Since the Scottish Government announced their intention to introduce a minimum unit price (MUP) for alcohol in 2008, significant attention has been paid by policy scholars to the political strategies of alcohol industry actors to oppose this. A key component of industry strategy involves attempts to shape perceptions of their products, their effects and the policies to govern them, which scholars have addressed through the concept of ‘framing’. While this approach provides important insights into industry communications strategy, and policy preferences, the ability of framing theory to explain policy change or stasis and the effectiveness of industry strategies is more limited.
In their analysis of the global tobacco industry, Ulucanlar et al. identified what they term a ‘policy dystopian model’ (PDM) to capture the structure and content of industry discourses designed to prevent unfavoured policies, which claim ‘that proposed policies will lead to a dysfunctional future [and] adverse social and economic consequences.’ While the PDM signals the importance of emotion in explaining policy outcomes, the affective dimension of policy debates remains under-explored in the literature on the commercial determinants of health.
Our recent article sought to understand and explain the success and failure of alcohol industry strategies to resist policy change in Scotland and England since 2008, through the lens of post-structuralist discourse theory (PSDT). In particular, the concept of fantasy, offers additional insights into the affective power of industry communications strategies. Our study builds on and deepens existing accounts of alcohol policy change and stasis, in Scotland and England, and is of relevance to the wider research agenda on the commercial determinants of health.
Policy equilibrium and the social logics of the industry-favorable discourse
The story of UK alcohol policy in the last 15 years has been one of both radical change in Scotland, and a successful counter-political strategy by the alcohol industry to prevent the extension of MUP to other parts of the UK. Despite running counter to the international research consensus on effective responses to addressing alcohol-related harm, UK alcohol policy debates had been dominated by an industry favourable policy discourse, reflected in the UK-wide policy consensus prior to 2008. This was based on a logic of diminution (the scale of alcohol-related harms is overstated); a logic of individualization (harm reduction requires consumers to exercise moderation and self-control); and a logic of circumscription (focused only on particular forms of harm such as under-age and ‘binge’ drinking, or certain sub-populations and contexts, such as those experiencing high levels of economic deprivation). On this basis, alcohol industry actors favoured targeted, voluntary policy responses characterized by a logic of partnership evident in the UK Government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal.
Policy dislocation, public health challenges and industry counter-discourse
The policy equilibrium underpinned by the industry-favourable discourse was disrupted through the convergence of a range of post-devolution political developments, including the emergence of a network of public health and alcohol specific NGOs, promoting an alternative understanding of alcohol-related harms. This public health discourse constituted a projected social logic, which rejected partnership-based approaches and targeted interventions, in favour of population-based measures centred on price. The introduction of MUP in Scotland raised the possibility of policy ‘spillover’ to the rest of UK, the EU and beyond.
Unsurprisingly, these dislocatory events in Scotland gave rise to a forceful response from the alcohol industry, which sought to resist policy change and protect the status quo. Initially, industry actors sought to prevent the adoption of MUP as government policy by reinforcing the central tenets of the industry-favourable discourse and the logic of partnership. These strategies proved successful in England, but failed in Scotland, despite significant delays. In part this reflects the ability of industry actors to maintain a coalition of actors at Westminster who saw their interests as served by the status quo. It reflects also the enduring power of industry discourses, which we seek to explain through the discourse-theoretical concept of fantasy.
The fantasmatic logics of the industry-favorable discourse
Viewed from the perspective of post-structuralist discourse theory (PSDT), industry discourses are underpinned by ‘fantasmatic support structures,’ which serve to ‘grip’ others to the industry’s particular understanding of how to regulate alcohol, and the role of industry and its products in people’s lives. The fantasmatic component of discourse may have both ‘beatific’ and/or ‘horrific’ dimensions. The former works by offering an account of an ideal future to come once a particular obstacle is overcome, or an opponent conquered. The latter functions in terms of a loss, tragedy or humiliation which will come to pass if the political project is not realised. Given that the industry objective in the MUP debates was to oppose the introduction of new measures, the fantasmatic logics underpinning their discourse took the form of horrific projections of the potential future.
Industry opposition to MUP was often articulated in terms of fairness and social justice, most notably that the increases in price would unnecessarily penalise the ‘moderate majority’ of drinkers. In addition, by curtailing alcohol companies it would undermine the economy and suppress tax revenues. This argument was linked to the idea that MUP would be ‘the thin end of the wedge’ or a ‘slippery slope’ leading to similarly inequitable policies to be adopted in other areas (e.g. food products), which would further undermine individual freedoms.
Lessons for policy actors
By taking this approach to the political activities of the alcohol industry, our analysis was able to explain the different paths that have been taken in alcohol policy between Scotland and England. PSDT offers a conceptual toolkit through which to analyse how industry discourses define policy problems, limit the range of possible responses, and undermine counter-discourses.
Key to this is the concept of fantasy, which reveals the emotive power of policy discourses. This can explain their durability and longevity of established policy regimes, but also the ways in which policy advocates can seek to challenge policy consensus.
Our study reveals that the discourses promoted by industry actors are not inevitable or necessary, there are other ways of understanding and addressing alcohol harms. Revealing the underlying logics of industry discourses, including their fantasmatic support structures, is the first crucial step to challenging and ultimately changing ineffective policies that favour commercial interests over public health.
Written by Dr Benjamin Hawkins, Senior Research Associate, University of Cambridge and Dr May van Schalkwyk, Honorary Research Fellow, London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
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.