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Scepticism towards DrinkWise is well founded

Scepticism from the public health community towards alcohol industry-funded group DrinkWise Australia is not new.

Since DrinkWise was established in 2005, respected researchers and alcohol policy experts have questioned the efficacy of its approach, cautioned against engagement with DrinkWise, and criticised the industry’s use of DrinkWise to create an impression of social responsibility while opposing effective policy measures.

Evidence continues to build in support of this position. Two recently published papers investigated different aspects of DrinkWise’s work from different disciplines, yet drew consistent conclusions.

Research led by Professor Simone Pettigrew looked at how 18-21 year old drinkers interpreted DrinkWise’s ‘How to Drink Properly’ campaign. The responsible drinking advertisement is a black and white animation where a James Bond-style character talks the audience through different stages of drinking, including the “realm of drinking excellence”. The research used a ‘reverse engineering’ approach to investigate how young drinkers related to the ad to uncover the probable strategic intent behind the campaign’s development.

Some participants identified with the suave spokesperson, but were generally unable to identify with the characters depicted as experiencing problems from excessive drinking. No tangible definition of ‘responsible drinking’, or mention of the Australian guidelines to reduce health risks from drinking alcohol, was presented. The ad appeared to reinforce existing social norms about heavy drinking. Few participants felt a need to alter their own drinking behaviours.

Given that these issues should have been apparent during the campaign’s development, Pettigrew and colleagues (myself included) concluded that it “seems likely that the alcohol industry is intentionally producing responsible drinking campaigns that are failing to achieve meaningful behavioural change among members of the target audience, and may in fact be harmful by obscuring perceptions of appropriate intake levels and reinforcing current drinking behaviours”.

Hmmm… not good DrinkWise.

In a further blow to DrinkWise’s remaining credibility, Pietracatella and Brady analysed DrinkWise media releases from a critical public relations perspective. Ultimately, they found that “DrinkWise media relations functions as indirect lobbying to policymakers and elites on behalf of alcohol industry interests” and “builds an industry-friendly agenda in opposition to that of public health”.

Media release messages frequently pointed to parents as the most important influence on their children’s drinking. They found DrinkWise promoted its version of an education-based social change program, including the promotion of moderation, as a key strategy for changing the culture around alcohol.

DrinkWise framed alcohol issues in such a way as to justify its own social marketing campaigns and positioned its own role as to supply resources, including responsible drinking ads. The researchers concluded that, “Drinkwise media releases promote the collective agenda of the alcohol industry under the guise of social marketing, undertaken in the name of public interest”.

Given DrinkWise’s purported focus on education and social marketing, it is head-scratching as to why DrinkWise is listed as a client on seven government registers of lobbyists around the country (the Australian Government register as well as the Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia and Tasmania registers).

Across these jurisdictions, GRACosway Pty Ltd is registered as a lobbyist for DrinkWise, which is described on the GRACosway website as an “independent industry organisation promoting a healthy and safe drinking culture”.

Apart from the equally head-scratching reason as to how Drinkwise can be referred to as “independent”, when six of the 13 members of the Board of Directors represent the alcohol industry and DrinkWise is funded by “voluntary industry contributions across the alcohol sector” – why would DrinkWise need third party lobbyists to lobby seven governments across Australia?

I can make a reasonable guess at what they’re not lobbying for.

Given what we know about DrinkWise and other social aspects public relations organisations, it seems scepticism and caution towards DrinkWise is well founded.

Julia Stafford

Julia Stafford is the Alcohol Program Manager at Cancer Council Western Australia.

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