Too good to be true? Who is behind anti-alcohol studies
Satirical website the Daily Mash has invented a spoof academy, the Institute for Studies, to provide expert comment for its fictional reports. It probably wasn’t inspired by the Institute for Alcohol Studies, but it does say something about the media’s craving for a white-coated boffin to shore up their stories.
The IAS is one of the go-to organisations for journalists writing on alcohol, and its spokespeople, usually director Katherine Brown – who herself comes from a PR background, reflecting how important a media profile is for the institute – are continually relied upon to give stories the worst possible spin against drink.
More importantly, the IAS has credibility with the medical establishment. Its reports and research are treated seriously and Brown, for instance, blogs for the British Medical Association. The IAS sits down with the royal medical colleges as part of the Alcohol Health Alliance. When Gordon Brown was prime minister, he invited it to join his alcohol summit.
Yet a huge question-mark hangs over the organisation’s apparently independent scientific status. It is probably best described as a hybrid, with its researchers steered and funded in their work by the remnants of the prohibition wing of the 19th century temperance movement.
TEMPLARS OF DOOM
The IAS is almost entirely funded by, and shares its London headquarters with, the Alliance House Foundation, a charity with its roots in the UK Temperance Alliance, formed in 1853 to take the cause to a political level and fight for the outright prohibition of alcohol.
While the IAS declares it does not take a view on whether individuals should drink or not, the explicit purpose of the AHF remains “to spread the principles of total abstinence from alcoholic drinks”. It does that through the IAS.
The story of the IAS, and, indeed, the story of how temperance has become intertwined with powerful sections of public health on an international scale, is, arguably, the story of one man: Derek Rutherford.
On October 7, the septuagenarian Rutherford, as chair of the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance, will take his seat alongside Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, at the 2015 Global Alcohol Policy Conference in Edinburgh. The last item on the three-day agenda, “retiral of Derek Rutherford”, suggests he may be attending for the last time.
He will leave a prodigious legacy. Over nearly 50 years as a full-time anti-alcohol campaigner he has founded a series of influential organisations, including the IAS, through which he has initiated and developed a temperance strategy for modern times.
TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE
Born in the Durham mining village of Easington in 1939, Rutherford joined the International Order of Good Templars at the age of nine.
The IOGT is a masonic-style evangelical anti-drink organisation founded around the same time as GAPA but on the other side of the Atlantic.
Rutherford was tempted along to his first meeting, he says, by the promise of jelly and ice-cream.
Now based in Sweden, the IOGT has 500,000 members in more than 60 countries. At its theological core is the idea that drink and other drugs robs human beings of God’s greatest gift – free will.
After taking a degree in theology Rutherford became a teacher and in 1968 started working for GAPA. Five years later he moved into the mainstream as director of the National Council on Alcoholism, which was later to evolve into Alcohol Concern.
Arguments had begun to be put forward that the NCA should work with the drinks industry. Rutherford rejected them. And when he returned to GAPA as chief executive in 1982, he came with a brilliant insight.
No one was much interested in traditional temperance any more. It had a “bad name” he said. Yet mainstream medical opinion was moving away from the disease theory of alcoholism that had effectively marginalised political temperance, towards a “whole population” approach that was compatible with Rutherford’s cause.
In 1983 the Alliance created the IAS as its “trading arm”, a new kind of body that would work with sympathetic scientists to generate an evidence base for policy measures to restrict the availability of drink.
It was a stroke of genius. Rutherford had spied a convergence between temperance and medicine and given it organisational form.
Using his by now elevated position in the IOGT, he repeated the trick, first with Eurocare, formed to lobby the EU on alcohol policy, and then with GAPA, which is more aimed at frustrating drinks companies’ efforts to sell in developing markets.
They, too, are respected and influential bodies, and they are a blend of public health groups and out-and-out temperance bodies, including various branches of the IOGT.
Does this matter? It’s hard to say precisely what influence Rutherford, through the IAS and other organisations, has had on alcohol policy.
There was an incident some years back when the IAS received a substantial grant from the EU to carry out some research. It produced a report, but there were objections of bias and the whole thing had to be peer-reviewed by a special panel.
So not everyone trusts it. But it’s ironic that one area in which Rutherford seems to have been successful is in persuading people that any research with the slightest hint of drinks- industry funding is tainted and worthless.
Shouldn’t the same principle apply to research by a body financed and directed by the rump of a 19th century prohibition movement?
Perhaps that doesn’t invalidate the research, just as industry sponsorship doesn’t automatically invalidate a well-conducted study.
But to judge that, we need transparency. The IAS should be welcome to the debate, but it can’t go on pretending to scientific independence.