Many of the current challenges in public health revolve around contests with powerful transnational corporations, and alcohol is no different. Despite the global rise in alcohol harms, alcohol policies – where they exist – remain under-developed. It can sometimes seem to public health interests that they are David, daring to hope to win against the odds, and the corporation is Goliath. Given that the actions that need to be taken are largely well established in the alcohol policy evidence, surely David should be winning by now? The David and Goliath metaphor itself may unwittingly help to reinforce the status quo.
The alcohol market is dominated by a small group of large producers. The rise of digital social media is presenting novel opportunities for personal and public persuasion. The competition is tough. Global alcohol corporations have been alarmingly successful in quietly becoming trusted sources of advice for policy makers and consumers, while continuing to grow their markets, partly by distracting from evidence of alcohol harms.
The promotion of alcohol employs basically the same tactics as the tobacco industry in the exploitative selling of an addictive substance. However, in comparison to tobacco, the industry that produces alcohol appears invisible, as does the principal ingredient, the drug ethanol. It may seem something of a David and Goliath contest to oppose the interests of major transnational corporations and to intervene in an enjoyable well-established social practice for many. The threat to global health posed by tobacco is now understood by policy communities and populations globally. Yet alcohol remains a privileged, protected, and increasingly available product.
The David and Goliath story has undergone many revisions in its re-telling to become a powerful metaphor for the potential of the plucky underdog. Global corporations and their allied supporters have their own take on the metaphor. They position the state as Goliath, and the individual consumer as David. They use sophisticated tools of persuasion to ally themselves with David, producing a dystopian version of individual freedom, which puts responsibility for risk onto individuals and hides the processes of maximising shareholder wealth. Public health actors become meddling, moralising ‘experts’ and nannies placing limits on individual choices and telling people what to do.
Responsibility for the choice to drink rests solely with the consumer in this narrative, and very little attention gets paid to the nature of the market and the information conditions under which that choice is exercised. This includes corporate investment in shaping drinking norms and withholding key information from consumers about adverse effects.
It is a marketing truism that those who set the frame control the agenda. Brand construction of alcohol products, and indeed of alcohol corporations themselves through corporate social responsibility initiatives, is a reflection not of what things are, but of how they wish things to appear. Corporate marketing and lobbying dominates thinking about alcohol so the risks and the harms continue to be felt at individual, family, community and social levels, while corporate shareholders profit. The David and Goliath metaphor is unhelpful if it keeps a public health David beleaguered and stuck at the start of the contest.
Let’s think about this situation afresh. David did not play by Goliath’s rules. Alcohol marketing dominates people’s thinking about this drug, simply because we currently allow this to happen. We give corporations a license to operate, and we should look at the terms of the license, and revise them, to better protect public health. We could begin to develop the science of alcohol messaging, investing more substantially in assertively promoting counter-marketing ideas. This counter-marketing could raise awareness of the corporate engineering of addiction, and corporations’ disregard for other harms caused by ethanol (the drug in the drink).
It is time to take new, more ambitious approaches to tackle the powerful commercial determinants of health. The consequence of inaction is an unbeatable Goliath, not what alcohol corporations are, but how they may wish to appear.
Written by Dr Mary Madden and Professor Jim McCambridge, Department of Health Sciences, University of York.
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.