Alcohol industry social responsibility schemes strengthen their own commercial interests while failing to reduce harmful alcohol use, according to a worldwide study led by the University of Connecticut. The study examined industry actions on social responsibility and found that almost all of them – 97% – lacked scientific support, while alcohol producers benefited from brand exposure and the appearance of being able to manage risk and achieve strategic goals.
Far from confirming industry claims that they can “do good” with corporate campaigns, the findings suggest that the public health benefits are likely to be minimal. In fact, 11% of the industry actions had the potential for doing harm.
“The corporate social responsibility activities of alcohol producers conceal a clear conflict of interest in improving public health, as a truly effective approach to tackling alcohol harm will only hurt their bottom line,” says lead author Professor Thomas Babor, head of the department of community medicine and health care at UConn Health. “Governments, however, have a clear duty to put public health first, and must do so without industry interference,” Babor adds.
The researchers based their study on more than 3,500 efforts by the alcohol industry to reduce harmful alcohol use. Efforts were assessed based on benefits to the industry in terms of their potential for marketing, impact on regulatory policy, and strategy. And the public health impact of the efforts was assessed in terms of effectiveness and potential for harm.
“The alcohol industry is increasingly positioning itself as part of the solution in reducing harmful drinking,” says Katherine Robaina, UConn researcher and study author. “This paper shows the alcohol industry’s ‘contributions’ are not based on science, and, in fact, may be used as a form of stakeholder marketing around the globe.”
In addition to a widespread lack of scientific rigor behind the actions, only a quarter conformed to the recommended World Health Organisation target areas for global action to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.
The industry’s actions were found to have been conducted disproportionately in regions with high-income countries – Europe and North America – compared to regions such as Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Researchers were not able to estimate the costs to the industry of the actions to determine whether they represented significant charitable contributions or were merely activities that, in some cases, they would have been required to conduct anyway.
Other researchers in the study include Katherine Brown, Institute of Alcohol Studies in London; Jonathan Noel, Johnson and Wales University; Mariana Cremonte and Raquel Peltzer, Universidad Nacional de Mar del Plata in Argentina; Daniela Pantani, Universidade Federal de Sao Paulo in Brazil; and Ilana Pinsky, Columbia University.
The aims of this study were to: (1) describe alcohol industry corporate social responsibility (CSR) actions conducted across six global geographic regions; (2) identify the benefits accruing to the industry (‘doing well’); and (3) estimate the public health impact of the actions (‘doing good’).
Setting: Actions from six global geographic regions
Participants: A web-based compendium of 3551 industry actions, representing the efforts of the alcohol industry to reduce harmful alcohol use, was issued in 2012. The compendium consisted of short descriptions of each action, plus other information about the sponsorship, content and evaluation of the activities. Public health professionals (n=19) rated a sample (n=1046) of the actions using a reliable content rating procedure.
Outcome measures: WHO Global strategy target area, estimated population reach, risk of harm, advertising potential, policy impact potential and other aspects of the activity.
Results: The industry actions were conducted disproportionately in regions with high-income countries (Europe and North America), with lower proportions in Latin America, Africa and Asia. Only 27% conformed to recommended WHO target areas for global action to reduce the harmful use of alcohol. The overwhelming majority (96.8%) of industry actions lacked scientific support (p<0.01) and 11.0% had the potential for doing harm. The benefits accruing to the industry (‘doing well’) included brand marketing and the use of CSR to manage risk and achieve strategic goals.
Conclusion: Alcohol industry CSR activities are unlikely to reduce harmful alcohol use but they do provide commercial strategic advantage while at the same time appearing to have a public health purpose.
Thomas F Babor, Katherine Robaina, Katherine Brown, Jonathan Noel, Mariana Cremonte, Daniela Pantani, Raquel I Peltzer, Ilana Pinsk