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28/09/2016

The methods of the alcohol lobby

In France, few topics in public health are as complex as alcohol consumption. Such complexity leads to multiple perspectives, where the alcohol lobby representatives often see health consequences as nothing more than an obstacle to be overcome.

Source: This is a translation from French of an article by Bernard Basset, Public Health Doctor, Associate General Secretary of the Assocation Nationale de Prevention en Alcoologie et Addictologie (ANPAA), a member of Eurocare. The details of the article are listed at the end of the text.

This is why public-health professionals need not only to produce epidemiologic studies that put in place prevention programmes, but also decrypt, anticipate and tackle adverse strategies, which can be described as the different methods of actions of the alcohol lobby.

Influencing public opinion

Promotion techniques for alcoholic drinks include usual marketing tools (e.g. product association to positive values such as freedom, pleasure, well-being, youth...). Here, investments are substantial not only in ‘creativity’ but also simply in volume, even if in France marketing is limited by the Evin law. Alcoholic products can also be promoted by other means, such as:

  • using attractive product packaging according to the targeted consumers (graphism, colours...), which include young people and women;
  • promotional sales: half-price sales of alcohol in bars (happy hour);
  • adaptation to consumer taste: to this end the alcohol industry has developed a range of products that are also sugary, and which are aimed at young consumers and women.

By influencing public opinion, lobbyists have as objective securing alliances with people who are more or less involved directly to the product or activity in question, including:

  • decision makers of all types with whom it is useful to build stable relationships networks;
  • the population group who live directly or indirectly from this economic activity, that is 665,000 jobs for a business figure of 19.6 billion Euros according to the Institute of Scientific Research on Alcohol;
  • the politicians, who are natural defenders of the employment of their electorate, as well as of the economic activity of their regions. In French political contexts, the alcohol lobby, in particular the wine group, is a constant presence, and it manages to regroups politicians independently of their political parties. Lobbyists suggest legislative amendments, or even new legislation aiming at protecting their activity, for example, positioning alcoholic beverages as French cultural and astronomical patrimony;
  • the specialised press;
  • the consumers who do not wish to reconsider their habits or life style. Here, the lobby develops a discourse based on ‘individual responsibility’, as opposed to collective action, in order to claim that individuals correctly informed of risks, behave responsibly, and that, therefore, it is not necessary to monitor the alcohol industry activities.

Such relational strategies present a chance not only to learn about consumer habits, but also to build a desired public image. For example, the industry wants to be valued for its dynamism, sense of responsibility and up-datedness, while public-health professionals are described negatively as sad backward-looking, over-cautious hygienists, or sectarian prohibitionists who attack individual freedom, or still as troublemaker ayatollahs. Of course, the industry presents alcohol consumption as consubstantial to French culture, and its production as of prime importance to the economic sector, employment, public finances and exports.

Meanwhile, public-health professionals have as the main aim informing public opinion with basis on solid scientific sources. It is, therefore, equally important for the industry to understand information impacting negatively on their activity in order to counteract it, if necessary. Facing unfavourable scientific data, the industry might try to instil doubt. Different types of action can be employed in isolation or in the context of a broader plan to counteract and undermine certain scientific publications, by:

  • contesting data, while valuing other favourable studies: it is rare that scientific knowledge establishes itself immediately, without debate within the scientific community. Naturally, lobbyist value studies that are favourable to their activity and those which cause fewer problems, for example, those that question unfavourable data. While all authoritative scientific studies point to a link between the number moderate alcohol consumption and the number of addicted drinkers within the same population, the industry values rare studies disputing this correlation. The industry also values the idea of the ‘French paradox’, popular in the media, that presents wine consumption as sole cause of longevity, where the protector effect of low alcohol consumption is highlighted without mentioning that cancer risk increases proportionally to consumption;
  • financing research: quite often financial help is aimed at promoting non-problematic research, for example, on the protective effect of wine to blood vessels. In France, an organisation such as the Institute of Scientific Research has as objective to provide favourable data to the alcohol industry in order to promote the less problematic policies for their activities, and in particular to obstruct any policy that aims at reducing national alcohol consumption. Its capacity to finance research on chosen topics permits the industry to build a network of supportive scientists, often unaware that they are participating in a global economic strategy. This is why transparency in declarations of interest is crucial. It is, therefore, essential to know if a study on alcohol consumption has been financed by the alcohol industry. This does not disqualify automatically the data produced, but it allows readers to become, legitimacy, more critical and attentive.

Attempting to restrict the work field of public-health professionals

Limiting the intervention field of public-health professionals is equally a major objective of the alcohol lobby, who claim that the former go beyond their competences if they express themselves, even when they use scientific argumentation, on product price, promotional sales, law enforcement, etc. The challenge to the Lederman law by the alcohol industry has for objective to circumscribe the intervention by public-health professionals on the consequences of alcohol consumption within certain groups (the young, the addicted) and to stop them from attacking the market. The challenge of “the price effect” by the alcohol industry aims at denying, or at making relative, the negative effects on health of promotional or low-priced alcohol, which goes against data provided by authoritative international studies.

