By Benjamin R. Hawkins & Jim McCambridge 
Published on Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 82(1), 84–92 (2021) 
Received: May 21, 2020
Accepted: September 10, 2020
Published Online: February 15, 2021


Objective: In 2016, the U.K. Chief Medical Officers published revised low-risk drinking guidelines, based on an updated evidence review. These guidelines advised that men and women drink no more than 14 units per week – a reduction for men – while emphasizing the dangers of drinking in pregnancy and as a risk factor for cancer. The aim of this study is to examine how the alcohol industry responded to the publication of the guidelines.

Method: This article draws on 26 semi-structured interviews with civil servants, parliamentarians, and public health and civil society actors. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, anonymized, and analyzed using thematic coding.

Results: Following the publication of the new draft guidelines, the U.K. alcohol industry criticized their exclusion from the guidelines development process. They then mounted a major public relations campaign that strongly criticized the guidance produced and rejected the association of drinking with cancer without recourse to evidence. The Portman Group, which was prominent in the industry response, did not recommend that members or other companies carry the revised content on product labels and sought to undermine them via high-level political lobbying. There was no formal campaign to communicate the guidelines to the public.

Conclusions: The present case adds new insights into the political strategies of alcohol industry actors to undermine public health, providing evidence of confrontational tactics. It draws attention to the failure of self-regulatory regimes to incorporate basic public health messaging. 


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