Is the alcohol industry guilty of negligent corporate behaviour?

Is the alcohol industry as guilty of negligent corporate behaviour as Big Tobacco?

Herald Sun Columnist, David Penberthy doesn’t think so, recently suggesting that when it comes the harms caused and the people impacted, that the two drugs (and industries) cannot be compared.

Yet as Michael Thorn makes clear, when it comes to the harms and the millions of Australian lives impacted, and to the corporate behavior of the alcohol industry, there are far more similarities, than differences when it comes to alcohol and tobacco.


David Penberthy has walked backwards from Damascus in his weekend column Message to health lobby: Lay off the drink [or Dear health lobby lay off the drink] (Herald Sun 23 Apr).

In his December 2011 column Smoke ‘til you drop but leave the taxpayer out of it (The Punch 13 December 2011) he surgically cut to the chase about negligent corporate behaviour stating, ‘If any car manufacturer knowingly sold vehicles which ran off the road, or pharmaceutical company sold painkillers that actually made you feel worse, they would be put out of business. There is a word for this kind of conduct and it is negligence‘.

But now he’s arguing that it is a completely different story for drinking than for smoking. ‘Drinking is something most Australians can do or not’ – so for smoking. ‘And when we do drink. Most of us can get through a barbeque or a party without getting into a brawl, without wrapping our car around a telegraph pole, without doing any damage to our health’. Maybe not.

5,500 deaths annually, 160,000 hospitalisations, 17 per cent of violence incidents and five per cent of all cancers are caused by our drinking.

By any definition this is strong evidence of negligent behaviour on the grounds of these significant social costs.

We shouldn’t rely on alcohol industry research about alcohol’s health qualities. When subjected to independent scrutiny this research is usually shown to be biased or deficient because of links to the alcohol industry or poor research design

As for David’s case for Mediterranean diets and moderate daily wine consumption, Italians drink 40 per cent less than Australians do.

And arguing that the Australian wine industry is wholly reputable is a stretch. Its taxpaying record – for alcohol tax and company tax – is lamentable; its best sellers are cheap plonk, and its environmental impact on parts of Australia disastrous. No David, these are not defences for inaction on alcohol.

Research published last month by the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, shows that 27.6 per cent of adults are drinking at a level above the long term risk guideline, and 56.2 per cent of all alcohol consumed is being drunk when the drinker has already had two drinks that day. Counting in the two drinks below the guideline level, 84.1 per cent of all alcohol is being drunk by drinkers averaging more than two drinks per day.

This tallies-up to about four million Australians drinking at risky levels. Too many of whom fight, wrap themselves around  telegraph poles, and  many others  who will find their way to a hospital seeking treatment for an alcohol-related condition – injury, poisoning, liver disease, diabetes or a cancer – which along with cardio-vascular disease now stands as Australia’s biggest killer.

We don’t know the direct cost to Australian governments from all this drinking. Governments are reluctant to commission the studies, but we do know that in NSW where the Auditor General conducted a small study it was in excess of $1 billion annually. My bet is that the figure is in excess of $10 billion.

Governments continue to run strong anti-drink-driving campaigns, but they aren’t conducting awareness campaigns targeting violence, binge-drinking and heavy regular drinking.

Four million risky drinkers is not a few. Add to these alcohol’s impact on others, including the one million children affected by their carers drinking – 10,000 of them in the child protection system, and up to half of all cases of domestic violence – and there you have a case for negligence.

Regrettably, Penberthy’s column is a continuation of the unrelenting reinforcement of drinking as normative behaviour. Sometimes innocently  other times because to do otherwise would be an affront to Australia’s affection for alcohol, and still others for outright commercial gain.

The public health sector does not advocate for an end to drinking, instead for action to address long-standing problems.

With alcohol harm continuing to rise, it is time for governments to commission hard-hitting, evidence-based public awareness campaigns to address Australia’s alcohol toll. The public expect it.

Contrary to Mr Penberthy’s comments, the Cancer Council Victoria’s important research shows that when we embark on these campaigns they need to be effective, otherwise, what’s the point?

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Michael Thorn

Michael is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), and tweets from @MichaelTThorn.

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