Monitoring the actions and communications of the alcohol industry can provide valuable insights into industry policy positions and marketing tactics, and inform public health approaches to countering industry strategies. While opportunities for industry monitoring are often limited to public information, two recent research papers that explored Australian alcohol industry trade publications suggest that sources in the public arena can offer rich insights into how the alcohol industry really thinks and acts.

The industry’s resistance to prioritising public health over profits was highlighted in research by Professor Simone Pettigrew and colleagues, published in Frontiers in Public Health. The analysis of articles in trade mag National Liquor News across a year identified three primary themes. First, the legitimisation of alcohol as an important social and economic product. The industry takes itself very seriously as a supplier of quality products that are seen as of great importance to consumers and society in general. Articles focused on methods of production and specific product attributes to highlight products as desirable and valuable contributions to domestic and international marketplaces. Legitimacy was sought from sources including industry awards and sales data, and consumers were often depicted as discerning individuals who demand high quality products. However, profit was a clear driver of industry activity, and the need to educate consumers so they would demand the products the industry wants to sell was evident in the articles.

Second, the portrayal of the industry as trustworthy and benign. Articles painted the industry as the good guys and levelled criticisms at those advocating unwarranted and flawed regulatory interventions. After all, the problem lay with a minority of irresponsible consumers, not with the producers, many of whom were family-oriented and supported local communities.

The third theme was the strategic embedding of alcohol in everyday life. Opportunities abound to promote and sell more alcohol, including Christmas, New Year, Easter, Father’s Day, St Patrick’s Day, barbecues, concerts, sporting events, the summer season, and occasions involving food. The industry play to existing social and cultural norms favouring regular and frequent use of alcohol, further reinforcing these norms.

The results reflect the general failure by the industry to appreciate and acknowledge the substantial burden of disease caused by their products, and reinforce the extent to which efforts to reduce alcohol-related harm face strong resistance from the alcohol industry. These findings provide support for arguments to exclude industry members from the alcohol policy development process.

In other research, recently published in Public Health Research and Practice, Danica Keric and I explored how the alcohol industry has responded to the perceived increase in health consciousness among consumers. Interviews with alcohol company executives published in National Liquor News and other sources suggested that the alcohol industry initially observed increased health consciousness among consumers as a threat to industry revenue. To turn it into an opportunity for the sector, alcohol companies promoted their ‘better-for-you’ products as supposedly healthier through advertising campaigns and product developments.

The trade mags highlighted the opportunities for the industry in growing health consciousness. For example, the Managing Director of Brown-Forman considered that ‘the health and wellness trend is expected to be one of the prime drivers of innovation in 2016’. The CEO of Australian Liquor Marketers said, ‘With health and wellbeing also an ongoing focus for consumers into 2016, the development of products that cater to the health conscious consumer like the rise of low carb beers, low calorie wines, low sugar and gluten free products will continue to play a role across categories’. The Director of Marketing at Thirsty Camel Bottleshops said, ‘This year we have seen the wider consumer trend of health and wellness transfer to the liquor industry with better for you, sugar free and preservative free beverages becoming increasingly popular.’

It wasn’t hard to find examples of the industry embracing this trend. In an education campaign titled Beer the Beautiful Truth, beer producer Lion promoted beer as ‘99.9% sugar free’ and ‘preservative free’. An ad for a low carb beer was described by the brand’s VP for Marketing as looking ‘more like a Nike ad than a beer ad’. Wine producers developed low-alcohol and organic wines that are designed to appeal to health conscious women. The ready-to-drink sector developed products made with ‘natural’, ‘pure’ and other supposedly healthier ingredients, and sugar-free varieties. One product, for example, was made with ‘purified water’ and ‘infused with electrolytes’; its claims include ‘no sugar’, ‘no carbs’, ‘no colours’, and ‘natural flavours’.

The problem is that consumers may believe that a product advertised as healthier may pose fewer health consequences, but these products are not healthy and still carry all the risks associated with the alcohol component of the products, based on the volume of alcohol they contain and the associated calories. The research supports calls for greater regulation of alcohol marketing, including restricting the use of health-related claims and imagery, and the introduction of evidence-based health warning labels to contribute to informing consumers of the risks associated with alcohol use.

These new research papers add to the existing body of knowledge about alcohol industry priorities and actions, and point to the potential value of monitoring the content of trade magazines to gain insights into the industry’s strategic intentions.

Written by Julia Stafford, Executive Officer at the McCusker Centre for Action on Alcohol and Youth

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.