It is a truism that significant achievement in public health is rarely the work of just one individual. It is equally true that in this particular space there are rare passionate individuals – ‘public health warriors’ – whose fierce determination and leadership create a powerful legacy across the public health sector here in Australia and globally.
Today on Drink Tank the public health sector acknowledges the legacy of former Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education Chief Executive Michael Thorn.
After almost a decade of defending the public interest as head of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE), Michael Thorn stepped down as Chief Executive last Friday.
Reflecting on Michael’s contribution, Public Health Association of Australia Chief Executive Officer, Terry Slevin says Michael has been a public health warrior and the bane of the existence of the alcohol industry for the best part of a decade.
“He has been persistent, creative, determined, focused, relentless and most importantly, influential. He has developed a sophisticated, agile, and effective agency focused on reducing harm caused by alcohol consumption. Michael has been impatient for reform, thought big picture and developed a leadership role, locally, nationally and internationally in public health and alcohol control.”
That leadership is widely recognised and applauded. Trauma surgeon and Co-Chair of the National Alliance for Action on Alcohol, John Crozier, calling it “exemplary”.
“Facilitated by his leadership, FARE has greatly matured as a potent entity, providing without-fear-or-favour non-vested evidence aiding policy development which is effective in reducing alcohol-related harm in Australia.”
Says Jane Martin, NAAA Co-Chair and Executive Manager, Obesity Policy Coalition, “I see Michael as one of those rare public health entrepreneurs who can innovate and deliver campaigns and advocacy that makes a difference”.
Michael’s leadership extended well beyond Australian shores. Maik Dunnbier, Director of Strategy and Advocacy, IOGT International says today his organization looks to FARE for inspiration, motivation, hope and collaboration.
“Michael’s impact is to have transformed FARE into a leader in our community, across fields such as advocacy, campaigning, messaging, science and the interface between advocate and scientist. Our global community for alcohol prevention has significantly improved thanks to Michael’s efforts.”
Peter Miller, Professor of Violence Prevention and Addiction Studies, Deakin University, observes that during Michael’s tenure with FARE he demonstrated a willingness to take on powerful vested interests.
“While sometimes we fiercely disagreed, it was only ever because we differed on how we could do good; never on whether we should. I always knew that next week we would be taking on the relentless profit-driven propaganda of the alcohol industry, or the deep hypocrisy of the many politicians in their employ.”
Those sentiments are echoed by public health luminary Emeritus Professor Mike Daube AO, Faculty of Health Sciences, Curtin University.
“Under his leadership FARE has had an extraordinary impact, exposing and standing up to powerful vested interests in the alcohol industry and its allies, leading action nationally and in various states.”
Dr Sandro Demaio, Chief Executive Officer at Vic Health agrees.
“Anyone who’s seen him in action knows that he’s a force to be reckoned with for those who oppose his clear and equity-driven vision for population health, particularly the companies which put profits ahead of the health and wellbeing of our community.”
Slevin says Michael’s tenure at FARE was also distinguished by his willingness to collaborate and support allied organisations and individuals.
“He has been generous on applying available resources to support the broader objectives and smaller agencies with specialised focus but modest capacity. He did the heavy lifting on many a campaign to allow others to prosecute important policy objectives.”
Crozier says a range of allied organisations have benefited greatly from the quality, accessibility, and timeliness of output from the team at FARE.
“These characteristics of the research, evidence and advice provided by FARE to partner organisations reflect the passion, integrity and unwavering commitment to the protection of victims of alcohol-related harm consistently displayed at the highest level by Michael Thorn.”
Julia Stafford, Research Fellow Alcohol Program Team at the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA, says Michael was bold and fearless in his pursuit to stop the harm caused by alcohol, and he offered much needed leadership, as much across the sector as within FARE.
“Michael’s been a big presence in this area of public health, but he always ensured there was room for others. Michael has offered welcome support to the emerging generation of advocates and researchers, nurturing the skills and enthusiasm of those inside and outside his team.”
While many would be aware of Michael’s impact in alcohol control, Jane Martin notes he has also made a valuable contribution to public health more broadly.
“Michael established the foundations for collaboration and actions across risk factors and diseases under the Prevention First umbrella. He brokered and facilitated a more joined up way of working that has set the foundation for consensus building and influence transcending traditional silos.”
Immediate Past President of the World Federation of Public Health Association (2016-2018), Michael Moore says that being able to rely on a colleague who is knowledgeable, evidence based and directional makes public health advocacy a joy.
“Forming a coalition of the willing invariably improves the chances of better health outcomes. This explains why working with Michael Thorn was such a pleasure.”
His contribution to FARE is apparent. What is not quite so apparent is the broad contribution he has made to the public’s health – and particularly preventive health in the time he served as the Chief Executive of FARE. Coalitions work best when people are prepared to listen, make constructive criticism and find compromise. This can be challenging at times. However, with the influence of people like Michael Thorn, such coalitions become much more effective.”
Founder of Russell Family Fetal Alcohol Disorders Association (rffada), an online and face-to-face support group for parents of children with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder (FASD), Anne Russell speaks glowingly of Michael’s support.
“The rffada was established in 2007. Throughout this time Michael has encouraged us to reach for our goals to prevent FASD and provide information and support to those people currently living with the condition. He has been unfailingly supportive of our work personally and professionally and has provided us with many opportunities through his network to raise awareness of this significant alcohol-related harm.”
