DRINKS giant Diageo has cut its ties with Scotland's most prominent alcohol awareness charity over controversial moves by the campaigning group to link the impact of alcohol to that of smoking.
The company, which makes Johnnie Walker, Bell's, Guinness and Smirnoff, has retaliated against Alcohol Focus Scotland after being frozen out of a conference next week which the group is co-hosting with anti-smoking lobbyist ASH.
Drinks industry bodies have not been invited to the event, to be attended by health secretary Nicola Sturgeon, where public health experts are expected to recommend that the zero- tolerance approach to smoking is taken to drink.
Edinburgh-based Diageo has written to AFS, arguing it is "misleading and unjustified" to suggest smoking and drinking should be tackled in the same way when there is evidence that responsible drinking causes no harm. Having given Alcohol Focus 140,000 in recent years, it has also decided to redirect funding to other alcohol education programmes.
AFS claim the drinks and tobacco industries regularly share tactics on how best to counter public health arguments and that new research suggests even small amounts of drink could be harmful.
Next week's summit will hear from public health experts such as Dr Laurence Gruer of NHS Health Scotland and Sir Ian Gilmore, former president of the Royal College of Physicians. Sir Ian backs a minimum unit price on alcohol and restrictions on the sale of drink.
Diageo said last night it had previously backed AFS in promoting responsible drinking but decided to sever ties in light of the forthcoming conference.
Mark Baird, head of corporate social responsibility, said: "We are very disappointed at the way our partnership with Alcohol Focus Scotland has come to an end. Over the past six years we have provided over 140,000 of financial support to the charity but more importantly we have strongly supported their policy objectives of promoting responsible drinking, reducing alcohol-related harm and changing Scotland's culture in relation to alcohol.
"We also believe it is misleading and unjustified to suggest alcohol and tobacco should be treated the same way with regard to public health policies and we strongly believe the recent moves by AFS to associate the two are a serious mistake which cannot go unchallenged.."
AFS said it had decided not to invite drinks firms to the summit because organisers did not want "vested interests" involved in a discussion on possible public health reforms.Chief executive Evelyn Gillan said: "Public health experts should be given proper deference and the alcohol industry are not experts on public health." She said new research - such as claims that a glass of wine a day can increase womens' exposure to breast cancer - had hardened up AFS's approach to drink.