The BMJ opinion, December 20, 2019

The Christmas and New Year period is a time of social gatherings and celebrations. In many regions, it is a time of increased purchasing, gift-giving, and, for some, over-indulgence. During this time of spirit-fuelled spending, companies surround us with festive season marketing as they compete for our attention, and align their products with the glow of Christmas.

Like other special events, such as Valentine’s day, St Patrick’s Day and Easter, many companies benefit from increased sales during this period. While this applies to many industries, it perhaps becomes of more interest to the health community when producers of harmful products increase their marketing and sales. This is particularly true in relation to the alcohol industry, who make the majority of their profits from those who drink to harmful excess, and deploy considerable resources to counter pricing and labelling policies. [1] This has implications for those affected by alcoholconsumers, those around them, and public services, such as police, ambulance and healthcare services. 

The association of heavy alcohol consumption during atypical days (e.g. Saturday nights), and special events, particularly Christmas, is well established in the academic literature and often explains discrepancies in alcohol consumption as measured by prevalence surveys versus sales data. [2,3] Christmas is therefore a favourable time for the alcohol industry owing to a rise in marketing and sales, and an increase in events during which alcohol is served and consumed. The Distilled Spirits Council of the United States says that 25% of the $49-billion-a-year distilled spirits industry’s profits is made between Thanksgiving and the New Year. [4] 

However, this period also poses a threat to the alcohol industry as the adverse social and short-term health impacts potentially become more visible, and this visibility risks elevating public and media awareness of alcohol harms. For example, alcohol-related cases of violence on public transport, road traffic incidents, and domestic violence increase over this period, potentially tarnishing the alcohol industry’s image and focusing attention on the harms to individuals and communities. [5-8] So while their “Christmas halo” achieved through marketing may have a powerful effect on corporate image and sales, it is unlikely to protect the industry from the risk of reputational damage that alcohol-fuelled festive events pose. 

To deal with these public relations risks, the alcohol industry, among other industries who produce and sell harmful products, is well versed in employing corporate social responsibility initiatives, including the funding of organisations whose role it is to disseminate health information about the harms of alcohol consumption. Independent analyses show that corporate social responsibility initiatives do not address alcohol-harms, are used for political strategy and to maintain a favourable corporate image, and the information provided by industry-funded bodies potentially undermines public health efforts. [9-13]

These attempts by the alcohol industry at promoting safety during this time of increased risk from alcohol harms, may actually be something different: mixed messages that normalise or even promote drinking heavily while attempting to minimise the visibility of short term overt harms, thereby ensuring that the industry gets its gift this Christmasincreased profits partnered with an unharmed corporate image. This is consistent with academic evidence on the activities of the alcohol industry. Firstly, corporate social responsibility efforts that focus on reducing more visible acute harms, which pose a risk to the industry’s image and role in addressing alcohol harms, while overlooking the less immediately visible (and therefore less threatening) chronic harms. Secondly, the pursuit of economic growth through aggressive marketing tactics. [10,12,13,18,19]

But what can the health community deliver this Christmas? People should be provided with evidence-based information, which is free of conflicts of interest. Action should be taken to curb the dissemination of misinformation by the alcohol industry and its corporate social responsibility bodies. Individuals, communities, and public services should be protected from the impacts of alcohol harms that remain a leading driver of death and disease globally, through the implementation of evidence-based policies. Events of cultural significance should be protected from predatory advertising designed to promote harmful drinking. As we go into the new year health professionals should consider how they can challenge remaining barriers to implementing such policies, and advocate for those in power to deliver what is really needed to ensure our social environments and festive occasions are not so “alcogenic” that they need “surviving.”

May CI van Schalkwyk, Faculty of Public Health and Policy, Research Fellow, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Mark P Petticrew, Professor, Public Health Environments and Society, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.

Competing interests: None declared.

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