4

Gilmore, director of the centre for alcohol research at the University of Liverpool, described WHO’s guidelines as “an excellent document” which he hoped would be used as a template by other organisations and governments.

“I hope that Public Health England reflects on this carefully considered guidance,” he said.

“I think it says all the right things and its definitions are useful. For example—reflecting on the recent debacle with Public Health England and Drinkaware—Drinkaware would quite clearly be included as a commercial actor,” he added. “And it is strong on outlining the risks of improper influence, which are that engaging could be considered as conferring endorsement in the industry’s name and whitewashing alcohol’s image.”

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