Likewise, in France, in a quasi-experimental manner, the strong taxation in 2004 of ‘pre-mixers’ (products at the same time sugary and alcoholic, essentially aimed at teenagers and young women) put stop to the development of ‘appeal products’. The complexity of the taxation mechanism of alcoholic beverages, built over diverse industry interests, also contributes to obscure the debate.

Alcohol industry companies portray a responsible image by claiming that they do prevention work. To that end, they finance totally an organisation that is favourable to them, Enterprise et Prevention, whose name attests an aim for positioning itself both in the economic field and of competing with independent public-health organisations. This positioning in the public-health field tends to answer to the rise of public health concerns, and to present alcohol as only a little - or not at all - damaging to health.

Operating in parliamentary contexts

To the benefit of the industry, lobbyists attempt to bypass and change legislation. It is easy to understand that the alcohol industry advocates for minimum regulation, while, on the contrary, public-health organisations work for measures aiming at protecting health. Participating in all steps of legislative systems, lobbyists aim at keeping laws as they are, or to change them, and here interventions include:

  • the conditions of promotional sales: the alcohol lobby has multiplied their efforts, often with success, to reduce the scope of the regulation of advertising intended by the Evin law;
  • distribution channels: the industry attempts to preserve channels, which are being contested in the name of public health, for example, petrol stations, since alcohol consumption is dangerous for driving. Further, the industry still supports alcohol sales in sports venues, while alcohol consumption is damaging to sport activity. In flagrant contradiction with a narrative of non-engagement with the young, the alcohol lobby has succeeded to gain Internet space, a medium used mostly by the latter, through parliament amendment during debates on the law of Hospitals, Health, Patients and Territory of 21 July 2009;
  • bypassing the legal control of advertising is an objective that depends on the creativity of advertising agencies, and that attracts legal prosecution regularly by the Assocation Nationale de Prevention en Alcoologie et Addictologie (ANPAA), generally with success, and sometimes spectacularly, for example, in the rugby world cup in 2007 that saw the conviction of a large brewer.

Conclusion

The power of the alcohol industry lobby intensifies in France, becoming more and more visible and professionalised. Therefore, public-health professionals, in order to be able to play their role in full, must now also join forces to counteract the lobbyists’ actions in order to show the real objectives of the industry.

Bernard

This is why public-health professionals need not only to produce epidemiologic studies that put in place prevention programmes, but also decrypt, anticipate and tackle adverse strategies, which can be described as the different methods of actions of the alcohol lobby.

Influencing public opinion

Promotion techniques for alcoholic drinks include usual marketing tools (e.g. product association to positive values such as freedom, pleasure, well-being, youth...). Here, investments are substantial not only in ‘creativity’ but also simply in volume, even if in France marketing is limited by the Evin law. Alcoholic products can also be promoted by other means, such as:

  • using attractive product packaging according to the targeted consumers (graphism, colours...), which include young people and women;
  • promotional sales: half-price sales of alcohol in bars (happy hour);
  • adaptation to consumer taste: to this end the alcohol industry has developed a range of products that are also sugary, and which are aimed at young consumers and women.

By influencing public opinion, lobbyists have as objective securing alliances with people who are more or less involved directly to the product or activity in question, including:

  • decision makers of all types with whom it is useful to build stable relationships networks;
  • the population group who live directly or indirectly from this economic activity, that is 665,000 jobs for a business figure of 19.6 billion Euros according to the Institute of Scientific Research on Alcohol;
  • the politicians, who are natural defenders of the employment of their electorate, as well as of the economic activity of their regions. In French political contexts, the alcohol lobby, in particular the wine group, is a constant presence, and it manages to regroups politicians independently of their political parties. Lobbyists suggest legislative amendments, or even new legislation aiming at protecting their activity, for example, positioning alcoholic beverages as French cultural and astronomical patrimony;
  • the specialised press;
  • the consumers who do not wish to reconsider their habits or life style. Here, the lobby develops a discourse based on ‘individual responsibility’, as opposed to collective action, in order to claim that individuals correctly informed of risks, behave responsibly, and that, therefore, it is not necessary to monitor the alcohol industry activities.

Such relational strategies present a chance not only to learn about consumer habits, but also to build a desired public image. For example, the industry wants to be valued for its dynamism, sense of responsibility and up-datedness, while public-health professionals are described negatively as sad backward-looking, over-cautious hygienists, or sectarian prohibitionists who attack individual freedom, or still as troublemaker ayatollahs. Of course, the industry presents alcohol consumption as consubstantial to French culture, and its production as of prime importance to the economic sector, employment, public finances and exports.

