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Global Fund falls victim as big alcohol’s PR plaything

It is equally as puzzling as it is disturbing; Heineken, the world’s second largest brewer has convinced the Global Fund to become its PR plaything.

On 26 January this year, during the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Dutch alcohol giant Heineken announced it had entered into a partnership with the Global Fund, a partnership organisation of governments, civil society, the private sector and people affected by AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria, committed to ending those epidemics.

The announcement has been loudly and swiftly condemned.

The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) is one of nearly 80 civil society organisations worldwide to endorse a joint open letter to the Global Fund, requesting that it reconsider its unprecedented partnership  with Heineken.

Endorsement of the Global Fund from an alcohol giant is ludicrous and irresponsible; the conflict of interest utterly undeniable. Alcohol is responsible for 3.3 million deaths globally every year. Alcohol control is included in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and recognised as one of World Health Organization’s ‘best buys’ for tackling non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

Alcohol is a proven risk factor in the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases.

How then, did Heineken convince the Global Fund to fall folly to such an obvious and unapologetic PR stunt?

The alcohol industry has made no secret of the importance of capitalising on emerging markets in Africa. The African continent has proved highly lucrative to Heineken for decades, with profits close to 50 per cent higher than the global average.[1]

With alcohol harm on the rise in many parts of Africa counter to global health and development targets committed to by governments pursuing alcohol harm reduction, a recent study[2] on the harmful use of alcohol in the area noted, “little seems to have been done to address the increasing use of alcohol, its associated burden and the new challenges that derive from the growing influence of the alcohol industry in Africa.”

My colleagues in the Alcohol Policy Alliances covering West, East and Southern Africa raise legitimate concern, then, over the alcohol industry’s conduct in African countries, with its historical attempts to pre-empt and undermine effective public health regulations. Rightfully so, they have called out the partnership between Heineken and the Global Fund as the latest example of “false philanthropy that will not benefit the African people”.

Earlier this month, Robert Marten and Ben Hawkins published an article in the Lancet, highlighting their concern about the disturbing new partnership:

The partnership with Heineken is antithetical to the Global Fund’s core interests. It is clearly an attempt by the alcohol industry to market partnerships with key global health actors to reframe themselves as part of the solution instead of the problem. This partnership shapes and distorts policy makers’ perceptions of the industry and deflects public attention away from regulation to protect public health and save lives.11 By cooperating with, supporting, and legitimising the alcohol industry, the Global Fund is endangering its own credibility and risks losing public trust.

Not surprising then that the joint open letter issued by IOGT International, NCD Alliance and the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance has attracted worldwide support.

What is surprising, aside from the deal in question, has been the Global Fund’s silence in the face of such vocal opposition.

For an organisation so universally admired and respected for its zero-tolerance policy on corruption and misappropriation, the same simply must apply for its relationship with an industry so acutely responsible for many global health issues and so hell-bent on misleading its consumers for its own corporate gain.

Maybe it is time for some of the Global Fund’s financial sponsors, including the Australian Government, to tell the Global Fund this is unacceptable.

[1] Hurst Publishers. Heineken in Africa: a multinational unleashed. http://www.hurstpublishers.com/book/heineken-in-africa. ((accessed Feb 14, 2018).)

[2] Ferreira-Borge, C, Parry, CD, and Babor, TF. Harmful use of alcohol: a shadow over sub-Saharan Africa in need of workable solutions. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2017; 14: e346

Michael Thorn

Michael was was Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) from January 2011 until November 2019

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