MICHAEL THORN. Countering vested interests A REPOST

Dec 30, 2017

That corporations wield enormous power is not news. That this power is wielded to benefit the corporation and its agents is not news either. Neither is seeking to counter the power of these corporations by public interest organisations, like the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE).

However, in today’s dizzying post-truth world, corporations increasing stoop to using fake news and alternative facts to ward off public scrutiny and constraints on their activities.

FARE’s 2017 Annual Alcohol Poll provided a recent and unexpected example of a vested interest’s recourse to ‘trumpisms’.

The widely reported and respected poll showed the continuing high levels of public concern about alcohol’s impact on our society (Majority believe Australia has a problem with excess drinking), and the support for strong government action to stop this harm.

The newly-formed alcohol industry front organisation, Alcohol Beverages Australia, and its Orwellian spokesman, Fergus Taylor, have become energetic users of the Trump methodology.

Taylor said of the poll, conducted by one of Australia’s leading community attitudes survey organisations, Galaxy Research, that the findings ‘should be recognised for what they are: lacking in evidence.’ There were expressions of faux outrage and implications ‘the research is faulty’!

This is a classic ‘merchant of doubt’ tactic pioneered by the tobacco industry; tactics brilliantly explained in Tom Harford’s Financial Times’ The problem with facts. Harford carefully traced the history of Big Tobacco’s development of its strategy to resist moves to stop government regulation of the tobacco industry, including by casting doubt on legitimate research.

For a wonderful illustration of how successful these industry tactics can be we need look no further than an article by Fairfax’s Economics Editor Peter Martin, who  recently wrote of the wine industry’s unprecedented success in resisting countless review recommendations to equitably tax harm-causing cheap bulk wine.

Combatting misinformation is no easy task, especially today. It takes effort and diligence, but it can be done.

First, the tactics of addictive industries, like the alcohol industry, need to be understood. Harford explores these, but a seminal 2011 Lancet paper by Melbourne University’s Professor Rob Moodie and colleagues entitled Profits and pandemics: prevention of harmful effects went further, outlining the strategies these 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 their activity.

However, as our poll shows, the public is deeply cynical about these industries and their claims. The problem is that the claims create a credible narrative to which politicians and decision-makers are particularly vulnerable. The biased research and the false claims become a cover and an excuse for inaction.

Countering the influence of these vested interests is both necessary and possible.

In short, it is about shining a light in dark places and urging greater transparency in the business of government: remembering that influence is brought to bear at all levels of government – from senior ministers to low-ranked public servants. Testimony to this is the now infamous alcohol industry-drafted alcohol promotions guidelines exposed by NSW MLC the late John Kaye in 2013.

Tobacco control expert, Professor Mike Daube, addressed how to do this in his Leavell Lecture, Democracy is not a spectator sport: 11 commandments for public health advocacy at the World Congress on Public Health last month. Daube advocated five approaches for holding addictive industries accountable: (1) expose, (2) identify legal options, (3) personalise the problem, (4) make them pay for the consequences of their activities and (5) make use of International Treaties.

FARE adopted defending the public interest as one of its core functions some years ago, and has used freedom of information requests, commissioning research, conducting campaigns, and monitoring and calling out false industry claims when opportunities arise.

Others, too, can contribute to these efforts.

A terrific recent example was Dr Becky Freeman’s investigation, which showed Australian governments may have breached international tobacco control conventions for failing to publish submissions from powerful alcohol and tobacco companies to a drug policy review. Freeman says Australia is bound by Article 5.3 of the World Health Organization Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which requires governments to protect tobacco control measures from interference from “commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry” (Failure to publish tobacco and alcohol submissions to drug policy review ‘alarming’, say experts, The Guardian, 27 April 2017).

Another example is Deakin University’s corporate political activity research project Industry Insight, led by Professor Peter Miller. This research project is researching and documenting industry strategies to influence public health policies. This includes lobbying, use of political donations to buy influence, and the wonderfully-termed ‘astro-turfing’ or the establishment of fake community-based organisations.

The business corporation has political power and it is not afraid to use it, and the exercise of this corporate influence across many domains is extraordinary and arguably becoming worse.

The net effect of this influence is taxes are avoided, regulatory controls are resisted and frequently ignored, and democratic processes threatened.

Many concerns arise from the behaviour of corporations, especially by addictive industries like the alcohol industry.

Professor Stephen Wilks in his 2013 book The political power of the business corporation explores some institutional challenges and possible reforms which may redress the present imbalance between these corporations and society. He argues for new governance models to deal with the likes of ‘crony capitalism’ and the too close association of political elites and corporate power.

However, this is unlikely to alter the behaviour of addictive industries set on selling more product and accumulating even more profits, and thus additional protections are required to protect public health, including the absolute exclusion of these corporate actors from the policy process as prescribed by the World Health Organization.

But it will also require persistent effort by public health interests, in the vein of Daube’s prescription, and an ongoing investment in identifying and exposing the nefarious activities of these industries.

Michael Thorn is Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education 

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