May 2023; RACGP Media Release
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners (RACGP) has today slammed Big Alcohol’s submissions informing government health strategy and called on the Albanese Government to stand up to the industry to put community safety and wellbeing first. It comes following reports of research published in the Drug and Alcohol Review journal concerning the reliability of evidence used in documents designed to shape public policy. The authors examined submissions filed by Big Alcohol as part of the National Alcohol Strategy 2019–2028 consultation strategy. They found the industry: · relied on dubious evidence, exaggerated the “benefits” of moderate drinking, and downplayed link between alcohol and violence used questionable approaches to push for limited initiatives rather than population level alcohol policies, as well as to oppose strong advertising regulation and minimum unit price and taxation policies.
RACGP President Dr Nicole Higgins called for action. “The Albanese Government must stand up to Big Alcohol and put communities first,” she said. “Big Alcohol’s submissions to the strategy are appalling and the authors note that in some instances industry organisations explicitly misquoted or misrepresented the findings of scientific evidence. This was never about science; it was about boosting sales. “One submission quoted a study that suggested the ‘the net effect of alcohol consumption was to reduce adverse health outcomes’, but the researchers found exactly what any GP would tell you, which is that drinking this drug is ‘not associated with a net health benefit’. Another submission argued against alcohol being a causal factor in violence. Again, you would only need to speak to any healthcare worker in any community to back up what the researchers found, which is that there is more recent, high-quality literature that unequivocally shows that alcohol does contribute to violence.
“I agree with the authors when they conclude that Big Alcohol needs to be regulated like the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control used for the tobacco industry. We no longer allow tobacco companies to advertise, or sponsor major sporting codes, and most major political parties – except for the Nationals – now don’t accept donations from Big Tobacco. I think it’s high time the alcohol industry was treated in the same way. They should not be allowed to advertise, or lobby politicians, and their submissions should be seen for what they are – dubious misrepresentations aimed at nothing more than boosting their bottom line. “It’s vital that the Government isn’t swayed by Big Alcohol advocacy when designing public health strategy; however, I’m concerned that Big Alcohol is still subtly getting its way. For example, the authors point to one sentence in the strategy that originally read ‘implement regulatory measures to reduce alcohol advertising exposure to young people’, yet the final version omits the word ‘regulatory’. This is important because industry-run alcohol advertising initiatives are the equivalent of hitting someone with a wet lettuce leaf. They are ineffective and fall well short of what is needed here in Australia.”
Dr Higgins said that Australia should wake up to the realities of the alcohol industry. “The tide is slowly but surely shifting against the alcohol industry and for good reason,” she said. “I think in the decades to come it will finally dawn on policy makers and consumers that alcohol is the new cigarettes. The alcohol industry will use any means possible to influence public health policy, deter strong action to curb problematic drinking, and get what they want.
“The authors of this research state that the submissions they examined are likely to be ‘only a fraction of the total influence the alcohol industry has in public policy processes’, and I suspect they are spot on. It is time for government to stand up to this powerful industry and ensure that public policy measures are influenced by health experts rather than companies pushing a harmful product that takes lives every week in Australia. “Alcohol causes immense damage to communities every day, and yet as these researchers assert, the industry is as active as ever misrepresenting the science and doing whatever they can to get the outcomes they want at the expense of public health. It’s time for change, the era of Big Alcohol getting what they want must end.”
RACGP Alcohol and Other Drug spokesperson Dr Hester Wilson said the findings should come as no surprise and backed Dr Higgins’ calls for action. “Big Alcohol must be reined in,” she said. “It reminds me of the tale about the scorpion and the frog crossing the river – you cannot expect a scorpion to act against its nature. The alcohol industry exists to make money from alcohol, this is what they do. They are wealthy and as a result have power to influence and will use this to maximise their income. We allow them to control the narrative of alcohol related harm at our peril. “I’m not out to criticise anyone for enjoying a drink but keep in mind that this drug causes significant harm year on year and nothing much is done about it. Even before the pandemic in 2019, there were nearly five alcohol-induced deaths per 100,000 people. For better or worse, it is a legal drug and one that is a fixture of our society and how we socialise, but it causes tremendous harm and suffering in communities everywhere.
“Government should keep in mind alcohol puts tremendous strain on every level of our health system. That includes hospitals managing people who have suffered harm from the drug and as GPs we see the results of risky drinking in patients almost every day. In fact, some estimates state that alcohol costs Australia $67 billion each year. Ask any healthcare worker which drug causes the most harm in society and I can almost guarantee you they will point the finger at booze. “So, the Government should take the alcohol lobby’s submissions and advocacy with a pinch of salt and keep healthcare professionals managing alcohol-related harm front of mind when making decisions on public health.”