PHE Has Been 'Captured' by the Alcohol Industry, Say Critics

Peter Russell

September 20, 2018

Public Health England (PHE) has been accused of "delusion" in thinking that its partnership with an alcohol education charity funded by the drinks industry will lead to a reduction in alcohol consumption.

Last week, Sir Ian Gilmore resigned as co-chair of PHE's alcohol leadership board in protest at a recent partnership between the governmental agency and Drinkaware.

Sir Ian, a professor of hepatology and special adviser on alcohol to the Royal College of Physicians, took issue with the tie-up that produced a campaign encouraging middle-aged drinkers to have 'drink free days' to help them cut down on the amount of alcohol they regularly drink.

PHE described the partnership as "a fresh and bold step in our work to reduce alcohol harm" and said that Drinkaware was an independent educational charity with "an extensive reach to the key audiences".

In The BMJ , Sir Ian, and colleagues John Britton and Linda Bauld, said PHE's management did not appear to have asked themselves why the alcohol industry was happy to fund a campaign that appeared to reduce consumption of the product they produce and sell. "Had they done so they would have received the answer that the industry does so because it thinks the campaign will be ineffective or will divert attention from other more effective policies to reduce alcohol consumption that the industry fears more, such as minimum unit pricing," they wrote.

The authors are also highly critical that the press release launching the campaign made no direct reference to harmful levels of drinking on other days of the week, or endorsed advice by the UK's chief medical officers of the upper limit of 14 units a week for both sexes.

The editorial drew comparisons with voluntary agreements with the tobacco industry in the second half of the 20th century, which, they say, served to "undermine, dilute or constrain measures designed to curtail their activities".

It continued: "PHE appear to have fallen victim to the delusion that a new partnership with the alcohol industry will somehow avoid the same fate."

The authors contend that "through Drinkaware, the alcohol industry gains valuable engagement with PHE, establishes working relations with PHE staff, and may even secure a seat at the table when other alcohol harm initiatives are planned and executed".

In an accompanying opinion piece, Tony Rao, visiting researcher at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience, King's College London, wrote: "If we cannot rely on our government to observe the principle of being at arm's length from the drinks industry, we wander into a storm that has the potential to capsize public health and all that it represents."

COI: IG [Ian Gilmore] has given a paid lecture for Kyowa Kirin, the manufacturer of Pabrinex vitamin B and C injection. He is chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance and resigned recently as co-chair of the alcohol leadership board, Public Health England. JB is director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, a member (and former chair) of the Royal College of Physicians tobacco advisory group, and a member of the board of trustees of Action on Smoking and Health. He co-chairs the PHE tobacco control implementation board. LB is deputy director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, holds the CRUK/BUPA chair in behavioural research for cancer prevention at Cancer Research UK, is a trustee of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, and a member of the PHE tobacco control implementation board.

Tony Rao -- Potential non-financial conflicts of interest include:  co-editor of the 2011 Royal College of Psychiatrists report Our Invisible Addicts; expert advisor on alcohol and older people to the Royal College of Psychiatrists, Addaction, and the International Longevity Centre.

Public Health England's capture by the alcohol industry, BMJ

Tony Rao: Calling time on dumbing down our drinking culture, BMJ

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