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The health fascists’ war on drinking falters

The preventative health lobby deny they’ve got it in for the alcohol industry, says Christian Kerr

3 February 2010

12:00 AM

3 February 2010

12:00 AM

The preventative health lobby deny they’ve got it in for the alcohol industry, says Christian Kerr

Alcohol is in the news. Australia, we are told, is in the clutches of a binge drinking epidemic. But it may be the health fascists who have the biggest hangovers as parliament resumes.

Along with tobacco and obesity, alcohol is one of the key targets of the government’s Preventive Health Agency.

The preventative health taskforce report that inspired the agency called for a string of new measures to save us from ourselves, including a ban on alcohol sponsorship of sporting and cultural events. It also recommended phasing out alcohol advertising from live sport broadcasts.

Legislation to establish the agency currently sits stranded in the Senate. The opposition has said it will not back the bill until the government responds to the preventative health taskforce report released last September.

‘We are in favour of effective preventative health,’ opposition health spokesman Peter Dutton claims. ‘We are just not in favour of more health bureaucrats without a purpose.’

But there are those who are convinced the agency — and the members of the taskforce that inspired its creation — has a very clear purpose and agenda indeed.

‘What they are trying to do is de-legitimise the alcohol industry,’ one source in the know insists. ‘They are deliberately replicating the tobacco campaign.’

The comments do not come from the brewers, the distillers or the wine industry. Instead, they come from someone with high-level experience in government — and impeccable Labor credentials.

They come at a time when, despite all the talk of epidemics, OECD health data indicates our national alcohol consumption is where it was in the first part of the 1960s. The figures suggest Australia’s drinking hit a peak in the middle of the Seventies, dropped down over the Eighties and, while the figures fluctuate from year to year, has remained relatively static for close to two decades.

The comments suggest something is going on. The brewers are afraid. Their peak body, the Brewers Association of Australia and New Zealand, produced a strongly-worded submission in response to the preventative health taskforce draft report.

‘The proposed agency seeks to reduce alcohol consumption indiscriminately, rather than target high-risk drinking behaviour,’ it insists.

The brewers accuse the taskforce members of formulating a strategy that will create ‘policy-based evidence, rather than evidence-based policy’.

Extraordinarily, the document finishes with an attachment headed ‘All roads lead to Room,’ a sniper shot aimed straight at Professor Robin Room, the head of the Alcohol Education and Rehabilitation Foundation Centre for Alcohol Policy at the Turning Point Alcohol and Drug Centre in Melbourne’s Fitzroy.

The attachment outlines what the brewers see as Room’s philosophical influence on the preventative health taskforce members and his direct contribution to their draft strategy. It complains about ‘the rejection of brewers or industry as legitimate stakeholders’ in tackling problem drinking.

‘We are not suggesting that Professor Room or any other academic is not entitled to strong views,’ the brewers say. ‘We are simply trying to say that we are justly entitled to look to government to moderate the debate.’

The association’s executive director, Stephen Swift, did not respond to a string of calls. A source from an associated field says he prefers to work in other ways,

But the Labor figure has a view on Room. ‘He’s a bad bugger,’ this individual claims. ‘There is a group of people who meet regularly and Robin Room provides a lot of the intellectual grunt for it.’

The source names a range of public health figures. ‘Mike Daube from Western Australia, Simon Chapman and Robin Room and Todd Harper are all part of it. They’re not a formal group but they meet regularly and communicate regularly.

‘Their latest target is alcohol, with their secondary target obesity. What they’re doing, partly under Robin Room’s influence and to a lesser extent Simon Chapman’s, is replicating the tobacco campaign. They’re trying to do so in a way to keep the alcohol industry out of the debate by trying to say anything that the alcohol industry touches is corrupt.’

Room calls the Brewers Association comments ‘extraordinary’. He adds: ‘They’ve substantially overstated my influence.’

But he also fires back a shot of his own. ‘Public health people and public health interests should have the right to have their own discussions. The brewers don’t invite people to their own table.

‘One of the problems when you have everyone at the table is that we operate in fairly consensual cultures where effectively people get a veto by being at the table.’

Mike Daube, professor of health policy at Curtin University of Technology, president of the Public Health Association of Australia and the deputy chair of the preventative health taskforce, called the comments ‘funny’.

‘There’s nothing new in public health people being worried about alcohol,’ he said. ‘What’s different is that the drinks industry is clearly prepping itself up. The drinks industry is getting active. I think our very measured proposals are having an impact.’

Simon Chapman, professor of public health at the University of Sydney and a sociologist with a PhD on the semiotics of cigarette advertising, dismisses the idea of ‘some kind of intricately connected Masonic plot’.

But he also draws a direct parallel between alcohol and tobacco promotion. ‘The Bundy Bear is one that I have mentioned a few times. The obvious parallels are with Joe Camel [a controversial cartoon character used to promote Camel cigarettes in the Eighties and the Nineties] as a sort of cute child-friendly kind of thing, Bundy Bear, a kind of Humphrey Bear, Paddington Bear. I just think these need to be on the table in public debate.’

The final member of the group, Todd Harper, head of the Victorian government health promotion body VicHealth, did just the same in a presentation at the Australian Drug Foundation’s Thinking Drinking conference last August.

Harper’s presentation examined the tactics used by tobacco companies to fight controls on their industry before a slide appeared with bright yellow letters that read: ‘Does that sound like any alcohol industry groups that you know of?’

He offered ‘a tick for the preventative health taskforce proposals on alcohol’.

Social researcher Neer Korn says Australians ‘just don’t want outsiders to interfere, particularly government or corporations, in their own private lives’. They also know that tobacco and alcohol — let alone sweet or fatty foods — are not one and the same.

Tony Abbott has little time for PC sensibilities. This is an election year. And something small but significant may have happened just after Christmas.

On the second day of the Boxing Day test, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd strode onto the ground of the MCG with sports minister Kate Ellis — and senior managers from the Fosters Group and Diageo Australia. They were there to launch the ‘Know when to declare’, a responsible drinking campaign backed by Cricket Australia, the Nine Network and the two alcohol giants.

The official line from a government spokeswoman is that the preventative health taskforce’s recommendations are being considered, but the Prime Minister’s presence at the launch has been keenly noted in the alcohol industry.

Nobody is going on the record yet, but it has been seen as a sign that the industry&
#8217;s involvement with sports will continue — and that the influence of the health fascists may have peaked and now be on the wane.

Christian Kerr is a political reporter with the Australian.

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