The Origins and Purposes of Alcohol Industry Social Aspects Organizations: Insights From the Tobacco Industry Documents
This article describes the origins and purposes of alcohol industry “social aspects organizations” as portrayed in internal tobacco industry documents.
The researchers systematically searched the Truth Tobacco Documents Library for information regarding alcohol industry social aspects organizations. Using content provided by industry actors themselves, the researchers identified a series of episodes in their evolution from the early 1950s to the early 1990s.
Hill and Knowlton, a public relations company, developed and managed the tobacco industry’s scientific programs from the early 1950s onward. At the same time, the company performed a similar function for the U.S. distilled spirits industry, with research funding central to advancing what were conceived as public relations goals. They sought to persuade the public and policy makers that the cause of alcohol problems was the people who connsumed distilled spirits, rather than the product itself.
Facing the existential threat posed by the developing population-level understanding of alcohol problems in the 1980s, national and international trade associations collaborated with the tobacco industry in various ways. The largest companies sought to bring together the different sectors of the alcohol industry to support a global network of national-level social aspects organizations.
Alcohol industry social aspects organizations were developed to advance long-term public relations goals to manage both policy and science.
Detailed results and analysis
This study identified three major developmental periods in the evolution of alcohol industry social aspects organizations. In each of these three phases, a new major emphasis emerged, adding to rather than replacing the earlier concerns.
The researchers present data on each phase from the tobacco documents, before considering contemporary relevance.
1. Shaping the science and defining the problem as ‘alcoholism’, not alcohol use, from the 1950s onward
Following repeal of U.S. National Prohibition in 1933, distilled spirits companies refrained from advertising on television and radio and inaugurated self-regulation of marketing in other media. Hill and Knowlton (H&K) consulted for the distilled spirits industry organization Licensed Beverage Industries Inc. (LBI) from 1950 onward to develop a public relations strategy. See Box 1 to understand the LBI objectives. This approach was closely mirrored in H&K’s well-known work for the tobacco companies from December 1953, for whom they set up and ran the Tobacco Industry Research Committee (TIRC) to oppose scientific developments that threatened tobacco company interests.
In both cases it was the founder, John W. Hill, who led the early engagement with the industries. The H&K documents were archived in the Ness Motley Law Firm collection.
Box 1. Licensed Beverage Industries social research activities objectives 1959–1964 (Boxell, 1964)
- “1. To support and encourage scientific research to bring this problem under control and reduce it to minimal proportions with a corresponding reduction in the impact of this problem both on the public and our industry.
- To firmly establish in the public mind that ours is a mature and responsible industry deserving of public confidence and support both in this area and in general.
- To establish and maintain proper public perspective toward these problems and to prevent misconceptions suggesting that liquor is the cause of alcoholism and should be treated accordingly.” (p. 14)
Like the TIRC, LBI identified itself as the “public relations and research organization of the liquor industry”, with funding scientific research central to the public relations strategy. By 1966 LBI had awarded 125 grants. The successor organization, the Distilled Spirits Council of the U.S. (DISCUS), had cumulatively awarded 372 by 1979. Although the program itself was heavily publicized, its objectives were not.
- H&K also produced materials on illicitly produced alcohol, which is still today an ongoing global industry concern.
- They also produced various “economic surveys” at the U.S. state level, making clear the contribution of the industry to the economy.
- In addition, H&K helped coordinate lobbying efforts to defeat a distilled spirits advertising ban and assisted on efforts aiming at taxation reduction.
The “medical” program comprised the collection and dissemination of scientific information on alcohol. It provided seed funding to early career scientists in major universities with medical schools in the United States and Canada. A 1964 H&K evaluation identified for extensive partnerships on alcohol education in schools and influence on legislation in the United States, alongside the research funding provided.
“[F]inancial support of scientific research is the essential keystone of all the industry activities in this field. It provides conclusive evidence of our industry’s sense of responsibility and sincerity, establishing LBI and the industry as a knowledgeable leader in the field of alcohol studies and related areas.”The 1964 evaluation report
The latter produced a pilot study finding of a J-curve relationship between level of alcohol use and harm suggestive of a beneficial effect. This type of finding would later be the subject of a major and still unresolved scientific controversy about alcohol’s putative cardioprotective effects.
In the 1960s, the proposed J-curve relationship was between alcohol use and driving, reporting, “fewer accidents among drivers who have had a drink or two than among totally-abstaining drivers” (Boxell, 1964).
Among the key stated conclusions were that the public accepted that ‘alcoholism’ was a disease, and that prohibition or other restrictions on the industry were not appropriate responses.
The emphasis H&K placed on the importance of science as foundational to the industry’s public relations was thus very similar for both the distilled spirits and tobacco industries, and in both cases the programs were directed by H&K, although H&K stopped working with the tobacco industry in 1968.
Science was mobilized to shape perceptions of the product, which in turn had key implications for public policy.
2. Organizing the U.S. industry across beverages: The 1970s onward
When DISCUS was formed in 1973 by the merger of LBI with the Distilled Spirits Institute (DSI) and the Bourbon Institute, Samuel D. Chilcote became the principal operating officer. He had worked briefly for LBI, and more extensively for DSI since 1967. He described DSI as a trade association, whereas LBI “was more a public relations arm for the distilleries”. Chilcote became President and CEO of DISCUS between 1978 and 1981. He was then recruited by the Tobacco Institute, a successor public relations organization to the TIRC, also devised by H&K.
People problem, not product problem
Chilcote himself believed he was recruited by the Tobacco Institute because “[w]e faced a lot of problems, similar to those faced by the cigarette industry … The industry wanted to become recognized as responsible citizens in the community; to co-operate with the government in positive programs; to make the community aware that abuse of the product was a people problem and not a product problem; … [to be] an aggressive trade association … pushing for changes in regulations and protecting the industry”.
