Evolution of the major alcohol companies key global policy vehicle through the prism of tax records 2011–19
Important insights have been generated into the nature of the activities of the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP).
Its successor, the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD) is less well understood. This study aims to rectify evidence limitations on the political activities of the alcohol industry at the global level.
Internal Revenue Service filings were examined for ICAP and IARD each year between 2011 and 2019. Data were triangulated with other sources to establish what could be gleaned on the internal workings of these organisations.
The stated purposes of ICAP and IARD are near identical.
The main declared activities were similar for both organisations and comprised public affairs/policy, corporate social responsibility, science/research and communications. Both organisations work extensively with external actors and it has become possible more recently to identify the main contractors supplying services to IARD.
This study sheds light on the political activities of the alcohol industry at the global level. It suggests that the evolution of ICAP into IARD has not been accompanied by shifts in the organisation and activities of the collaborative efforts of the major alcohol companies.
Alcohol and global health research and policy agendas should give careful attention to the sophisticated nature of industry political activities.
The alcohol industry is a significant player in the global economy. In 2020, the industry was valued at $1.49 trillion (USD).
The size of the alcohol market has significant implications for global health. Alcohol consumption is estimated to contribute causally to about 3.3 million deaths each year.
In the past 25 years, producers have expanded so that they produce and promote brands across continents. The top ten producers now account for the majority of worldwide consumption of beer and spirits respectively and have strategically targeted low- and middle-income countries and regions for expansion.
The concentrated nature of the market has led to the creation of organisations explicitly tasked with coordinating the political activities of the major alcohol producers.
Little is known, however, about the organisations that lead the alcohol industry’s political activities, particularly at the global level.
Similar to other industries, trade associations are often the key vehicles for coordinating industry actors’ political activities. Trade associations can mobilise different actors from across a single sector (for example, alcohol) or within a specific segment of the sector (for example, production or retail).
Social aspects public relations organisations (SAPROs) are distinct from trade associations in that they are primarily designed to advance the alcohol industry’s CSR goals. These organisations are “outwardly established to reduce alcohol-related harms” but their core function is “to manage issues that may be detrimental to [the alcohol industry’s] interests, particularly in areas that overlap with public health”. While SAPROs share some key similarities with tobacco industry front organisations, these organisations are specific to the alcohol industry.
The International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD) is the only SAPRO operating globally. Most SAPROs, such as Drinkaware in the UK, are organised at the national level.
There are studies of IARD’s predecessor, the International Center for Alcohol Policies (ICAP). One key study analysed publically available material produced by ICAP, including policy papers, conference proceedings, and tax filings. According to this investigation, ICAP engaged in several key activities, including
- promoting collaborations between public health researchers and industry, and
- creating a parallel scientific literature on alcohol.
ICAP’s main aim was to challenge the World Health Organization’s (WHO) position as the pre-eminent voice on alcohol policy issues.
A range of alcohol industry actors, including ICAP, have also been highly active in alcohol policymaking processes at the domestic and global level. Moreover, only a few jurisdictions have embraced the WHO’s “best buys” policies – that is, better policy solutions on alcohol pricing, promotion and availability (though, there are key recent developments in several countries, including Scotland, Ireland, and Lithuania). Yet the precise programs developed by ICAP to influence policy have not been adequately described or analysed.
IARD was formed in 2014 out of a merger of ICAP (which had been created by several alcohol producers in 1995), and the Global Alcohol Producers Group, a trade association. Compared to ICAP, IARD’s actions have hardly been studied at all, indicating that little is known about a potential threat to global health.