Michael’s support has also extended to the many public health advocates he has mentored over almost a decade. Hannah Pierce, Senior Research Officer at the Public Health Advocacy Institute of WA, says that as an early-career public health professional working in alcohol policy, she found Michael to be not only an impressively talented public health advocate to look up to, but has also been a mentor.
“He has provided me with opportunities that I’m unlikely to forget, such as presenting at the End Alcohol Advertising in Sport campaign launch in 2018. The amount of work FARE pumped out under Michael’s leadership was truly incredible, and I’m grateful for all the lessons I learned from him in how to be a fearless public health advocate, especially when faced with a powerful and influential opposition.”
Under Michael’s watch, FARE has also mentored many upcoming researchers from around the globe.
Moore says Michael’s international reputation is founded on his wide-ranging understanding of political processes, particularly in Australia; his depth of understanding of broad health-related public policy concepts; and his passion for healthier communities.
Michael’s perseverance in standing up for the public interest also gained him both respect and industry criticism in equal measure.
“The challenges of relying on sound evidence to challenge the alcohol industry subjected him to some shocking (and inappropriate) criticism. Such criticism should be worn as a badge of honour – the industry does not pay much attention to those who have little impact.”
Moore says Michael’s strategic insight and deep knowledge of the workings of government along with his ability to read the political winds has immeasurably advanced the field of alcohol policy research and advocacy.
“I will greatly miss his presence in the field, both professionally and personally and hope others will be able to benefit from his tireless advocacy, bold leadership and ability to innovate and modernise.”
FARE’s more recent strategic focus on advocating change through political and social campaigning has been recognised by Michael’s peers. Daube says Michael was the best thing that has happened to national alcohol campaigning in decades.
“He turned FARE from a sideshow into an effective, innovative, evidence-based campaigning and funding organisation.”
Under Michael’s management, expanding FARE’s strategic platform through campaigning has been achieved while upholding the fundamental FARE principle of underpinning all advocacy, government relations and communication with strong evidence.
FARE supports and contributes to the overarching knowledge-base of research in alcohol, health and other related disciplines in Australia and overseas.
Professor Michael Livingston from the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research at La Trobe University says that from a researcher’s perspective, Michael’s passion for real impacts was both a challenge and a joy.
“Under Michael’s leadership FARE managed to be both fiercely committed to an evidence-based approach and incredibly effective at advocating for alcohol policy change – and this is an incredibly difficult balancing act.”
“Michael wanted work that had concrete policy implications and, once he had it, he went to work pushing for policy change.”
The grandfather of alcohol public policy, Professor Robin Room says in his decade leading FARE, the organisation has become a prime mover and crucial contributor to research and action on public health-oriented Australian alcohol policies.
“In a neoliberal political era, NGO activity in the field of alcohol policy had been weakened, policies on controlling the health and social harms from alcohol were subordinated to commercial interests, and there was little research on effective strategies to reduce alcohol problems.”
Professor Room says Michael has made a strong and lasting contribution to Australian public life towards reversing these trends.
“Under Michael’s guidance, FARE has made notable contributions to developing the research base for effective alcohol policies, and in providing evidence-based advice for governments on strategies to reduce the health and social harms from alcohol. With the legacy of his contribution, FARE is in a good position to continue its leadership in the field.”
FARE’s contribution to advancing the evidence-base cannot be overstated, according to Dunnbier. But again, he points to Michael’s ability to break through barriers, and leverage research outcomes to facilitate change in policy and social behavior with regard to alcohol harms.
“World class science also needs world class advocates and community activists to help translate the evidence into policy action. Michael’s contribution to bridging this gap and bringing the advocacy perspective closer to the scientific community has been critical, and is something I am very thankful for.”
Whether a policy advocate on the other side of the globe, or key clinicians in our own backyard, Michael’s peers have all regarded their association with the ‘warrior’ as a privilege.
“I have been privileged to have met many leaders in my lifetime. With esteem, I acknowledge the contribution of Michael in his role as FARE Chief Executive and praise the exceptional characteristics of leadership consistently displayed by him, and reflected in the strength of his team. Very few individuals meet, match, or exceed his capabilities.”
Severi describes Michael as a transformational leader in the field of alcohol harm prevention. “He has taken FARE to brave new places where NGOs had been nervous to go.”
Her public health sector colleague Martin says, “I see Michael as one of those rare public health entrepreneurs who can innovate and deliver campaigns and advocacy that makes a difference”.
Australia’s pre-eminent FASD expert, Elizabeth Elliott AM is Professor of Paediatrics and Child Health, University of Sydney and Consultant Paediatrician at the Children’s Hospital at Westmead. Professor Elliott says Michael has made a significant contribution in this field in relation to strategy and policy, advocacy, prevention and awareness raising.
“Michael’s wisdom, intellect, friendship, political savvy and endless enthusiasm and drive will be much missed by many FASD clinicians and researchers. I congratulate Michael on his many achievements, thank him for his support and wish him well for the future.”
So in closing, and with FARE’s purpose in mind, of stopping the harm of alcohol, we thank Michael on behalf of those he has helped who do not have a loud public voice.
The last word to Dr Demaio who notes that Michael’s years of tireless work have undoubtedly improved the lives of millions of Australians.
“We all owe a huge debt to his strength, leadership and resolve.”