The long term harms of alcohol are being minimised in industry funded education, find Madlen Davies and Hristio Boytchev, in an investigation for the BMJ.


Madlen Davies, freelance investigations reporter, Hristio Boytchev (e-mail:


Davies M, , Boytchev H, . Big alcohol: Universities and schools urged to throw out industry-funded public health advice BMJ 2024; 385 :q851 doi:10.1136/bmj.q851

BMJ Investigation
Release date

Big alcohol: Universities and schools urged to throw out industry-funded public health advice


Summary of key findings

Universities and schools are being urged to join a growing movement in Ireland and the UK that seeks to drive out the alcohol industry from any influence on public health advice on alcohol use and harm.

A campaign in Ireland has led to educational programmes funded by the alcohol industry being removed from schools. But industry backed groups still provide alcohol education in UK schools, including a theatre group funded by alcohol giant Diageo – the Smashed program.

Universities are also targeted: Drinkaware, an alcohol industry front group funded by major alcohol producers and retailers, venues, and restaurant groups, funds freshers’ education materials, including a free cup to measure alcohol units.

The public health community is calling for an Ireland-style ban on materials by industry associated charities because they normalise alcohol use, are poorly evaluated, and take up space that otherwise could be filled by truly independent and more evidence-based initiatives.

Alcohol industry funded “education” programs do not treat alcohol as a harmful substance, normalise alcohol use, and take up space that otherwise could be filled by programs that do not cause harm and provide independent, evidence-based information.

Following Ireland’s lead

Ireland’s clear stance on removing the alcohol industry from schools and universities follows a campaign led by the Irish Community Action on Alcohol Network (ICAAN), set up in 2021 out of a collective desire to eradicate industry influence from education.

ICAAN wrote to 700 schools across Ireland asking for information about Drinkaware in Ireland’s education programme but received no replies. Neither teachers nor Drinkaware were able to provide programme materials for scrutiny by independent experts. The Department of Education in Ireland said it had not seen the resources or evaluated the programme.

  • 15 000 Irish students had been through an alcohol industry funded, school based, education programme
  • But parents had never seen the programme or been asked to give permission

The ICAAN campaign got Ireland’s prime minister and the Department of Education to issue a statement telling school principals not to allow Drinkaware into schools.

Drinkaware materials distributed at universities

In the UK the alcohol industry is active in schools and universities. Universities continue to welcome initiatives funded by Drinkaware intended to educate students about “responsible” alcohol use.

According to Students Organising for Sustainability UK (SOS UK), a partner organisation of the National Union of Students (NUS), eight universities in England and Wales were part of a poster campaign advertising free materials to students, including a Drinkaware plastic half pint cup measuring the number of units in spirits, wine, beer, and cider; a cardboard wheel with the number of units and calories in popular drinks; and a QR code to Drinkaware’s online resources. SOS UK distributes the poster on behalf of Drinkaware.

Drinkaware told The BMJ that the number of universities given is “incorrect and a substantial miscalculation” and that the poster was given to more universities.

Drinkaware has produced a “freshers’ week survival guide,” which advises students on “safe” alcohol consumption practices, including eating carbohydrates or protein before going out and drinking plenty of water.

  • These materials downplay the long term health risks of alcohol, which include an increased risk of cancer and cardiovascular disease.
  • Alcohol industry material selectively quotes from the chief medical officer’s advice. Drinkaware’s freshers’ guide says it is “safest” not to drink more than 14 units of alcohol a week, and to have at least three alcohol-free days each week. But it omits the part of the guideline which says there is no level of regular alcohol use that can be considered completely safe in relation to some cancers.

A Drinkaware scheme also trained staff working in student bars to “reduce drunken anti-social behaviour and help keep people safe.” This included being able to “identify and support” alcohol inebriated students. Drinkaware claims this initiative and its in-person presence was scaled back in 2021.

  • The nightlife crew initiative narrowly focused on protecting people after they have bought and consumed alcohol.

In Wales, universities were given a toolkit to assess whether they are keeping students safe from alcohol created by the Welsh government, NUS Wales, and Drinkaware.

Mark Petticrew criticised the toolkit as “misinformation” given it omits any information about the risks of cancer, cardiovascular disease, injury, and death associated with alcohol. It also focuses on actions individual students and staff can take, rather than universities could take, such as restricting sales of alcohol, restricting alcohol marketing, and creating alcohol-free spaces in the university.

The framing of the entire document is to preserve the industry reputation and not about protecting young people at universities from harm,” explained Petticrew, as per the BMJ investigation.

Drinkaware materials in schools

In the absence of a specific ban, as in Ireland, alcohol industry related alcohol education charities have also been active in schools, providing information to pupils as young as 9. 

Initiatives by the Talk About Trust (formerly the Alcohol Education Trust), which has received alcohol industry funding, and Smashed, a theatre group funded by Diageo, one of the world’s biggest alcoholic beverage companies, continue to run in British schools.

A 2022 analysis of alcohol industry-funded teaching materials concluded they were “misleading” and “serve to reproduce hegemonic industry-favourable discourses of personal responsibility, moderate consumption, and individualised problem definitions and interventions, linked to a concealing of the role of industry practices as drivers of harm and inequities.”

A recent Talk About Trust brochure for students contained “misinformation about alcohol and cancer,” Petticrew says.

  • For example a “misleading infographic which selectively omits breast cancer and colorectal cancer” from types of cancers caused by alcohol.
  • Teaching students about adult guidance on alcohol units and drink-free days is “concerning,” van Schalkwyk adds.

The Smashed project, a theatre based educational programme including teaching materials for schools, was also criticised by van Schalkwyk and Petticrew’s analysis. Smashed claims on its website that it is “a firm fixture in over 23 countries around the world.” In 2020, Smashed announced an online teaching resource modelled on its theatre programme.

These industry backed programmes are poorly evaluated.

Drinkaware Exposed

Drinkaware was created in 2006 by the Portman Group, a front group funded by the alcohol industry, after a memorandum of understanding between the Portman Group, the Department of Health, the Home Office, and the devolved administrations for Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Its stated objective was “positively changing public behaviour and the national drinking culture to help reduce alcohol misuse and minimise alcohol-related harm.” Since then it has been criticised for misrepresenting the evidence on alcohol, cancer, and pregnancy. Most of the governments and public health agencies in the UK now say they do not actively partner with this organisation. Drinkaware regularly partners with the industry—for example, recently with Heineken and Budweiser.

Source Website: BMJ