Researchers Warn: With Great Power Comes No Social Responsibility

Alcohol company initiatives to reduce alcohol harm actually serve to undermine public health.

Never trust a big bottle and a smile, say researchers Melissa Mialon and Jim McCambridge of the University of York. The pair recently published a review of 21 studies looking at the efforts Big Alcohol has made to paper over the harms that stem from its products. These efforts, collectively referred to as "corporate social responsibility" or CSR initiatives, turned out to be toothless when it comes to reducing alcohol harms. However, they were often extremely effective at product marketing and undercutting good public health policy.

CSR initiatives form the "friendly face" of many alcohol companies. The team identified several broad focuses, including the prevention of intoxicated driving, "responsible drinking" education, research support, and policy involvement. In each of these fields, the campaigns were inherently deceptive. For instance, research on industry intoxicated driving campaigns showed that "[less than] 1% of studied initiatives were based on any scientific evidence of effectiveness for reducing drink driving." Likewise, responsible drinking messages did not serve to curb over-consumption. Instead, they sent the message that the act of drinking is inherently normal and responsible.

Research and policy efforts were more nakedly intended to skew public health efforts away from evidence-based interventions. As an example, the paper identifies successful industry efforts to change health agency language away from "alcohol and other drugs" to "substance abuse". This simple language change takes alcohol from a substance of concern that is worth monitoring to one that is benign unless it is misused. CSRs also lend a veneer of responsibility to industry self-regulation, a consistently ineffective and two-faced strategy that nonetheless keeps the regulatory dogs at bay. Last, by focusing research and policy around individual misuse, research and policy CSRs place the responsibility for harm on the consumer. "This framing lies in direct conflict with a public health conceptualization of harmful drinking," the authors write, "and with the scientific evidence-base on how it may be reduced."

Social responsibility campaigns remain surprisingly understudied, a deficit that is quickly proving dangerous. As Big Alcohol's reach gets longer, the tools it uses to twist public understanding of alcohol get more robust. By exposing those tools, Mialon and McCambridge give the public health community a fighting chance to set it right.

(Mialon and McCambridge's paper, "Alcohol Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Initiative and Harmful Drinking: a Systematic Review," is available for free download from the European Journal of Public Health.)

READ MORE about the failures of industry self-regulation.

READ MORE about how Big Alcohol puts government researchers in its pocket.

READ MORE about the great lie of "responsible drinking".