Anti-alcohol lobby's "purist objections" burned in scathing editorial from The Times

The Times has laid into Sheffield University academics in a scathing editorial that ridicules their demand for Public Health England to end its partnership with Drinkaware.

John Holmes of the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group wrote to the newspaper to say that he and a few other academics would “lessen co-operation” with the agency unless it backs down.

He was trying to throw his weight behind Alcohol Health Alliance supremo Ian Gilmore, who quit his role as an adviser to PHE in protest of a joint campaign with Drinkaware.

He believes PHE should not have teamed up with the drinks industry-funded charity in a bid to encourage middle-aged drinkers to take more days off from drinking.

He said that he and colleague John Britton are “considering their positions” unless it “terminates” the partnership with Drinkaware.

Holmes has drummed up support from Colin Drummond, Tim Lang, Kate Pickett and Liam Smeeth, who have previously advised the agency.

It is a bit rich coming from the Sheffield Alcohol Research Group, which was exposed by campaigner Chris Snowden for massaging evidence to push through a reduction in UK alcohol guidelines at the behest of, yes, Public Health England.

PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie gave the acedmics short shrift. “Drinkaware is not the alcohol industry, rather an education charity with millions of unique visitors each year,” he said. “We are taking this opportunity to ensure the advice it gives is evidenced, pragmatic and sensible.

“The health harms of alcohol require action. Public health has always involved controversy and we will not shy away from this. Our work on food, on sugar and salt, initially met negative reaction but is now widely accepted.”

The Times went even further, arguing that there is “no good case for PHE to accede to the critics’ demands”. The newspaper, whose front page focused on a rise in teetotalism across Britain, said in its editorial: “The academics’ letter claims that ‘the reputational risk to the agency’s status as a provider of impartial, evidence-based advice is significant’. The critics also complain that the message on responsible drinking is part of a wider campaign on public health, and that it thereby links an industry-funded body with the notion of healthy lifestyles.

“Yet Drinkaware is not a front for the alcohol industry. It is an independent body whose funding comes from drinks companies rather than from the taxpayer. Provided that the relationship is transparent, it is benign and the joint campaign’s output can help Britain’s drinking culture for the public good.

“The campaigning message is both sensible and realistic. The chief medical officer’s recommended upper limit for alcohol consumption is, for both sexes, 14 units a week, to limit the risk of cancer or liver damage. The campaign targets drinkers between the ages of 30 and 45 who typically drink wine, beer or spirits regularly above these medical guidelines. These recreational drinkers do not necessarily have an obvious problem of susceptibility to alcohol but they need to be aware of the risks to their health and wellbeing of regular, excessive consumption.

“The very idea of a measurable ‘unit’ of alcohol about half a standard 175ml glass of red wine may itself be unfamiliar to the public. Drinkaware has addressed the issue of public recognition, with mnemonics and slogans in pubs and by encouraging two ‘dry’ days each week.

“This is sound advice. Mr Selbie should not allow academics’ purist objections to the drinks industry to override his responsibility to work with it to develop a pragmatic approach to public education. Consumption of alcohol, which is pleasurable to many, is not in the same category as the use of tobacco products, which are intrinsically harmful and addictive. A successful drinks industry has social responsibilities. PHE is right to harness them in this initiative.”

Related articles: