Drink Free Days campaign under fire

12th September, 2018 by Melita Kiely

Two senior advisers to the UK government’s public health agency have threatened to quit due to a new drink awareness campaign between Public Health England and Drinkaware.

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Two advisers have threatened to quit their roles with Public Health England due to its partnership with Drinkaware

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore and professor John Britton, co-chairs of the alcohol leadership and tobacco control implementation boards of Public Health England, said their concerns about the partnership have been ignored and that they would be forced to quit their roles as co-chairmen if the agreement between Public Health England and Drinkaware was not terminated.

Public Health England and alcohol education charity Drinkaware launched the Drink Free Days campaign on Monday (10 September), designed to encourage consumers – particularly middle-aged people – to take more drink-free days to reduce the risk of alcohol-related ailments.

However, in an open letter to The Times newspaper this week, Gilmore, who is also chairman of the Alcohol Health Alliance, and Britton said the campaign “undermined” their roles at Public Health England.

The pair’s issues lie predominantly with the “alcohol industry-funded organisation Drinkaware”, and they wrote that the partnership with Public Health England “marks a major shift in PHE policy in its willingness to share a public platform with the alcohol industry”.

Drinkaware is “funded largely by voluntary and unrestricted donations from UK alcohol producers, retailers and supermarkets”, according to the organisation’s website.

‘Serious concerns’

In a comment released by the Alcohol Health Alliance, Gilmore said: “While people have a right to know about the harms caused by alcohol, we have serious concerns about this campaign itself and the fact that it represents the beginning of a relationship between the alcohol industry and Public Health England.

“We strongly believe that the alcohol industry should not have a role in providing health information to the general public. The evidence tells us their campaigns are more likely to improve the reputation of global alcohol corporations than improve the health of the nation.

“The alcohol industry makes two-thirds of its revenue from people who drink at risky levels and the fact that it spends hundreds of millions in promoting its products every year, while investing just over £1m in this campaign, shows its true priorities.

“If it was serious about reducing alcohol harm it would put the low-risk guidelines and health warning labels on its products, and refrain from opposing measures such as minimum unit price, which would be most effective in reducing alcohol harm.

“In promoting the so-called health benefits of its products and obstructing public policies designed to save lives it is behaving like the tobacco industry.

“It is our view that PHE is making a serious mistake in partnering with the alcohol industry. Instead, we urge them to work with the wider public health community and others in persuading the government to take a more evidence-based approach to tackling alcohol harm.”

In response to the Gilmore and Britton’s arguements, Sir Leigh Lewis, chair of the Drinkaware Trust, asserted that the charity “does not speak on behalf of the alcohol industry”.

“It is saddening to see that widely refuted false allegations about our independence are being used to undermine serious and genuine attempts to help people moderate their drinking and improve knowledge about the long-term health risks,” Lewis said.

“Both Public Health England and Drinkaware are committed to helping people make informed choices about alcohol and we are collaborating on a campaign which we hope will really make a difference.”

Public Health England is also standing by the Drink Free Days partnership with Drinkaware.

Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at Public Health England, said: “Our duty is to protect and improve public health. Reducing harm from alcohol requires action not inaction.

“This new campaign’s advice on drink-free days is easily understandable, pragmatic and sensible. PHE is steadfast in its ambition to reduce the harms that drinking too much alcohol can cause and we will work together with partners that speak to the evidence and share the same commitment.”

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