Drink Tank

The alcohol industry and their merchants of doubt

Associate Professor Peter Miller (Deakin University) expands on his FactCheck on The Conversation – emphasising that the empirical research on alcohol-related violence far outweighs the anecdotal arguments put forth in a new study commissioned by Lion brewers.

If you shut the pubs and clubs in town two hours earlier you see a 30 to 40 per cent reduction in the number of assaults reported to police and the injuries turning up at the Emergency Department. If you stop recidivist drink drivers from drinking, there is a 10 per cent reduction in domestic violence cases reported to police state-wide.

On the other hand, supplying alcohol to an individual in an enclosed room will not result in them becoming violent (excluding violence to the self).

A large body of scientific literature, based on experimental and survey research, has described a strong and consistent relationship between alcohol and violence.

The relationship is complex and incorporates variables such as the dispositional anger of the perpetrator and victim, the setting in which the violence occurs, the level of intoxication of both parties and the other influences extant during the incident like peer approval for aggression and venue management culture towards anti-social behaviour.

Research commissioned by vested interests

Last week, alcohol beverage company Lion released a report on Australian nightlife and violence. The study was conducted by an English anthropologist Dr Anne Fox, working with a private research company, who concluded that “you can’t change a culture by simply changing drinking”.

In this report, the author selectively reviews the literature on various drinking cultures. On the basis of this selective review, Dr Fox then concludes that the relationship between alcohol and violence must be all about culture.

However, the evidence shows that we can make a meaningful difference to curbing a culture of violence and anti-social behaviour by changing drinking patterns.

Pointedly excluded from the review, is any mention of the massive body of independent research that demonstrates a lack of impact from so-called ‘culture change’ interventions such as social norms campaigns, generic education in schools and occasional mass media campaigns warning of alcohol-related harm.

The review ignores evidence showing that many assaults and hospital attendances can be prevented by simple measures, such as shutting licensed venues a few hours earlier. These measures cost the community very little compared to the massive current expenditure on police and emergency services across Australia.

Anecdotes and flawed arguments

Dr Fox makes anecdotal comparisons between countries such as Iceland, Spain and Italy. But put simply, Australia is not Italy. In Italy, when people drink, they drink far less on any single drinking occasion than the average Australian.

Dr Fox even relates a personal account about how, one night when she was at a bar, some young men started to get rowdy and the bartender gave them whiskey to calm them down. This might make an engaging story but it falls well short of scientific evidence.

A telling example of the lack of any sort of rigour in this report is in the section which discusses the impact of alcohol restrictions put in place in Newcastle. Fox acknowledges impressive results, but immediately suggests: “One reason for this may be that Newcastle police reported to me that they employed another strategy – one that has not been widely noted in scientific evaluations of the measures – a dramatic increase in bail compliance checks.”

She fails on many levels to have done the most basic of background research. The 2008 intervention did not include consequence policing, this was only implemented three years later in 2011. Similarly, Fox spends a great deal of energy discussing Newcastle police bail checking practices. But yet again, this was only introduced in 2011 and there is no evidence whatsoever that this process, which focused on burglary, impacted on violence.

Fox credits these policing strategies as influencing the culture of violence in Newcastle, but they were not even in effect until long after massive benefits were already seen from the alcohol reforms, such as restricted trading hours, which were implemented in 2008.

Global evidence on heavy drinking and violence

A rigorous body of experimental and observational evidence from around the world provides important insights into the real relationship between alcohol and violence. Just look at some of the coherent and persuasive global data.

Alcohol impairs thinking in a way that increases the likelihood of violence, making drinkers more likely to become both victims and perpetrators of violence when heavily intoxicated.

It is well-documented what happens to humans when they drink alcohol: reduced cognitive ability, disinhibition, inability to think of consequences, poor interpretation of social cues and obsessional thinking about single details.

These effects have been found in many studies and reliably replicated across many cultures. Our group and many others around the world have consistently demonstrated that heavy alcohol consumption increases the likelihood of violence.

Merchants of doubt

In a radio interview, Dr Fox was asked about her potential conflict of interest due to her connection with the liquor industry. In a rather standard response she pointed to the brewers not influencing her design or questions in any way and the journalist didn’t probe any further.

But the brewers probably knew what they were going to get.

Dr Fox and other family members have worked for the alcohol industry for a long time and have produced many similar documents over two decades for bodies including Diageo (global spirits producer), the International Centre for Alcohol Policies (global alcohol industry front body), the Portman Group (UK), the Amsterdam Group (Europe) and Drinkwise (Australia’s own alcohol industry funded body).

Oreskes and Conway describe this industry use of compliant academics and named them ‘merchants of doubt’.  Frequently used by the alcohol and tobacco industries to undermine the implementation of effective evidence-based interventions, merchants of doubt have proven an effective mechanism for enabling industry to direct focus onto slick, vague and likeable interventions which purport to change culture but which really, have never worked.

In 2010, Jenny White and Lisa Bero identified the key strategies used by industry to manipulate research and influence policy. One of them was the dissemination of favourable research directly to decision makers and the public, bypassing the normal channels of scientific discourse.

This new report by Dr Anne Fox funded by Lion breweries represents an explicit attempt by a vested interest to muddy the waters around an important issue and could be viewed as industry propaganda.

A version of this post first appeared on The Conversation as ‘FactCheck: can you change a violent drinking culture by changing how people drink?’ on 10 March 2015.

Peter Miller

Peter Miller (PhD) is a Professor of Violence prevention and Addiction Studies at the School of Psychology, Deakin University. His research interests include: alcohol-related violence in licensed venues, predictors of violence (including family and domestic violence), and the behaviour of vested interests. Peter has recently completed three of the largest studies ever conducted into licensed venues, comparing ten Australian cities over three years and talking to more than 22,000 patrons. He has published over 150 journal articles, books and peer-reviewed reports and is currently running five major projects focused on alcohol, drugs and violence nationally and internationally. He was also presented the Excellence in Research Award at the 2013 Australian National Drug and Alcohol Awards.

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