Today marks one year since the alcohol industry-funded DrinkWise launched its ‘consumer information messages’ for alcohol. DrinkWise describes itself as an independent, not-for-profit organisation. It just happens to be wholly funded by the alcohol industry and its board include six alcohol industry representatives. So as you can imagine, when the messages were released, I quickly went in search of further information. What I found was unsurprisingly disappointing. The messages chosen by DrinkWise, such as ‘Kids and alcohol don’t mix’, did not provide information to Australians on the potential harms that result from alcohol consumption, nor did they recommend where people go to seek help if they are concerned about their drinking. Instead the messages were vague, small and came with no guarantee that the alcohol industry would even use them.
As someone who has spent some time talking to public health researchers and policy advisors about alcohol warning labels, I knew that the labels were as far from the evidence-base as they could possibly be. Instead of being attention grabbing, they were small and blended in with the labels. Instead of having clear and specific messages, the messages were wishy washy and vague. Instead of being applied to the product in a consistent manner, the labels would appear in whatever way the alcohol producers decided.
While it was immediately apparent that the labels would not be effective in influencing consumer behaviour, the development of the labels has shown just how effective DrinkWise can be as a tool for the alcohol industry in blocking true alcohol policy reform. For the first time we were seeing the alcohol industry funded DrinkWise at the forefront of alcohol policy discussions in Australia and the alcohol industry took full advantage of this. When the Government held consultations on a possible alcohol warning labels regime, they held one consultation for the alcohol industry and another for the public health sector– where DrinkWise was present. The alcohol industry now had a seat at both tables and were using it to spruik their grossly inadequate labelling regime.
As soon as the labels were released by the industry funded DrinkWise, the game had changed. The alcohol industry no longer had to argue that there shouldn’t be health warning labels on alcohol products, they simply had to argue that they were already introducing labels. The alcohol industry spent the five months between the launch of their labels in July and the Government’s deadline for making a decision in December to spruik their campaign. Not once did DrinkWise have to produce evidence to demonstrate that their labels were effective. Not once did DrinkWise have to show that the labels would even be applied to alcohol products. All they had to do was to be seen to be doing something.
Time came for the decision to be made in December and the food and health ministers announced that the alcohol industry would be given two years to voluntarily apply their DrinkWise labels before there would be moves to regulate a pregnancy warning. In their formal response the food and health ministers even acknowledged the ‘recent industry initiatives to implement voluntary labelling schemes’. DrinkWise received several mentions.
Now here we are seven months since the food and health ministers made their decision and one year since DrinkWise released its labels. While there has been a commitment from food and health ministers to regulate a pregnancy warning, there is still no detail on how this will occur.
One thing is for certain. As long as the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education continues to have a seat at the table, we will do all in our power to ensure that the alcohol industry’s ‘not-for-profit’ is not successful in derailing these crucial reforms.
Illustration by Andrew Henderson