Friday, 21 June 2013

Alcohol: the Harmful versus Healthy Debate

I predict a lot of debate and attention to the idea that alcohol consumption is healthy or harmful. A key strategy for public health groups and other advocates of further alcohol controls (such as a minimum unit price of alcohol) is to reframe the debate - by challenging the idea that alcohol can be healthy, in particular circumstances, if consumed in small amounts. A key strategy for the alcohol industry is to maintain that image so that they can argue that alcohol policy should be targeted at problem drinkers only. One is a public health argument calling for general policy measures that influence the drinking habits of the population (e.g. raise prices, ban promotion). The other is an individualised argument calling for specific measures that deal with particular people (e.g. provide NHS services for alcoholism; change police powers to deal with anti-social behaviour). So, the *way we understand the evidence* is key battle ground in the policy debate. That is why you will find public health groups so bothered by the fact that the industry takes such an important part in the production, dissemination and interpretation of the evidence within government and when communicating with the public (e.g. is funded by the industry).

The obvious contrast, at least in the UK, is between alcohol and tobacco. In the latter, in the not-too-distant past, tobacco companies had similar amounts of joy in government and public circles: funding scientific research; arguing that the link between smoking (and then passive smoking) and ill health was not proven; and portraying the issue as one of individual choice based on their thoughts on the evidence and how they might way it up against their enjoyment of smoking. Key strides were made in tobacco control when the evidence on harm (from smoking and passive smoking) were ‘set in stone’ within government and stated unequivocally to the public. A good example is in health education before and after tobacco company influence. In the heyday of smoking (when men were men), the public health advice was overshadowed by tobacco advertising. It was also more likely to be harm reduction in nature – e.g. smoke pipes rather than cigarettes (not too long after companies introduced healthful (not really) filtertips and moved from high to low tar). Then, the health advice changed markedly to reflect a ‘no safe level’ message (as in the health advice suggesting that a move from high to low tar was like jumping from the 38th floor of a building rather than the 39th).
Now, in my day, as an undergraduate, we might try to interpret that sort of story in terms of early insights on Power by people like Bachrach and Baratz. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group wins and another loses (such as in a policy debate in government). Rather, groups may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes (perhaps to make sure that the debate does not get that far). If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. In this case, if the vast majority of people think that moderate alcohol consumption is healthy (or not harmful), they may not support control measures that affect the whole population. In fact, it is a measure of public health group success that it even *occurs* to us to consider the issue. Still, a key part of the minimum-unit-price debate is that it punishes responsible drinkers as much as problem drinkers. This will not be such a powerful argument if the vast majority of the public begins to believe that we are *all* problem drinkers (well, apart from me – I don’t touch the stuff).

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