The launch of a new body representing alcohol industry interests in New Zealand is not surprising, but the choice of a relatively high profile Chief Executive (ex Porirua mayor, Nick Leggett) to head up the Alcohol Beverages Council signifies the industry’s increased awareness of their need to protect their interests. Greater recognition of the harm alcohol does, both to the drinker and to those in the family around them, in the context of a new central government which seems prepared to take action to enhance health and wellbeing raises alarm bells for the producers and retailers of alcohol. New Zealand is a very small portion of the market for the transnational corporations which produce and market our iconic alcohol brands, but a significant shift in alcohol policy could have unwanted contagion impacts around the world. Scotland’s achievement of minimum unit price, after five years of industry opposition, has provided a clear example of such contagion.
The inaugural Breakfast television interview with Nick Leggett1 illustrated the alcohol industry messaging common globally: “the vast majority of (drinkers) do so really responsibly and the alcohol industry is keen on promoting sensible drinking and education …”. Mr Leggett’s ‘responsible drinkers’ are to be protected from regulation. He “wants to make sure availability is maintained” and expresses concern over Scotland’s introduction of minimum pricing, claiming the evidence shows moderate drinkers and not heavy drinkers are affected by this policy (the evidence shows a decrease in harm and suggests heavier and younger drinkers are most affected2,3). Similarly, in a TVNZ interview4 regarding research showing the lack of impact of the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act (2012)5 Mr Leggett stated: “No study from Massey or any other university has shown that cutting alcohol advertising or increasing tax will reduce harm” (once again, evidence has shown these to be cost effective interventions6).
Education, promoted as the only strategy by the industry, is not a cost effective, or even effective, solution; however, effective solutions do exist. The cost effective policies, those promoted within the WHO and UN system as the ‘best buys’ to reduce alcohol-related harm are restriction of availability, banning or comprehensively restricting marketing and decreasing affordability by increasing excise tax and price.7 Recent analysis published by the WHO/Bloomberg project Spending Less, Saving Lives8 showed for every $1 US invested in these effective alcohol policies in low- and middle-income countries, $9 US will be returned. Failure to implement these strategies (which do not prohibit drinking but simply encourage caution around alcohol use) is to privilege industry profits and penalise the taxpayer who pays for the burden on health and social services.
There is a growing awareness of the costs associated with alcohol harm. In New Zealand, in 2007, 6.4% of all DALYs lost were attributable to alcohol and there were over 800 deaths caused by alcohol (Connor et al 2015). Internationally there is a growth in focus on alcohol as one of four risk factors addressed in the prevention of non-communicable diseases by the UN and WHO9 and the growing recognition that the Sustainable Development Goals are less achievable because of alcohol harm.10 Transnational Alcohol Corporation’s (TNAC) annual reports to their shareholders demonstrate their concern over this growing awareness. Heineken told its shareholders in 2017: “Alcohol remains under scrutiny in many markets. This may prompt regulators to take further measures limiting Heineken’s freedom to operate, such as restrictions or bans on advertising and marketing, sponsorship, availability of products, and increased taxes and duties leading to lower revenues and profit”.11
The industry response has been to employ lobbyists who build long-term relationships with key policy makers, promote self regulation12, oppose effective policies13 and engage in corporate social responsibility activities. They have considerable resources available to do so. In New Zealand the decision to allow an appeal against local authorities’ Local Alcohol Policies (LAPs) in the Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act has resulted in unusual visibility of the influence process. The opportunity to engage legal representation to challenge proposed restrictions on trading hours has illustrated the very different financial resources available to the retailers of alcohol versus those supporting strategic restriction of availability14.
Alcohol industry lobbying and corporate social responsibility activities have been effective. At the global level, Diageo, a major beer and spirits producer, has informed its shareholders that their engagement with governments, industry and other stakeholders ‘successfully mitigated threats’ and shaped “more balanced regulatory outcomes”.14 We can expect the local lobbyists for the alcohol industry have been able to make similar claims. The Sale and Supply of Alcohol Act was passed in 2012, but by 2016 less than 30% of local authorities had successfully implemented LAPS.15 Some bigger councils have faced ongoing and expensive lengthy legal battles and are apparently stalled. Similarly, there are major gaps between the evidence-based recommendations from the New Zealand Law Commission’s report in 2012 and the limited policy responses to date.5,16 We are still awaiting action on two of the ‘best buys’ of alcohol policy: significant increases in alcohol excise tax and meaningful restrictions on alcohol marketing, especially in the digital world. In the meantime alcohol has become more affordable17 and young people are exposed to extensive alcohol marketing.18 This lack of progress and the differential impact of alcohol harm on more disadvantaged people19,20 is highlighted by the lodging of a Treaty of Waitangi claim in which Māori Warden, Rawiri Ratu, claims the government breached the Treaty of Waitangi by not legislating the recommendations of the New Zealand Law Commission.21
The industry narrative with its focus on moderate drinkers fails to acknowledge the industry’s reliance on heavy drinking for their sales and profits—we now have evidence that 46% of alcohol consumed in New Zealand is consumed in very heavy drinking occasions.22 The transnational alcohol corporations’ reliance on heavy drinking makes opposition to effective policies an essential part of industry business strategy.
As the debate on alcohol policy heats up in New Zealand it is important the public, media and policy makers are aware of this conflict of interest as they are presented with the arguments or requests for engagement from those representing industry interests, such as the newly established New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council.