Public Health England partnership with Drinkaware questioned by former advisor

Public Health England’s (PHE) has come under further scrutiny for its latest campaign with a charity funded largely by the alcohol industry.

The health body has recently come under fire for its new campaign with Drinkaware, which encourages middle-aged drinkers to take “more” days off from drinking.

Professor Sir Ian Gilmore resigned from the alcohol leadership advisory board at PHE over issue.

In a new editorial, published in The British Medical Journal (BMJ) Prof Gilmore and colleagues wrote that senior PHE managers “do not seem to have asked themselves why the alcohol industry is happy to fund a campaign that ostensibly aims to reduce alcohol consumption”.

And the managers “certainly did not ask their alcohol leadership advisory board”, wrote Prof Gilmore with Professor Linda Bauld and Professor John Britton, who also advises PHE.

“Had they done so they would have received the answer that the industry does so because it thinks the campaign will be ineffective or will divert attention from other more effective policies to reduce alcohol consumption that the industry fears more, such as minimum unit pricing,” the article continues.

“More importantly, however, through Drinkaware, the alcohol industry gains valuable engagement with PHE, establishes working relations with PHE staff, and may even secure a seat at the table when other alcohol harm initiatives are planned and executed.

“In so doing they tread a path that, at least to those who have worked in tobacco policy, is depressingly familiar.”

Both PHE and Drinkaware insist that the charity is an “independent” organisation.

Indeed the charity said that it does not speak on behalf of the alcohol industry. “To suggest otherwise is to wilfully misrepresent the charity and its aims,” it said.

But Prof Gilmore’s editorial, titled “Public Health England’s capture by the alcohol industry”, refers to problems that occurred with links to the tobacco industry.

It states: “Those that fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The authors point to voluntary agreements with the tobacco industry in the second half of the 20th century which served to “undermine, dilute or constrain measures designed to curtail their activities”.

And by entering the agreement with Drinkaware, “PHE appear to have fallen victim to the delusion that a new partnership with the alcohol industry will somehow avoid the same fate”, they wrote.

Responding to the article, Professor John Newton, director of health improvement at PHE, said: “Our duty is to protect and improve public health. Reducing harm from alcohol requires action not inaction.

“This new campaign’s advice on drink free days is easily understandable, pragmatic and sensible.

“The BMJ is wrong and inaccurate to say that PHE is working with the alcohol industry. Drinkaware is an independent charity.

“PHE is steadfast in its ambition to reduce the harms that drinking too much alcohol can cause and we will work together with partners that speak to the evidence and share the same commitment.

“If we are to going to reduce the risks of everyday life then the debate should be about how we engage with the relevant industries to reduce harm.”

Elaine Hindal, chief executive of Drinkaware, said: “The criticisms of this campaign are based on the entirely false premise that Drinkaware is part of the alcohol industry. It is not. It is a wholly independent charity which is not part of and does not in any way speak on behalf of the alcohol industry.

“To suggest otherwise is to wilfully misrepresent the charity and its aims.

“The information which we provide is produced by Drinkaware and Drinkaware alone, and is overseen and verified by an independent Medical Advisory Panel consisting of highly experienced health professionals.

“It is deeply disappointing that a small number of critics are continuing to detract from the Drink Free Days campaign.

“The aim of the campaign, which we are proud to be part of, is to provide the public with information that is easy to understand, pragmatic and sensible. Quite simply, the more you drink, the greater the risk to your health. Taking more days off from drinking is a highly effective way of reducing health risks from alcohol.

“We are committed to continuing our partnership with Public Health England and our work to reduce alcohol misuse and harm in the UK.”

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