Wednesday 24 April 2013

Silencing the opposition

There is touch of McCarthyism in the air. It is not enough for the temperance lobby to have the loudest voice in the room. Their opponents must also be silenced.

Last week's SHAAP report (currently offline*) was part of a growing campaign to treat the drinks industry like the tobacco industry. In particular, the temperance lobby would like to see 'the liquor trust' subject to something like Article 5.3 of the FCTC. Article 5.3 says that tobacco policy should be protected from "commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry". This is not unreasonable, but the instruction has since been interpreted by various governments, including the EU, to mean 'don't talk or listen to the tobacco industry'. Since it never occurs to regulators to listen to consumers or the general public, the effect has been to create an echo chamber in which state-funded NGOs lobby the state for neo-prohibitionist measures. Having silenced the opposition, the NGOs are able to made absurd claims without being held to account.

Any lobby group would love to find itself in such a privileged position. As 'alcohol control' increasingly relies on junk science and rigid ideology, demonising the opposition and silencing critics is an urgent priority. Step forward Alcohol Research UK, an allegedly non-partisan organisation which used to produce some decent research, but now publishes propaganda like this.

The alcohol industry has been accused of distorting evidence in an attempt to influence the Scottish government over its minimum pricing policy.

Academics examined submissions made by the industry to the government's public consultation in 2008.

They said their research suggested the responses had "ignored, misrepresented and undermined" scientific evidence.

The 'study' is here and what a mess it is. The thesis is that there is One True Alcohol Policy which has been approved by science and which is being undermined by "commercial interests" who dare to cast doubt on it. The implications are obvious, but the authors hammer them home for the benefit of obtuse readers.

These tactics mirror those of the tobacco industry, to which some producer organisations are closely related. Unlike the tobacco industry, which has been excluded from direct influence in policy making in many countries, alcohol industry actors continue to exercise strong influence on alcohol policies across the world... An important tactic in contemporary corporate lobbying, pioneered by the tobacco industry, is the construction of doubt about the content of scientific evidence, and this may underlie the approach taken in these submissions.

The authors conspicuously fail to mention that 'what should be done about alcohol pricing?' is a fundamentally different question to 'does smoking cause lung cancer?' The latter is a question that can be answered by science, whereas the former is a question of costs and benefits. We can make alcohol cost £10 a unit with the reasonable expectation that this will reduce alcohol consumption but that does not mean we should do so. What are the unintended consequences? Would it be a proportionate response? What are the costs to the public? What are the implications for liberty? There is no scientific answer to the question of whether a policy is reasonable, proportionate or fair.

Moreover, the question of minimum pricing necessarily involves speculation. One of the more absurd and troubling developments in this pocket of academia in recent years has been the conceit of portraying estimates based on untried—and often dubious—assumptions as proven science. Minimum pricing might reduce alcohol-related harm, or it might increase it, or it might do nothing, or it might have unintended consequences which outweigh the possible benefit to 'public' health. There are plausible reasons for each of these possibilities and different opinions should be heard and respected.

Obviously, we expect the drinks industry to put forward reasons why the state should not seize control of the pricing mechanism. Equally obviously, we expect the temperance lobby to recommend higher prices, restrictions on availability and bans on advertising—they've been saying that since the 1820s. It is the job of politicians to assess these competing claims and to balance different interests, including the interests of drinkers.

the study accused Asda of making "unsubstantiated claims" about the adverse effects of the policy proposals, which the supermarket chain said would "create incentives for the black market and criminals and illegal door to door sales."

Notice how Asda has become part of the drinks industry in the eyes of these people. Notice also how Asda clearly has a point. Is Alcohol Research UK seriously claiming that higher prices do not create incentives for the black market? If so, I wonder what they think does provide incentives if not profit? How strange that the temperance lobby's case for minimum pricing rests on (a naive understanding of) the law of demand and yet they dismiss the law of supply as a drinks industry myth.

The report, which was funded by the charity Alcohol Research UK, stated: "The Portman Group made unsubstantiated claims that the proposals could "increase the appeal of alcohol to young people by creating a 'mystique'" and thereby "turning alcohol into a 'forbidden fruit'".

Well, it might. Or it might not. We don't know, but there are plausible reasons to think that banning advertising, for example, might well create a certain mystique around alcohol. It does not seem ridiculous to suggest that forbidding something might give it a "forbidden fruit" appeal. Note that the authors of this study are not merely disagreeing with this suggestion, but are asserting that it is demonstrably false and that the mere mention of it amounts to the "construction of doubt about the content of scientific evidence". This goes beyond smear tactics. These people are saying that they can predict the future with 100% certainty and everybody else should shut up.

we suggest that the public interest is not served by industry actors’ involvement in the interpretation of research evidence.

There is no such thing as the 'public interest' and even if there were it could not be objectively defined by the sociologists who wrote this study (yes, it's sociologists again). There are competing interests which need to balanced. The whole point of having a public consultation is to hear different views from different interests. If there was a scientifically proven One True Alcohol Policy we wouldn't need public consultations or democracy, we would just hand over the levers of power to social scientists. And wouldn't they like that?

* The SHAAP report has been temporarily taken offline after Dave Atherton pointed out to them that Freedom2Choose is not, as it claimed, funded by the tobacco industry. And they have the nerve to accuse others of playing fast and loose with the facts...


James Nicholls from Alcohol Research UK has e-mailed me to stress that the conclusions of this study do not necessarily reflect the view of the organisation. I'm happy to clarify that Alcohol Research UK funded, but did not conduct, this study.

1 comment:

Junican said...

So does Nicholls's note mean that Alcohol Research did not know what they were funding? Did they not know that they were funding 'politically motivated' research, which has nothing to do with alcohol harm?
PLoS (Public Library of Science) has its own political angles and agenda. It is hard not to believe that this research, funded by Alcohol Research, was biased towards PLoS's aims.
One specific which caught my eye was the implication that 'The Alcohol Industry' marketeers were responsible for examining the evidence. Did it not occur to PLoS that the Industry might have employed specialists to examine the evidence?