Destroying our health is big business

Alcohol has never been more heavily promoted than it is today. Picture: Colin Hattersley
Alcohol has never been more heavily promoted than it is today. Picture: Colin Hattersley
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We should put the interests of the public before those of the companies who sell us drink, cigarettes and bad food, says Evelyn Gillan

Figures released by the BBC reveal that, in 2012-13, 300 children aged 11 or under were admitted to A&E units across the UK after drinking too much. A total of 6,500 under-18s ended up in hospital as a result of alcohol. Of the five health boards with the highest number of under-18s admissions, three of them were in Scotland.

Processed food industry undermines public health policies. Picture: Getty

Processed food industry undermines public health policies. Picture: Getty

We are right to be concerned about this. Children and young people are particularly vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol. The earlier teenagers start drinking and getting drunk, the greater their risk of alcohol dependence later in life.

But should we really be surprised that primary school children across the country are ending up drunk in hospital? Alcohol has never been more affordable, more available or more heavily promoted than it is today. Liberalisation and deregulation of alcohol sales have been the logical outcomes of market-orientated economic policies that have dominated political discourse over the last few decades.

Normalisation of excessive drinking

The result is that our children grow up in a physical and social environment that is excessively pro-alcohol. We want young people to show restraint in their own drinking yet tolerate an environment that promotes both access and excess. We lambast parents for their irresponsible behaviour but stay silent on the subject of the irresponsible pricing and promotion policies of the big alcohol producers and retailers. Is it not time that we acknowledged the culpability of corporate interests in both creating and sustaining the normalisation of excessive drinking in our society?

Health scientists are increasingly drawing attention to an inconvenient truth. Transnational corporations are now major drivers of global epidemics of ill health and death. We hear from doctors in India that the increasing production, distribution and promotion of alcohol in their country has led to alcohol-related harm becoming a major public health concern. At the same time, we learn that Diageo has acquired a majority share in India’s United Spirits.

Tobacco companies spend millions opposing governments around the world who are seeking to introduce plain packaging, whilst Coca-Cola runs an advertising campaign claiming that “All calories count, no matter where they come from”. Coca-Cola’s calories come from sugar: ten teaspoons in a single can containing no other nutrients. Coca-Cola seeks to position itself as part of the solution to obesity despite the fact that nutrition experts regard food and beverage companies as having caused the obesity epidemic in the first place.

Scientists are beginning to document how the alcohol, ultra-processed food and drink industries use similar strategies to the tobacco industry to undermine effective public health policies and present themselves as part of the solution. This week, academics from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine visited Edinburgh to present the findings of a study which examined submissions made by the alcohol industry to the Scottish Government’s alcohol consultation in 2008. The authors concluded that whilst there was a broad consensus internationally among alcohol scientists that the most effective measures to reduce alcohol harm were to raise prices, control availability and restrict marketing, the alcohol industry “ignored, misrepresented or otherwise sought to undermine the content of the international evidence base on effective policies in order to influence policy”.

Fortunately these tactics did not prevent our MSPs from approving legislation to implement minimum unit pricing. However, we are now faced with a legal challenge from the alcohol industry as they employ the same delaying tactics that were used for decades by the tobacco industry.

We cannot afford not to take action

In Scotland, we can be proud of the leadership that our country has shown in the UK to protect the public interest when it comes to implementing policies to address health harm. Scotland was the first country to ban smoking in public places and the measure was shown to save lives within the first year. We can expect to see similar positive health outcomes when minimum pricing is introduced.

The truth is that we cannot afford not to take action, given that alcohol harm is costing us £3.6 billion, tobacco harm £1.1bn and obesity up to £1.4bn every year.

Protecting people from health and social harm is a vital role for any government, so the influence that the alcohol, tobacco and food industries have over public health policy should be of concern to us all. Scotland has an important leadership role in the global community and can demonstrate through action that, when it comes to reducing harm, the public interest should take precedence over the business interests of transnational corporations.

• Dr Evelyn Gillan is chief executive of Alcohol Focus Scotland

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