WHEN I worked on a medical magazine some years ago, it was an ongoing struggle deciding which of the hundreds of studies published each week deserved a place in the publication.

But there was one kind of research that always seemed to be greeted with enthusiasm by journalists and doctors alike: studies purporting to show the health benefits of a glass of red wine.

What is it about our relationship with alcohol?

Other mind-altering drugs spark hysterical responses from parents and policy-makers, yet the one that is arguably the most harmful drug of all gets off relatively lightly.

While there are some restrictions around its sale and promotion, alcohol is still advertised on outdoor billboards and free-to-air television and is glamourised in popular culture, including through product placements in films and music videos.

This is the drug that has been conservatively estimated to cost Australia more than $14 billion each year through its impact on health, road safety, the criminal justice system and productivity at work.

A study led by researchers from Deakin University suggests that our reluctance to tackle the problems caused by alcohol may result from more than just the fact that we, well, kind of like the stuff.

The various branches of the alcohol industry, from manufacturers to hospitality outlets and the advertisers who promote the products to us, together form a powerful lobby group opposing increased regulation.

They argue that such regulation is unnecessary, lacks evidence of effectiveness, would have unintended (though generally unspecified) negative effects and faces legal barriers to implementation.

Oh, and they also claim there’s no need to restrict advertising further because it doesn’t persuade people to drink anyway.

Which would obviously be why the industry spends over an estimated $100 million a year on alcohol ads.

If some of those antiregulation arguments sound familiar, it could be because the manufacturers and purveyors of alcohol appear to have picked up a well thumbed copy of the Big Tobacco songbook at a corporate fire sale.

A recent study led by researchers at Deakin University found strong similarities between arguments advanced by the alcohol industry and those put forward by their illustrious predecessors.

Like tobacco before it, the alcohol industry seeks to sow doubt about the science surrounding harmful effects of alcohol or the likely efficacy of regulation, the authors suggest.

“Attacking the credibility of public health advocates in submissions to government appears to be increasing,” they write.

“This appears to be an extension of the tactics employed by the likes of the tobacco industry which support movements such as ‘Junk science’ to undermine public and political confidence in science.”

Industry strategies like this put evidence-based health policy at risk, “because most researchers are not trained or prepared for such attacks, and most are unable to access policy-makers to the extent that corporate lobbyists can”.

The Deakin study was based on an analysis of industry submissions to the Australian National Preventive Health Agency’s (ANPHA) review of alcohol marketing regulations.

Sadly, the short-lived ANPHA (born 2010, died 2014) was abolished before it could deliver its final report on the subject, in a decision public health expert Professor Stephen Leeder said would prompt “’drinks all round’ for the alcohol industry”.

The ANPHA could have been “a counterweight to the big-time, burly avarice that drives health-destroying profiteering,” Professor Leeder wrote.

But it’s all just junk science, of course.

Declaration: Jane McCredie, a Sydney-based health and science writer, enjoys a glass of wine at the end of the day as much as anybody.

 

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