As the deadline for responding to the Scottish Government’s consultation on the advertising and promotion of alcohol nears, it’s a timely moment to reflect on how industry actors have responded to similar consultations in the past in an effort to influence public health policy.
SPECTRUM researchers have investigated the tactics and arguments used across unhealthy commodity industries to influence public health policymaking in this way, providing evidence and insight into how the alcohol industry might respond to the current consultation.
Why does it matter?
Governments, parliamentary committees and international organisations - such as the World Health Organization (WHO) - use consultations to collate the views of the public, organisations and businesses on proposed policy changes.
The current Scottish Government consultation asks a range of questions about different aspects of alcohol advertising and promotion and how they might be regulated in future, recognising that alcohol marketing is currently ingrained into our daily lives in multiple ways.
The analyses of responses to the consultation will have important policy and public health implications for Scotland and further afield. The findings will provide a contemporary assessment of the evidence in favour and against introducing restrictions, which may be cited by those keen to replicate, or oppose, the same package of controls elsewhere.
Why do industry actors respond?
Industry players recognise that consultations offer an important avenue through which to influence policy as part of their corporate political activities1.
Industry bodies, such as the Scottish Alcohol Industry Partnership, encourage responses arguing against tighter public health controls by providing templates and supporting documents2. Industry actors and organisations also issue statements and press releases, contributing to media coverage and publicising their concerns3, helping to further pro-industry messages, encourage more submissions and influence other’s responses.
Selective use of evidence
Research has revealed that unhealthy commodity industry responses draw on a limited and sometimes low-quality evidence base to back up their claims. For example, analysis of the factual claims made within submissions to WHO consultations by ultra-processed food organisations found that only about half were backed up by evidence and two-thirds of the cited pieces of evidence were industry-funded or linked4. Very few (5%) of claims drew on peer-reviewed, independent research but these claims failed to accurately represent the source.
What arguments do they use?
Analysis of industry responses to tobacco, alcohol and food consultations reveals the repetition of similar narratives. These include claims about the i) economic harms of strengthened public health controls5; ii) the cultural and/or social significance of their products in everyday life; iii) the importance of consumer choice6 and iv) positioning themselves as “responsible partners” in the policy making process7,8.
For example, industry responses to the London Food Strategy consultation were found to underplay potential policy benefits through warning of negative economic consequences and undermining the evidence on which the proposals were based9. Instead, they argued for a partnership approach.
Elsewhere, private sector replies to the WHO’s consultation on its global strategy to reduce harmful alcohol use were found to frame the problem as one of individual responsibility that requires targeted controls10, despite evidence for the effectiveness and cost-effectiveness of population-level measures in reducing alcohol related harms11.
Effective evidence-based public health responses
It’s vital that governments are aware of industry strategies to influence public health policy through the consultation process. Responses led by the public health community can help to address this by providing evidence-based counter arguments, as well as helping to offset the volume of industry-associated submissions.
Public health responses can challenge commonly used industry framings by illustrating that they are not backed by evidence. This might be through highlighting the harmful externalities of industry activities omitted from narrowly focused or short-term economic arguments.
Meanwhile, public health responses can draw on the growing evidence base to back-up their claims. Where there are gaps in evidence, this may be due to industry influence in controlling the funding of research, shaping how problems are perceived and which interventions are selected for evaluation (for example, the favouring of research into ‘responsible’ consumption over structural controls10). Drawing attention to this can help counter industry positions and support the development of policies to protect public health.