Major IARD activities declared
|Producers’ Commitments||At an international conference in October 2012, the largest global producers of beer, wine and spirits agreed to implement the five following CSR-related objectives between 2013 and 2017:|
1. Reducing underage drinking
2. Strengthening and expanding marketing codes of practice
3. Providing consumer information and responsible product information
4. Reducing drinking and driving5. Working with retailers to reduce harmful drinking
IARD was later charged by the signatories with implementation and monitoring these CSR initiatives.
|Science and policy||An “international scientific” program focused on better understanding “the relationship between drinking and health and social outcomes.” The research program included the development of “literature and materials” which were used to inform members and stakeholders.|
Like ICAP, the program “supported research by outside scientists working independently or in cooperation with the center staff.” Its main research topics included “unrecorded alcohol, education and quality of life”.
|Communications||IARD communicated with stakeholders “through multiple channels, including meetings, website resources, electronic publications, and social media”.|
One of the main communication activities was to promote its “key reports and events to the global and regional media”.
|Public Affairs||The aim of this IARD program was “to increase understanding of the global alcohol policy arena and various related topics in relevant multilateral fora”. This involved tracking alcohol policy developments at the global, regional and national levels, which allowed it to provide producers with “regular updates on these issues”.|
The labels in the “Activity” column were developed by IARD. In the case of Producers’ Commitments, however, IARD referred to this set of initiatives as “Program Development” in its 2015 tax filing. Between 2016 and 2018, this activity is described as “Producers’ Commitments”
This study aims to deepen understanding of the alcohol industry’s political activities at the global level. The study enriches understanding of alcohol industry activities through careful description and analysis of ICAP and IARD’s tax filings.
Since 1995 the major alcohol companies have worked together in ICAP, then IARD, to manage their interests at the global level, beginning when the companies themselves became globally operating entities.
Through several activities, including CSR, research, and public affairs, these organisations have successfully positioned themselves as a rival source of information on alcohol-related matters to the WHO and the public health community.
These activities operate as a package of inter-connected approaches developed over time to attain political goals.
This study examines these operations in as much detail as is afforded by the data source. The first contribution made by this report is to open up the internal operations and strategic priorities of these organisations to external scrutiny.
Both ICAP and IARD have been prominent in an era of global alcohol policy inertia in which ineffective partnerships with the industry have largely been the norm globally, contrary to the alcohol policy evidence base that stronger industry regulation is needed, particularly population-level alcohol control measures. Yet IARD has evaded substantial prior scrutiny. Existing studies of ICAP have focused on materials, including toolkits, policy reports, and research, which have been tailored for public consumption. Exclusive reliance on such data sources is potentially limiting for understanding the alcohol industry, its strategic drivers, and the nature of the threat posed to global health. Public-facing materials can be crafted in ways designed to obscure organisations’ nature, purpose, and tactics.
This study is one of the few studies to make use of materials generated by ICAP/IARD staff that, while in the public domain, have a different quality from other public-facing materials. Non-profit organisations are legally required to ensure that the information provided to authorities is both accurate and verifiable. This study offers a useful vantage point for appreciating the nature of the long-term and multi-pronged public affairs program, in particular, which receives little mention in the public-facing materials.
This analysis also provides a lens through which to observe possible changes to the global alcohol industry’s strategy over time. The findings suggest ICAP’s evolution into IARD has not been accompanied by major shifts in how these organisations present themselves to tax authorities in the US, and by extension in how they operate. The activities appear marked more by continuity than by change, so it is appropriate to regard this study as offering preliminary evidence to support an understanding of IARD as an evolution of essentially the same entity as ICAP. There are, however, identifiable changes in presentation, and the researchers in no way suggest these are trivial. Rather, this makes further study of the more visible and well-documented activities of ICAP helpful for developing the research agenda on IARD. Indeed, the success of IARD in largely evading research scrutiny provides a further reason to fill this important evidence gap and comparative analysis with ICAP is one useful frame for further analysis.
The study underscores the industry’s complex and multi-level approach to lobbying. Both ICAP and IARD tax records describe longstanding efforts to build relationships with WHO.
Moreover, IARD’s involvement with public affairs firms that specialise in dealing with WHO, the UK government and EU officials provides further indications of the importance of lobbying at the global, regional and domestic level.
IARD’s involvement with a UK Government agency is striking. Further research will be required to identify the nature of those interactions, and the implications for the effectiveness of lobbying in other national and international contexts.