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New study shows alcohol harm reduction ads made by industry could undermine health messages

Tuesday 29 September, 2020

Harm reduction campaigns funded by the alcohol industry could undermine public health messages, a peer-reviewed study published today in the BMJ Open has revealed.

The study examined responses to alcohol harm reduction advertisements by a large sample of adult weekly drinkers, who were randomly assigned to view advertisements produced by either public health agencies or the alcohol industry.

Study author, Dr Emily Brennan, from Cancer Council Victoria said drinkers exposed to industry-funded messages* on average reported lower motivation to reduce their alcohol consumption and lower odds of intending to avoid alcohol completely and to reduce the amount of alcohol consumed on each drinking occasion.

"The pattern of findings in the study suggests that industry-funded campaigns are more likely to present alcohol and drinking in a favourable light, rather than highlighting the negative consequences of alcohol consumption.”

Dr Brennan said that the results indicate that industry-funded groups may not be following best practice principles when developing alcohol harm reduction campaigns, may not be pre-testing these campaigns adequately, and may not be conducting appropriate evaluation.

Sarah Jackson, Senior Alcohol Policy Adviser, at Cancer Council Victoria said the study provided further evidence that the alcohol industry should not be involved in the development and delivery of alcohol-related information and education.

“More alcohol consumed means more profit for the alcohol industry and more harm. It is a direct conflict of interest for an industry whose profit margin is driven by alcohol consumption to contribute to campaigns purportedly aimed at reducing the harm caused by alcohol.”

“The alcohol industry’s aim is to thwart campaigns being developed that are effective in warning the public about the harms caused by their products. Instead, they borrow directly from the tobacco industry’s playbook, and develop campaigns that portray drinking as fun and exciting.”

“There is no place for the alcohol industry in the development of these campaigns. It is the public health equivalent of the fox guarding the hen house.”

Cancer Council Victoria CEO, Mr Todd Harper said given alcohol is one of the top five global causes of preventable death, disease and injury there is an imperative to develop effective public education campaigns that motivates people to change their behaviour.

“Most people are not aware that alcohol is a class one carcinogen, and a cause of at least seven types of cancer. Alcohol causes nearly 3500 people to get cancer, and more than 2000 people to die from cancer, in Australia each year.”

“Reducing the harm caused by alcohol is a public health priority and there is a need for effective public education that will make people aware of the harm caused by alcohol and motivate them to change their behaviour. This study underlines that it’s public health groups that are best placed to successfully develop and deliver these critical messages.”

Mr Harper said this study was particularly timely given recent concern about the role of the alcohol industry in the current global pandemic. [i]

“Big alcohol companies have been heavily promoting rapid alcohol home delivery and daily alcohol use at home during the COVID-19 pandemic to help people cope. This is despite alcohol use making people more vulnerable to COVID-19, exacerbating social isolation, and potentially fuelling violence in people’s homes” said Mr Harper.

The study is the first to identify and comparatively evaluate a large pool of alcohol harm reduction ads developed by public health agencies with those developed by alcohol industry groups.

*The study included several advertisements developed by DrinkWise Australia. Established in 2005, DrinkWise has been wholly funded by the Australian alcohol industry since late 2009. DrinkWise has primarily involved itself in the development and delivery of public education campaigns and voluntary warning labels for alcohol containers.

About the research

The study was funded by the National Health and Medical Research Council and Cancer Council Victoria.

Study: Brennan E, Schoenaker DAJM, Durkin SJ, et al. Comparing responses to public health and industry-funded alcohol harm reduction advertisements: an experimental study. BMJ Open 2020;0:e035569. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2019-035569



[i] https://ncdalliance.org/why-ncds/ncds-and-covid-19/mapping-unhealthy-commodity-industry-responses-to-covid-19