‘Misused evidence’: Spotlight on alcohol industry submissions

Jolyon Attwooll

24/05/2023 4:24:56 PM

New research looking at alcohol industry contributions to inform national strategy has found numerous ways science is misrepresented.

Wine bottles
The study suggests alcohol industry submissions should not be accepted on face value.

Evidence was ‘systematically manipulated, misused and ignored’ in submissions made by the alcohol industry to inform Federal Government health strategy, a new study has concluded.
Research published in the Drug and Alcohol Review journal this week raises concerns surrounding the reliability of evidence used in documents designed to shape public policy.
The authors looked at 12 submissions filed by the alcohol industry as part of a consultation process for the National Alcohol Strategy 2019–2028.
They identified a number of industry assertions that used shaky evidence, including to exaggerate the benefits of moderate drinking and downplay the link between alcohol and violence.
Researchers also said the industry used questionable approaches to push for targeted initiatives rather than population level alcohol policies, as well as to oppose strong advertising regulation and minimum unit price and taxation policies.
‘The alcohol industry is misusing evidence in their submissions to government consultations to make their assertions about alcohol policy,’ the authors wrote. 
‘It is therefore essential that industry submissions are scrutinised and not accepted on face value.’
They suggest that the submissions considered for the work are likely to be ‘only a fraction of the total influence the alcohol industry has in public policy processes’.
Dr Hester Wilson, Chair of RACGP Specific Interests Addiction Medicine, said the findings should not come as a surprise.
‘It reminds me of the tale about the scorpion and the frog crossing the river – you cannot expect a scorpion to act against its nature,’ Dr Wilson told newsGP.
‘The alcohol industry exists to make money from alcohol, this is what they do. And they are wealthy and as a result have power to influence and will use this to maximise their income.
‘We allow them to control the narrative of alcohol related harm at our peril.’

One submission reportedly quoted a study that suggested ‘the net effect of alcohol consumption was to reduce adverse health outcomes’, whereas researchers found the research it cited had in fact concluded that drinking is ‘not associated with a net health benefit’.
The authors also highlighted a submission that argued against alcohol being a causal factor in violence, which they said ‘failed to acknowledge the more recent, high quality literature which unequivocally demonstrates that alcohol contributes to violence’.
Lead author Mia Miller, a PhD student and research associate at Menzies School of Health Research, said the work was directed around submissions for the National Alcohol Strategy due to it being ‘one of the most important documents guiding alcohol policy in Australia’.
‘[The strategy] sets out the way forward for alcohol policy for all levels of government over the period of a decade, so getting it right is crucial,’ she told newsGP.
According to Ms Miller, the findings reflect a growing body of evidence on how lobby groups use policy submissions, but she says the extent of misrepresentation she and her co-authors found was unexpected.
‘For example, there were instances where industry organisations explicitly misquoted or misrepresented the findings of scientific evidence,’ Ms Miller said.
‘We were also surprised to see the attempts by industry companies and lobby groups to discredit high-quality, peer-reviewed evidence and promote weaker evidence, such as raw data or industry-funded or affiliated studies, instead.’
Dr Michael Tam, a clinical academic GP and lecturer at UNSW in Sydney, said the research underlines the need to interpret submissions carefully.
‘This is a very interesting analysis by the researchers which starkly describes what has always been suspected, and perhaps, tacitly known,’ Dr Tam told newsGP
‘Policy development, of course, isn’t just informed by evidence but also by values. 
‘An open and transparent process in seeking submissions from the community and stakeholders is arguably important in the trustworthiness of decision-making. 
‘However, as identified, a critical approach is needed in scrutinising these submissions especially from an industry who are well funded and highly motivated to influence decision-making towards their commercial favour.’
Dr Wilson says the work raises issues around providing trustworthy information to the wider public.
‘There is a huge and continuing need to provide evidence-based credible information for our communities and we need to continue to be aware of who has interpreted the information and be aware of the unexamined and at times disallowed biases based on our agendas and needs,’ she said.
‘We all have agendas. Mine is to work with my patients, families and communities to assist them to have the best health and wellbeing, and to help them to understand the risks they take with their behaviours and to help them to know when their behaviours have become an addiction and how we can treat that.
‘Embedded in this is the need for them to understand the bias of information they see and the impact of how this information is presented based on where and who it comes from.’
As for the final strategy, Ms Miller said the earlier drafts of the strategy had clear examples of alcohol and lobby group influence that were rectified for the final version. Overall, she says the strategy addresses the key policy measures at a population level, but she also highlights some ‘subtle but very important’ issues that remain.
One example she gives is the change to a sentence that originally read ‘implement regulatory measures to reduce alcohol advertising exposure to young people’. The final version said instead ‘implement measures to reduce alcohol advertising exposure to young people’.
‘The exclusion of the word regulatory might not seem like a big change – but we know that industry-run alcohol advertising initiatives are hugely ineffective and littered with loopholes, and that regulatory measures are desperately needed in Australia,’ Ms Miller said.
‘This subtle shift in language removes the onus on governments to ensure regulatory measures are implemented over the life course of the strategy.’
 One of the article’s conclusions is that the alcohol industry needs regulation similar to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control used for the tobacco industry.

Dr Tam agrees that greater intervention may be needed.
‘It is likely that some of the overarching targets and goals in reducing alcohol harms are not likely to be achieved without stronger regulation,’ he said. 
‘It isn’t plausible that industry-led policy approaches will achieve population level health benefits.’
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