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Dry July sobriety stunt is unethical

There are many dimensions to the controversy about the shocking decision by cancer charity and fundraiser Dry July to partner with Australia’s biggest alcohol retailer Woolworths, but fundamentally it is unethical.

For an organisation that raises money for cancer victims to partner with Woolworths is dumb, given the commercial enterprise’s long history of selling harmful commodities and an equally long record of seeking to offset its tainted profits through questionable corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs.

But it’s worse than that. It is hurtful to those whose cancer can be linked to alcohol and a disturbing reminder to the friends and relatives of cancer sufferers. According to the Cancer Council of Australia more than 3,200 Australians develop alcohol-attributable cancer every year.

The truth is that alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen. To bring that into even sharper focus, the alcohol in one bottle of wine has the equivalent cancer risk of smoking five cigarettes for men and ten cigarettes for women. And up to one in five breast cancers are attributable to the consumption of alcohol.

No matter how you dress this up it’s a bad idea.

We wouldn’t tolerate this if Dry July was focused on smoking, and we shouldn’t allow it for alcohol.

This calculated ‘sobriety stunt’ was announced through a media release from Woolworths’ Beer Spirits and Wine (BWS) alcohol brand carrying the headline ‘BWS Becomes Because We’re Sober for Dry July’.

The BWS media release freely admits the alcohol chain’s aim is to promote low- and no-alcohol brands, push point-of-sale offers and provide special discounts for BWS customers who participate in Dry July.

In hitching its BWS brand to Dry July, Woolworths secures for itself publicity for its brand, sales of questionably low- and no-alcohol products by the world’s biggest alcohol producers, and in-store opportunities to expose more consumers to alcohol and sell more products. Not a bad day’s work.

According to the BWS media release, BWS staff across the country are right behind the campaign “with team members going dry during July”, but the employees FARE spoke to were not aware of the partnership or a team commitment to abstain from alcohol.

The truth is this is a cynical marketing exercise by BWS designed to push the Woolworths-owned brand and exploit any opportunity to continue normalising alcohol. Because unless every BWS outlet shuts up shop for the month, this partnership will do nothing to reduce alcohol harm in Australia.

Calling out this marketing stunt is important because Woolworths is using this charity event to ride the wave of good corporate citizenship.

Having BWS cosy-up to this well-intended health campaign is just one of the ways in which Woolworths surreptitiously collects ‘social licence’ credits – all the while contributing to Australia’s burden of harm by being the biggest seller of toxic, addictive commodities (alcohol, junk food, tobacco and gambling). 

BWS is part of a global alcohol industry that deliberately obscures the risk of alcohol consumption by associating alcohol with charitable causes such as cancer. In 2017, a study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analysed the accuracy of information about alcohol and cancer disseminated worldwide by the alcohol industry through ‘social aspects and public relations organisations’ such as the Australian variant DrinkWise.

Most alcohol industry-associated websites (24 of 26), including DrinkWise, were found to contain significant omissions and/or misrepresentations of the evidence about the association between alcohol and cancer.

The researchers concluded that “the alcohol industry appears to be engaged in the extensive misrepresentation of evidence about the alcohol-related risk of cancer” and that “breast cancer and colorectal cancer appeared to be a particular focus for this misrepresentation”.

It would be naïve to think that Woolworths, Australia’s single largest retailer of alcohol, is one of the good guys and not part of this deliberate global strategy. The company sorely needs more ‘social licence’ credits after it was recently exposed for systemically pressuring staff working in Woolworths-owned pubs to ply pokies players with alcohol and food to keep them gambling longer.

Theses scams reveal to the country just how manipulative Woolworths is prepared to be to make a dollar.

Whichever way you look at Woolworths’ marketing approach – it flies in the face of its corporate mission statement of doing no harm in society.

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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