Lobbyland. The alcohol industry lobbies furiously in the pandemic.

Alcohol industry representatives have been furiously lobbying for concessions to the efforts by governments to restrict the movement of people – the primary tool in fighting the virus.

Lobbyland

The ease with which concessions favourable to the alcohol industry have been made is unsurprising given the relationship between the alcohol industry and the political establishment. This is a very powerful industry that has a long record of getting its way with governments.

These are dangerous times for the public’s health – and by that I don’t mean the ongoing threat of the coronavirus. History records that governments pressed to find ways to overcome economic calamities, whether man-made (GFC) or natural (COVID-19), are vulnerable to doing dumb things.

To illustrate, Prohibition in America was ended largely by the depression that followed the 1929 Wall Street crash. Many will say Prohibition ‘was an act of national recklessness’, but its imposition came after nearly a century of campaigning by a broad coalition of groups determined to counter the harm caused by alcohol.

Despite the undoubted problems with Prohibition – crime and corruption – the 18th Amendment had been in place for more than a decade, had been effective and remained popular in middle America when it was abolished. Even today there are counties in the US where the sale of alcohol is still banned.

It wasn’t until Franklin Roosevelt’s successful tilt at the US Presidency in 1932 that the 18th Amendment was repealed, and the reason was partially ‘jobs’. Does this sound familiar?

Large sections of the alcohol industry, with the brewers at the forefront, had persuaded Roosevelt that restoration of the industry would create jobs and generate much-needed tax revenue to help fund his New Deal. The temperance movement’s resistance to any relaxation of strict prohibition made it easier for the Democrats to repeal the 18th Amendment, but it wasn’t for governance or social justice reasons that Prohibition came to end. It was for economic reasons.

Today, the rhetoric of Australian governments in search of economic recovery policy action potentially exposes Australia to decisions that may threaten the public’s health. Unhealthy commodity industries – alcohol, gambling and junk food – are always urging the government to adopt policies friendly to their economic interests, and governments have been very accommodating.

And since the beginning of this government-induced recession we have seen how desperate governments are to do things that will stimulate the economy and protect jobs. This is understandable, given how badly some sectors have been hit. But the recession is also being used as cover to make policy changes that in other times would be subjected to greater scrutiny, and some including the alcohol industry are determined to take advantage.

Once it became clear that the coronavirus was turning into a global pandemic, it was predictable that alcohol consumption was likely to increase. The World Health Organization took longer than it should, but ultimately issued warnings in March 2020 to both consumers and governments about these risks.

It is unclear whether total alcohol consumption has increased or not, but it is clear that drinking at home has increased and that the harms caused by this have also increased.

State governments, under the cover of supporting the hospitality sector, have facilitated extraordinary relaxations of access to alcohol. Restaurants and bars have been given licence to sell and deliver packaged alcohol, bottle shops have expanded their home delivery services and online retailers have boosted their marketing in pursuit of sales.

These regulatory changes have been in the face of extensive media reports about family and domestic violence during the lockdowns, and similar extensive coverage of mental health. Both are issues where there are clear evidentiary links to alcohol consumption. As such, it is perverse that alcohol would be made easier to obtain during the pandemic.

Alcohol industry representatives have been furiously lobbying for concessions to the efforts by governments to restrict the movement of people – the primary tool in fighting the virus. The ease with which concessions favourable to the alcohol industry have been made is unsurprising given the relationship between the industry and the political establishment. This is a very powerful industry that has a long record of getting its way with governments.

However, in recent years there has been increased disquiet about the influence of corporations on democracies, including Australia’s. This has led researchers to study the nature and extent of this influence.

Melbourne University’s Professor Rob Moodie has been a long-time observer of the politics of health and described the breadth of this influence in his 2017 piece for The Conversation, The seven tactics unhealthy industries use to undermine public health policies.

In a 2011 Lancet paper Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects, Moodie and colleagues went further, outlining the strategies unhealthy commodity industries use. Moodie recorded the publishing of biased research findings, co-opting policymakers and health professionals, lobbying politicians and public officials to oppose public regulation, encouraging voters to oppose public health regulation, deflecting criticism, promoting actions on topics outside their areas of expertise, and offering alternative (invariably voluntary) approaches designed to have minimal impact, but that cause delay or deter policymakers from introducing regulation that will curtail the industries’ activities.

