There are many dimensions to the controversy around the shocking decision by cancer charity and fundraiser Dry July to partner with Australia’s biggest alcohol retailer Woolworths, but fundamentally it is unethical.
For an organisation that raises money for cancer victims to partner with Woolworths is dumb, given the commercial enterprise’s long history of selling harmful commodities and equally long record of seeking to offset tainted profits through questionable corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs.
But it’s worse than that. It is hurtful to those whose cancer can be linked to alcohol and a disturbing reminder to the friends and relatives of cancer sufferers. According to the Cancer Council of Australia more than 3,200 Australians develop alcohol-attributable cancer every year.
The truth is that alcohol is a class 1 carcinogen. In sharper focus, the alcohol in one bottle of wine has the equivalent cancer risk of smoking five cigarettes for men and 10 cigarettes for women. And up to one in five breast cancers are attributable to the consumption of alcohol.
No matter how you dress this up it’s a bad idea.
We wouldn’t tolerate this if Dry July was focused on smoking, and we shouldn’t allow it for alcohol.
This calculated ‘sobriety stunt’ was announced through a media release from Woolworths’ Beer Spirits and Wine (BWS) alcohol brand, with the headline ‘BWS Becomes Because We’re Sober for Dry July’.
BWS freely admits their aim is to promote low- and no-alcohol brands, push point-of-sale offers and special discounts for BWS customers participating in Dry July.
In hitching its BWS brand to Dry July, Woolworths secures brand awareness, sales of low- and no-alcohol brands by the world’s biggest alcohol producers, and in-store opportunities to expose more consumers to alcohol and sell more products. Not a bad day’s work.
The BWS media release says their staff are right behind the campaign “with team members going dry during July”, but the employees FARE spoke to were not aware of the partnership or a team commitment to abstain from alcohol.
The truth is this is a cynical marketing exercise to push the Woolworths-owned brand and exploit any opportunity to continue normalising alcohol. Because unless every BWS outlet shuts up shop for the month, this partnership will do nothing to reduce alcohol harm in Australia.
Calling out this marketing stunt is important because Woolworths is using this charity event to ride the wave of good corporate citizenship.
Having BWS cosy-up to this well-intended health campaign is just one of the ways in which Woolworths surreptitiously collects ‘social licence’ credits – all the while contributing to Australia’s burden of harm by being the biggest seller of toxic, addictive commodities (alcohol, junk food, tobacco and gambling).
BWS is part of a global alcohol industry that deliberately obscures the risk of alcohol consumption by associating alcohol with charitable causes such as cancer. In 2017, a study led by the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine analysed the accuracy of information about alcohol and cancer disseminated worldwide by the alcohol industry through ‘social aspects and public relations organisations’ such as the Australian variant DrinkWise.
Most alcohol industry-associated websites (24 of 26), including DrinkWise, were found to contain significant omissions and/or misrepresentations of the evidence about the association between alcohol and cancer.
The researchers concluded that “the alcohol industry appears to be engaged in the extensive misrepresentation of evidence about the alcohol‐related risk of cancer” and that “breast cancer and colorectal cancer appeared to be a particular focus for this misrepresentation”.
It would be naïve to think that Woolworths, Australia’s single largest retailer of alcohol, is one of the good guys and not part of this deliberate global strategy. The company sorely needs more ‘social licence’ credits after it was recently exposed for systemically pressuring staff working in Woolworths-owned pubs to ply pokies players with alcohol and food to keep them gambling longer.
Theses scams reveal to the country just how manipulative Woolworths is prepared to be to make a dollar.
Whichever way you look at Woolworths’ marketing approach – it flies in the face of its corporate mission statement of doing no harm in society.
Michael Thorn is the Chief Executive of the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and the sponsor of the Prevention 1st, a campaign to put preventive health on the political agenda.