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The alcohol industry can be defined in various ways, with no agreed settled definition. The term is most commonly used to refer to corporations engaged in the production of alcoholic beverages. However, broader definitions also exist. The World Health Organization, for example, refers to ‘manufacturers of alcoholic beverages, wholesale distributors, major retailers and importers that deal solely and exclusively in alcohol beverages, or whose primary income comes from trade in alcohol beverages’, a definition that has been adopted by Public Health England (PHE).
PHE’s definition also includes entities that are dependent on funding and support from the industry, such as business associations or other non-state actors representing or funded largely by any of the previously outlined entities, as well as: industry lobbyists; coalitions; corporate philanthropic foundations; charities; and social aspect (public relations) organisations (SAPROs).
The alcohol industry exerts significant influence, not only in its commercial activities but also over social and political perceptions and responses to alcohol. It does so through a variety of activities, including: the development of alliances, with trade associations and SAPROs, and with non-industry allies such as think tanks; and corporate social responsibility programmes.
The Institute of Alcohol Studies has estimated that the production and sale of alcohol was worth £46 billion to the UK economy in 2014, accounting for 2.5% of Gross Domestic Product and 3.7% of all consumer spending. The vast majority of the economic value of alcohol production in the UK comes from two different activities: brewing beer for the domestic market (largely to be sold in the on-trade) and distilling spirits for export (predominantly Scotch whisky).
As well as making and selling alcohol, researchers have identified five different ways in which industry actors seek to influence regulation:
- Constituency building
- Policy substitution
- Information and messaging
- Financial incentives
- Trade and litigation
This page contains detailed information on how the alcohol industry operates.
Facts and stats
- The industry’s value chain is supported by a number of collective bodies, which give producers a voice in the public sphere.
- This includes trade associations (e.g., The Scotch Whisky Association) and ‘social aspects and public relations organisations’ (SAPROs, e.g., Drinkaware)
What is the alcohol industry? by The Institute of Alcohol Studies
- In 2018, there were 133,000 licensed on-trade premises, including pubs and bars. The largest UK pub operators are:
Who are the leading alcohol retailers in the UK (on-trade)? by The Institute of Alcohol Studies
- Around 70% of UK alcohol sales occur in off-trade premises
- Major grocery retailers represent two-thirds of off-trade sales
- Specialist alcohol retailers and corner shops represent 25%
- Convenience stores represent a tenth
Who are the leading alcohol retailers in the UK (off-trade)? by The Institute of Alcohol Studies
- Industry actors seek to influence policy by framing arguments around alcohol in a way that places responsibility on a minority of ‘problematic’ individual consumers, and thus away from alcohol itself, the industry’s practices and population-level policy measures. (McCambridge, 2018)
- The alcohol industry’s actions to influence policy and regulation are similar to that of the tobacco industry’s actions. (Bond, L. et al., 2010; Savell, E. et al., 2016; McCambridge, J. and Morris, S., 2019)
- Researchers have identified 5 key ways in which the industry attempts to influence regulations (Savell, E. 2016)
- Constituency building:
- Forming industry groups and associations to assist coordination and collaboration
- Forming alliances with sympathetic non-trade bodies e.g. think tanks
- Policy substation:
- Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) programmes, apparently promoting the social good independently of the government
- Developing self-regulation as an alternative to government restrictions
- Information and messaging:
- Developing evidence: Funding and shaping original research
- Disseminating evidence: collating and interpreting existing evidence, for the public and policymakers
- Lobbying: making direct proposals and representations to policymakers
- Economic incentives:
- Using economic incentives to influence policymakers, particularly employment opportunities and connections
- Trade litigation:
- Shaping trade policy to secure favourable terms and access to new markets
- Using legal challenges to undermine unfavourable policies and regulation (typically on the basis of trade law)
- Constituency building:
The rules that govern the rules: why meta-regulation matters for public health
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Alcohol duty frozen in Autumn Statement: What does this mean?
24th November 2023
Acceptable, accessible and affordable – but at what cost?
15th November 2023
Rainbows in June: Selling alcohol to LGBTQ+ people
4th October 2023
A flexible playbook: what unites corporate political strategies of alcohol and other health-harming industries?
5th July 2023
Why are particular alcohol policies adopted in some contexts and not others, and what is the role of the alcohol industry in these developments?
23rd May 2023
How the cost of living crisis affects alcohol harm
18th April 2023
How the alcohol and gambling industries frame harm in the same way
12th April 2023