Partners or Opponents? Alcohol Industry Strategy and the 2016 Revision of the UK Low-Risk Drinking Guidelines
In 2016, the UK Chief Medical Officers published revised low-risk alcohol use guidelines, based on an updated evidence review. These guidelines advised that men and women consume no more than 14 units per week—a reduction for men—while emphasizing the dangers of alcohol use in pregnancy and as a risk factor for cancer. The aim of this study is to examine how the alcohol industry responded to the publication of the guidelines.
This article draws on 26 semi-structured interviews with civil servants, parliamentarians, and public health and civil society actors. Interviews were audio-recorded, transcribed, anonymized, and analyzed using thematic coding.
Following the publication of the new draft guidelines, the UK alcohol industry criticized their exclusion from the guidelines development process. They then mounted a major public relations campaign that strongly criticized the guidance produced and rejected the association of alcohol use with cancer without recourse to evidence. The Portman Group, which was prominent in the industry response, did not recommend that members or other companies carry the revised content on product labels and sought to undermine them via high-level political lobbying. There was no formal campaign to communicate the guidelines to the public.
The present case adds new insights into the political strategies of alcohol industry actors to undermine public health, providing evidence of confrontational tactics. It draws attention to the failure of self-regulatory regimes to incorporate basic public health messaging.