Drink Tank

Government liaison with industry tip of the iceberg

When it came to FARE’s attention that the Alcohol Promotion Guidelines were being reviewed in May this year, we immediately wrote to OLGR asking them to involve public health representatives and experts in the consultation process. We were promptly refused.

However, this wasn’t the case for the alcohol industry, who had been working with the Office of Liquor Gaming and Racing (OLGR) to develop the Guidelines behind closed doors and without the involvement of people who have expertise in the area of alcohol control policies.

Documents obtained under subpoena in the NSW Upper House just two weeks ago and published today on Drink Tank revealed that between March 2012 and June 2013, members of the alcohol industry were asked for their opinions on the Draft Liquor Promotion Guidelines. The way this came about is described in John Kaye’s post today.

I am very aware of the significant influence that the alcohol industry has in the development of alcohol policy in Australia. I have been in many meetings with public servants and advisors, when they have been all too happy to spout the rhetoric that comes directly from the alcohol industry’s playbook.

I have been at forums where ministers responsible for health have boasted about their ties with the Australian Hotels Association (AHA) and indicated that their preference is to work with the alcohol industry first and foremost.

I thought that I could no longer be surprised by the extent to which public servants and our elected representatives would work to ensure that representatives of the alcohol industry were appeased. But then I saw these documents.

In emails between OLGR and LSA (the peak organisation representing corporations like Woolworths and Coles), OLGR not only acknowledges the receipt of the feedback from the LSA, but then proceeds to ask the LSA whether they are ‘happy’ with wording changes.

The point being discussed in these emails was the need to differentiate between discounts provided at bars and pubs and those provided by retail outlets. In a nut shell, the LSA was concerned that changes to the Guidelines would result in the banning of the dirt cheap promotions that retailers often favour.

In these emails the LSA suggests that wording be included to specify that the way the Guidelines “applies to different licence types may vary”. The very helpful staff at OLGR then write back to the LSA indicating that “the additional sentence looks fine” and go on to ask the LSA “would you be happy” with the phrase “does not encourage excessive consumption of alcohol due to an increase in the volume purchased where it is likely to be consumed within a short timeframe”.

I’m not sure if the OLGR staff member realised this at the time, but by offering this very helpful suggestion, OLGR was making it all but impossible to make a complaint about promotions that occur in take-away venues. This is because unless you followed people home after they purchased the alcohol – it would be difficult to demonstrate whether they consumed the alcohol “within a short timeframe”.

But worse was yet to come.

Once the alcohol industry’s involvement in the consultation process was exposed, the NSW Government adopted the Guidelines. They did not say that maybe they should consult with others in the development of the Guidelines. Instead they published the Guidelines with the industry amendments included verbatim.

And just when we thought this situation could not get any worse, Deputy Premier Andrew Stoner put out a media release referring to the Guidelines as “tough new Liquor Promotion Guidelines” that “address the promotion of alcohol at all distributors including bottle shops and supermarkets” and the “growing trend of alcohol promotion through the internet and social media”.

The problem with Stoner’s release was that all three of these claims are false.

Mr Stoner should know that the Guidelines are not “tough” – in fact it is arguable that they are less restrictive than the previous Guidelines.

Mr Stoner should know that the Guidelines do not “address the promotion of alcohol at all distributors including bottle shops and supermarkets”. The LSA, Coles, Woolworths and the very helpful staff at OLGR made sure of this.

And finally, Mr Stoner should know that the Guidelines do not address “the growing trend of alcohol promotion through the internet and social media”. The Guidelines do not even mention the words “internet” or “social media”.

In the development of the Guidelines, the NSW Government was guilty of three contemptable acts.

Firstly, an open and transparent consultation process was not held to gain input on the development of the Guidelines. Instead the alcohol industry was consulted behind closed doors.

What makes this even worse is that in a House File Note prepared by OLGR for Minister Souris, OLGR described the consultation process as a ‘best practice regulatory approach’.

Secondly, the suggestions made by the alcohol industry were adopted, without due consideration, in some cases verbatim. There is no correspondence that has OLGR saying to the industry that their suggestions are not reflected in the evidence, nor is there any objective assessment.

And finally, when the biased nature of the consultation was revealed, the NSW Government still released the alcohol industry drafted guidelines, even making false claims in their media release by referring to the Guidelines as “tough”, “new” and addressing bottle shops and supermarkets, the internet and social media – when they clearly don’t.

Now that this whole mess is out in the open we must think to ourselves – if this is the information that public servants are willing to document in emails, then imagine what is going on between politicians and the alcohol industry in phone conversations, at dinner tables, and in private meetings.

I suspect this is only the tip of the iceberg.

Photograph by Richard Busch

Caterina Giorgi

Caterina is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research & Education.


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