Conference Speaker Demonizes Alcohol Industry

Robert Denniston Presenting at AP16 Robert Denniston Presenting at AP16

There’s a certain romance associated with being in the wine industry, which is why many people aspire to own a vineyard despite all the back-breaking work associated with farming. That’s why I was pretty shocked by the excessive disdain for the alcohol industry that many participants expressed at the Alcohol Policy 16 (AP16) Conference last week. Although the event is marketed as a public health forum, its participants seemed more interested in demonizing industry and not just the alcohol industry. “Junk food,” guns, and even cars took some hits.

According to one speaker, the “alcohol industry” could be likened to a mosquito carrying a dangerous virus, and we—the consumers are its victims. Well, that’s how former U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) employee Robert Denniston suggested that others “frame” alcohol issues when lobbying in favor of taxes and laws to restrict access.

During the last day of the event a the plenary session, Denniston made the following suggestion:

A concept that is worthy of consideration about how to frame this issue is authored by Jaheil and Babor, who have proposed referring to the alcohol problem as the “industrial epidemic” because alcohol beverages are industrial products. The difference between natural and industrial epidemics is that the former are caused by natural agents that are driven by natural forces acting upon those agents, such as plasmodium falciparum and anopheles mosquitoes in the case of malaria … by contrast industrial disease epidemics are driven at least in part by corporations and their allies who promote a dangerous product such as tobacco or cars or guns. This understanding shifts the policy focus from the agent, alcohol, to the host, the problem drinker, to the disease vector, the alcohol industry and associates.

What an astoundingly unbalanced view of industry!

While this was the most extreme thing I heard at this event, every session I attended included some insult to the alcohol business. Holley Shafer of Alcohol Justice explained during her talk that alcohol businesses are so untrustworthy that “we don’t think industry should really be part of the conversation” when it comes to formulating tax policy. So much for our representative system of government! Thomas Babor, author of the original article on so-called “industrial epidemics,” said that industry had no desire to promote public health because it advocates “individual responsibility” rather than taxes and regulations. Most of his presentation during the final plenary session mocked industry efforts to advance individual responsibility. And as Julie Gunlock of the Independent Women’s Forum pointed out in her post on this event, one participant described alcohol an “evil” product.

This conference proved to be an insult to anyone in the alcohol industry, from artisan winemakers, brewers, and distillers who put their heart and soul into their products; to the many employees and executives working in mid-sized businesses; to those involved in making, selling, and marketing major alcohol brands. They all work hard to provide something that consumers want and enjoy, most of whom do not abuse these products.

This event apparently is not designed to focus on public health, but on how to effectively take away consumer freedom and punish alcohol-related businesses—small and large. Yet it is funded at least in part by our tax dollars and has the backing of divisions within the NIH: U.S.Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Is this really what Congress wanted when it funded these organizations? If Congress wants to fund useful and scholarly research on the public health implications of alcohol abuse, this certainly isn’t the right project.