Meanwhile, public-health professionals have as the main aim informing public opinion with basis on solid scientific sources. It is, therefore, equally important for the industry to understand information impacting negatively on their activity in order to counteract it, if necessary. Facing unfavourable scientific data, the industry might try to instil doubt. Different types of action can be employed in isolation or in the context of a broader plan to counteract and undermine certain scientific publications, by:

  • contesting data, while valuing other favourable studies: it is rare that scientific knowledge establishes itself immediately, without debate within the scientific community. Naturally, lobbyist value studies that are favourable to their activity and those which cause fewer problems, for example, those that question unfavourable data. While all authoritative scientific studies point to a link between the number moderate alcohol consumption and the number of addicted drinkers within the same population, the industry values rare studies disputing this correlation. The industry also values the idea of the ‘French paradox’, popular in the media, that presents wine consumption as sole cause of longevity, where the protector effect of low alcohol consumption is highlighted without mentioning that cancer risk increases proportionally to consumption;
  • financing research: quite often financial help is aimed at promoting non-problematic research, for example, on the protective effect of wine to blood vessels. In France, an organisation such as the Institute of Scientific Research has as objective to provide favourable data to the alcohol industry in order to promote the less problematic policies for their activities, and in particular to obstruct any policy that aims at reducing national alcohol consumption. Its capacity to finance research on chosen topics permits the industry to build a network of supportive scientists, often unaware that they are participating in a global economic strategy. This is why transparency in declarations of interest is crucial. It is, therefore, essential to know if a study on alcohol consumption has been financed by the alcohol industry. This does not disqualify automatically the data produced, but it allows readers to become, legitimacy, more critical and attentive.

Attempting to restrict the work field of public-health professionals

Limiting the intervention field of public-health professionals is equally a major objective of the alcohol lobby, who claim that the former go beyond their competences if they express themselves, even when they use scientific argumentation, on product price, promotional sales, law enforcement, etc. The challenge to the Lederman law by the alcohol industry has for objective to circumscribe the intervention by public-health professionals on the consequences of alcohol consumption within certain groups (the young, the addicted) and to stop them from attacking the market. The challenge of “the price effect” by the alcohol industry aims at denying, or at making relative, the negative effects on health of promotional or low-priced alcohol, which goes against data provided by authoritative international studies.

Likewise, in France, in a quasi-experimental manner, the strong taxation in 2004 of ‘pre-mixers’ (products at the same time sugary and alcoholic, essentially aimed at teenagers and young women) put stop to the development of ‘appeal products’. The complexity of the taxation mechanism of alcoholic beverages, built over diverse industry interests, also contributes to obscure the debate.

Alcohol industry companies portray a responsible image by claiming that they do prevention work. To that end, they finance totally an organisation that is favourable to them, Enterprise et Prevention, whose name attests an aim for positioning itself both in the economic field and of competing with independent public-health organisations. This positioning in the public-health field tends to answer to the rise of public health concerns, and to present alcohol as only a little - or not at all - damaging to health.

Operating in parliamentary contexts

To the benefit of the industry, lobbyists attempt to bypass and change legislation. It is easy to understand that the alcohol industry advocates for minimum regulation, while, on the contrary, public-health organisations work for measures aiming at protecting health. Participating in all steps of legislative systems, lobbyists aim at keeping laws as they are, or to change them, and here interventions include:

  • the conditions of promotional sales: the alcohol lobby has multiplied their efforts, often with success, to reduce the scope of the regulation of advertising intended by the Evin law;
  • distribution channels: the industry attempts to preserve channels, which are being contested in the name of public health, for example, petrol stations, since alcohol consumption is dangerous for driving. Further, the industry still supports alcohol sales in sports venues, while alcohol consumption is damaging to sport activity. In flagrant contradiction with a narrative of non-engagement with the young, the alcohol lobby has succeeded to gain Internet space, a medium used mostly by the latter, through parliament amendment during debates on the law of Hospitals, Health, Patients and Territory of 21 July 2009;
  • bypassing the legal control of advertising is an objective that depends on the creativity of advertising agencies, and that attracts legal prosecution regularly by the Assocation Nationale de Prevention en Alcoologie et Addictologie (ANPAA), generally with success, and sometimes spectacularly, for example, in the rugby world cup in 2007 that saw the conviction of a large brewer.

Conclusion

The power of the alcohol industry lobby intensifies in France, becoming more and more visible and professionalised. Therefore, public-health professionals, in order to be able to play their role in full, must now also join forces to counteract the lobbyists’ actions in order to show the real objectives of the industry.

Basset, B. (2015) Les modalities d’action du lobby de l’alcool, Alcool and Santé, Adsp n. 90 mars 2015, p. 31

[Translated by Paulo Nunes de Moura]