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Master manipulators: we need to learn from alcohol industry conduct
Tackling Scotland's Alcohol Problem
Blog

Scotland sits at an important crossroads: our status as ‘world leaders’ in alcohol policy is under threat as our flagship Minimum Unit Pricing policy is due to expire unless renewed by a vote before the end of April. Policymakers are also in discussion around the extent to which Scottish citizens should be exposed to alcohol marketing, and whether restrictions should be put in place.

 

As someone who joined the alcohol policy field in recent years, it has been truly staggering to learn the extent to which the alcohol industry attempts to interfere with public health policy, and the sophisticated (and heavily resourced) ways in which they go about this. The journey of the Minimum Unit Pricing (MUP) legislation was a masterclass in these interference tactics.

The Scottish political landscape has changed significantly since MUP was first proposed in the early 2000s, and, as our MSPs (many of whom were not elected when MUP legislation eventually went through Parliament) prepare to vote on whether to keep MUP in place and whether it should be uprated, it seems a good time to remind ourselves of the scale and sophistication of industry tactics to prevent effective alcohol harm prevention policy from being realised.

The alcohol industry has a vested interested in maintaining and growing sales of their products, to maximise profits for shareholders. How then, can it be appropriate for industry representatives to be given a seat at the table in public health policy development in Scotland? We need to learn from the past, as the alcohol industry has proven time and time again to be expert in thwarting measures that aim to improve the health and wellbeing of Scottish citizens and which threaten their profits.

The past

The journey of MUP from inception to delivery was a masterclass in attempts to undermine policy designed to improve public health. The alcohol industry is resourced extremely well, and has the capacity to interfere with almost every stage of the policy development process.

So what tactics did the alcohol industry use to try to stop MUP from being established in Scotland?

Lesson 1: Defer - The alcohol industry will try to prevent change

Prior to devolution, the alcohol industry relied on established relationships with UK policymakers and their status as key partners in the UK policy development process to meet their agenda. However, devolution and the creation of the Scottish Parliament, meant that the alcohol industry lacked established ties with new Scottish policymakers, and therefore their influencing tactics required a new approach. By the time the Alcohol (Minimum Pricing) (Scotland) Act was passed in 2012, the alcohol industry adopted a more confrontational strategy than seen previously (at Westminster) - most obviously through their series of legal challenges.

The Scotch Whisky Association - alongside European industry counterparts - petitioned the Court of Session for a Judicial Review of the Act. As a result of these legal challenges, the MUP legislation could not take effect for over five years. This not only gave industry extra time to sell the cheap, high strength products associated with the most harm in Scotland, but also meant that the 50p price agreed in original legislation had been eroded in effect by the time it came into play in 2018.

Lesson 2: Deflect - the alcohol industry will offer ineffective alternatives

Realising that they were unlikely to prevent MUP being implemented with their current legal tactics, the alcohol industry began to offer ineffective alternatives to try to undermine MUP. They lobbied for the implementation of a tax-based approach to MUP, even though this had already been dismissed as ineffective by the Scottish Government in tackling alcohol harms, given its powers. The industry would have been well aware that taxation policies aren’t devolved, and lobbying for this would result in a transfer to Westminster, where key policy actors were vocal in opposition to MUP and it would likely therefore be dismissed.

The alcohol industry also argued that Scotland’s drinking culture would be better addressed through public awareness and educational campaigns – which are evidenced to have almost no impact on population-level consumption, and therefore would pose less threat to the sale of their products. After all, MUP specifically targets heavy drinkers of cheap, high strength products, and the industry relies on those heavy drinkers for their profits. It’s estimated that if everyone drank within CMO guidelines, industry revenue would fall by almost 40%.

Lesson 3:  Deny – the alcohol industry will undermine the evidence

From the outset of the MUP proposal until present, the alcohol industry have heavily resourced a campaign to undermine and discredit the evidence around the positive health impacts of MUP. This is regularly played out in the pages of our newspapers.

The industry has continuously challenged the evidence base upon which MUP depends, trying to discredit key evaluation actors along the way. Even in the face of incredibly robust evidence on the impacts of MUP, industry representatives have publicly questioned the credibility of the research and modelling on which MUP evaluations have been based.

Since the first proposal of MUP, the industry has utilised un-evidenced scaremongering messages to influence policymakers and the public. They have been tactically selective with data and results, pushing areas unreflective of the full story of MUP - as a means to create the narrative that MUP isn’t working.

The present

Yesterday, the Health, Social Care and Sport Committee took evidence from both alcohol harms experts (panel 1) and industry (panel 2) on the effectiveness of MUP, as part of post-legislative scrutiny. Most of the alcohol industry representatives tried to use the same tactics again.

Alcohol producer and retailer representatives took to the panel to argue against the uprating of MUP and, yet despite being repeatedly asked, failed to provide any data or figures on the impact (either positive or negative) of MUP on their profits. The industry reps were unable to identify where the money from MUP has gone, despite their position that MUP is bad for business. One exasperated MSP eventually asked “has anybody on the panel got any reliable data?!”.

Despite this rocky start, the industry reps stuck to their “defer, deflect, deny” tactics. They contested the credibility of Public Health Scotland’s 5-year evaluation of MUP (widely believed to be the most thoroughly evaluated public policy in Scotland), repeatedly offered what we know to be ineffective alternatives to an MUP uprating (educational campaigns or more *voluntary* Portman Group codes), and continually framed alcohol harms as too complex to be solved by MUP. Alongside this, a number of scaremongering claims were made, with one honourable exception in Paul Waterson of the SLTA, who highlighted that alcohol is a dangerous product which needs to be regulated.

Finally, classic ‘defer’ tactics were used once again, with claims we needed more time and evaluation of Scotland’s most evaluated policy before we could draw any conclusions – culminating in a claim that if MUP is going to be uprated, industry would need at least 12 months’ notice.

The future

So now we have arrived at a pivotal moment for alcohol policy in Scotland. The Sunset Clause on MUP legislation is up, and Scottish Politicians will vote before the end of April on whether to maintain and uprate Minimum Unit Pricing.

The Scottish Government are also exploring proposals around the restriction of alcohol marketing, and the industry are out in full force with the same tactics to undermine the implementation of this.

Every day in Scotland, 3 people die and almost 100 more are hospitalised because of alcohol. All of these harms are avoidable and we simply can’t continue to accept this as our reality. Establishing evidence-based, population-wide policies - free from industry interference - are an essential component in tackling this.

The alcohol industry’s aims are always going to be fundamentally incompatible with public health policy. They have repeatedly demonstrated that they will put profits ahead of public health and they should be given no role in the development or implementation of policies relating to alcohol harms. The Scottish Government should make it a priority to publish a clear Conflict of Interest policy which outlines why and how the alcohol industry cannot be involved in public health policy development.

And let’s hope that the alcohol industry can finally find their data!

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