Lobbying is only one element and there is now a growing research base about the art of lobbying. British academics Ben Hawkins and Chris Holden in ‘Water dripping on stone’? Industry lobbying and UK alcohol policy say:

Businesses employ three main [lobbying] strategies: informational, financial and constituency building (Hillman and Hitt, 1999). The first seeks to influence policy by providing decision makers with pertinent information or specific technical expertise. Businesses conduct their own research, lobby policy makers, respond to consultations and appear as expert witnesses. Financial strategies rely on inducements such as campaign contributions to influence decisions makers’ positions.

However, it is possible to define financial strategies more broadly to include the delivery of public goods. Thus, the ability of corporations to deliver specific policy outcomes – for example through a system of self-regulation – may be considered a form of financial incentive to ministers and civil servants with limited resources. Finally, constituency-building strategies aim to build support for particular policy interventions among the broader public, who in turn express these views to government.

This lobbying is a continuum from soft (wining and dining) through to hard (threats and intimidation) power. The alcohol industry uses them all, and with its deep pockets can achieve its ends or least mitigate the effects of policies being put in place to cut the magnitude of alcohol harm.

To put the extent of lobbying into perspective, at the 2018 Public Health Association of Australia Health Prevention Conference Curtin University academic Professor Mike Daube reported the tobacco industry employed 20 direct and 14 indirect lobbyists, junk food 33 and 13, gambling 31 and 16, and ‘top of the pops’ alcohol with 43 and 23. These numbers obviously change from year to year and depend on the prevailing policy milieu, but it shows how heavily these industries invest in seeking to influence governments.

A recent shocking example of this influence was revealed in the ABC’s Background Briefing The Pub Test: why Australia can’t stop drinking (28 July 2019), which revealed how the alcohol industry in cahoots with Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt were attempting to weaken an already weak draft National Alcohol Strategy. The Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) analysed the before and after of the draft strategy and found extensive changes favourable to the industry. Only a rebellion led WA Health Minister Roger Cook mitigated the changes.

In its submission to the Senate Select Committee into the Political Influence of Donations in October 2017, FARE detailed examples of how the alcohol industry had successfully lobbied to achieve advantageous policy changes, including liberalisation of gaming laws in NSW to allow poker machines in pubs and changes to the Wine Equalisation Tax regime to favour grape growers and wine makers. The submission analysed the flow and timing of donations and showed strong correlations with eventual policy changes.

So – what to do?

The Grattan Institute’s 2018 report Who’s in the room? Access and influence in Australian politics shows how ‘Well-resourced interests – such as big business, unions and not-for-profits – use money, resources and relationships to influence policy to serve their interests, at times at the expense of the public interest’. The report did a commendable job in documenting and analysing this world of political influence and nicely described the problem and made useful suggestions to tip the balance back towards the public interest.

The Grattan report proposed improving transparency in policy making by requiring ministerial diaries to be published to enable public scrutiny of who ministers are meeting – and not meeting  – and encouraging them to seek out a wider range of views. The report also suggested linking the lobbyists’ register to ‘orange passes’ to identify commercial and in-house lobbyists with privileged behind-the- scenes access to Parliament House, and improving the visibility of political donations by lowering the donation disclosure thresholds, requiring political parties to aggregate multiple donations from the same donor and requiring more timely release of donations data.

The report also argued for strengthening accountability of policy makers to clarify conflicts of interest codes to build public confidence that people are complying with them and establish a federal anti-corruption body to investigate potential misconduct or corruption.

The report proposed capping political advertising expenditure by political parties and third parties during election campaigns, to reduce the imbalance between groups with different means to broadcast political views so limit the reliance of major political parties on individual donors.

Another suggestion was to boost countervailing voices through more inclusive policy review processes, proposing advocacy for under-represented groups to give politicians and public officials better information with which to adjudicate the public interest. To which I would add seeding these organisations with public funds to ensure they can be effective.

In my review of Grattan’s report I proposed standing commissions of inquiry, with Royal Commission-like powers, to combat the problems of regulatory capture and to counter corporate influence. I wrote that greater government transparency was also needed. FOI laws must function as intended and those who (public servants) hinder their operation brought to book.

Finally, vested interests should be excluded from public policymaking. That means coal miners should not be involved in developing climate change policy and, and as the World Health Organization recommends, the alcohol industry should not be involved in the making of alcohol policy.

Who knows how or when we will emerge from this COVID-19 crisis. But one thing is clear – public health is extremely vulnerable to the politics of economic recovery and the activities of vested interests such as the alcohol industry must be under constant scrutiny.

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Michael Thorn is a public health consultant and adviser to WHO Europe and was Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Policy and Research from 2011 to 2019.

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