Food as harm reduction during a drinking session: reducing the harm or normalising harmful use of alcohol? A qualitative comparative analysis of alcohol industry and non-alcohol industry-funded guidance
The aim of this study was to critically analyse information concerning the relationship between alcohol and food consumption provided via alcohol industry (AI) funded and non-AI-funded health-oriented websites, to determine the role it plays within the alcohol information space, and how this serves the interests of the disseminating organisations.
Information on food as a harm reduction measure while drinking alcohol was extracted from 15 AI websites and websites of AI-funded corporate social responsibility (CSR) organisations. As a comparison group, non-AI-funded health websites were also searched (n = 16 websites with food and alcohol-related content). Information was included from webpage content and associated downloadable documents. Critical discourse analysis (CDA) was adopted to allow the texts analysed to be situated within the broader political and social context.
Analysis was carried out iteratively, involving continuous comparison within and between websites. Discursive themes were identified by three researchers. Identified discursive elements were discussed to reach a consensus, and a final coding framework was then developed. “Tone” analysis was used to assess whether the overall tone within individual websites was considered to be pro-alcohol consumption, neutral or discouraging of alcohol consumption.
There were some commonalities across AI and non-AI-funded websites, whereby both appeared to normalise alcohol consumption and to encourage use of food as a measure to enable sustained alcohol consumption, to avoid alcohol use in a way that results in short-term harms, and to prevent or “cure” a hangover.
The fact that both AI-funded and non-AI-funded organisations shared many of these narratives is particularly concerning. However, a discourse of food and alcohol that served to promote “moderate” alcohol use as beneficial to health was used exclusively by AI-funded organisations, focusing on special occasions and individual-blaming.
Alcohol consumption, including heavy and high-risk consumption, is frequently normalised within the online information space. Emphasising food consumption with alcohol may have the effect of supporting consumers to drink alcohol for longer periods of time.
Health professionals and independent health organisations should review the information they provide in light of the new study findings and challenge why AI-funded organisations, with a major conflict of interest, and a history of health misinformation, are often given the responsibility for disseminating health information to the public.