Chilcote was the founding chairman of the Beverage Alcohol Information Council. The council had been formed, after working closely with H&K, as a response to the proposed mandatory introduction of health warning labels (“Caution: Consumption of Alcoholic Beverages May Be Hazardous To Your Health”) on alcohol beverage containers in the United States in 1979. According to H&K’s account, this was successfully blocked with a multi-sectoral alliance, and when the focus shifted to fetal alcohol syndrome, they proposed the formation of the Beverage Alcohol Information Council as the private sector response to the issue.
The Beverage Alcohol Information Council comprised 10 trade association members, representing all sectors of the alcoholic beverage industry, not just distilled spirits. Both beer and wine industry interests had similarly opposed the proposed measures, drawing in part on the experience of Prohibition. The Council led a national public education campaign, initially on alcohol use and pregnancy, and subsequently on other issues. It dissuaded the passage of the proposed regulation and secured partnerships in alcohol health promotion campaigns. Warning label legislation was delayed until 1988 and remains in effect.
Box 2. DISCUS public service advertising campaign communication objectives and guidelines 1981 (Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, 1981)
- “1. To clearly communicate that the liquor industry is actively interested and concerned about the problems of alcohol abuse.
- To clarify public understanding that alcohol abuse rather than use is the source of alcohol related problems and that moderate alcohol consumption is fully compatible with other widely held social and health values.
- Where possible, attempt to de-sensationalize the various issues related to alcohol abuse and to suggest that the problems are manageable through enhanced personal awareness and responsible behavior by the target audience.
- DISCUS has established a close relationship over the years with the major organizations representing alcohol beverage retailers. Campaign elements that would lend themselves to on-premise tie-ins would enhance the communication value of the total effort on behalf of the liquor industry since the public does not generally view the producer, wholesaler and retailer as separate and distinct elements when thinking about the industry.
- Previous DISCUS messages have been widely accepted and reprinted by a variety of health, education and safety organizations, greatly expanding the total outreach of our campaign. It is desirable, therefore, that advertisements be so devised as to permit groups other than the liquor industry to identify themselves, in a sponsoring fashion, with our advertising.”
The internal DISCUS approach to public service advertising campaigns explicitly built on earlier historical continuities, defending the image of the product and denying the need for policy measures. The objectives in 1981 are presented in Box 2, and the fusions with marketing and sponsorship appear to be innovations.
A 1979 Wharton study identified the distilled spirits industry, focusing on DISCUS, as more robust in responding to its critics than either the beer or petroleum industries, including through the formation of coalitions such as the Beverage Alcohol Information Council. Whereas LBI was similar to the TIRC and later alcohol industry research funding organizations, the Beverage Alcohol Information Council, although it folded, more closely resembled the alcohol industry social aspects organizations that were to emerge later, spanning all sectors of the alcohol industry.
3. Responding to the global existential threat posed by science since the 1980s
The attempt to introduce warning labels was only one application of the developing scientific evidence base that demonstrated that alcohol use was damaging throughout the population and not just for so-called ‘alcoholics’.
Chilcote’s former colleague, the DISCUS Vice President for Research and Public Information, Paul Gavaghan, produced an analysis in February 1986 of the strategic challenge posed to all sectors of the alcohol industry by the “anti-alcohol lobby”. Internationally, he described a movement originating in the mid-1970s seeking to persuade governments that the availability of alcohol should be controlled with “goals that were antagonistic to the beer, wine and spirits industries”. His analysis specifically identified a range of researchers, treatment professionals, and advocates as comprising an international alliance which had successfully influenced the WHO with what was described as a “dangerous approach”. WHO was indeed important in communicating population-level ideas on alcohol, although it was at this time under severe pressure from the Reagan administration’s threats to withdraw from WHO. Under this pressure, WHO distanced itself from a major scientific report conducted under its auspices, which directed attention toward industry structure and the expansion of transnational corporations, in developing countries in particular.
The analysis goes on to accurately specify price, availability, and marketing restrictions as key measures in line with the existing evidence.
The global character of the threat was emphasized.
Their availability hypothesis alleges that the rate of alcohol-related problems in any country can be proportionately reduced by … regulatory and economic sanctions.”Gavaghan characterized the scientific consensus (Gavaghan, 1986a)
Predecessor organizations to DISCUS had been active in the Fédération Internationale des Vins et Spiritueux (FIVS), an umbrella group of trade associations, formed in 1959, which monitored policy issues in different countries. By 1986 FIVS had well-developed position statements on the key policy issues, which were elaborated and accompanied by supportive scientific and other bibliographies as a resource to national trade association members.
[I]f the control of alcohol availability agenda becomes worldwide public policy, there will be no industry as we know it. It makes sense to unite on positions opposing the co-ordinated worldwide anti-lobby on key alcohol/health issues.”Calling on the beer sector to join with wine and distilled spirits, (Gavaghan, 1986a).
Correspondence between Chilcote and Gavaghan during 1986 indicates a close information-sharing relationship, particularly in connection with the activities of WHO and the European Economic Community (now the European Union). Gavaghan affirmed the value of “intensive, continued monitoring” by H&K sources in Brussels and Geneva, particularly in relation to “WHO monitoring for the American tobacco and liquor industries”.
Tobacco and alcohol interests, particularly at the instigation of the former, conceived of themselves as facing a common enemy of anti-product forces, which they associated with the “colossal failure” of prohibition. They conflated any public policies seeking to influence the overall level of consumption with prohibition. Tobacco Institute monitoring of the alcohol sector identified various candidates for recruitment, for example as “interceders” on addiction. As litigation became a problem for the tobacco industry, its lawyers were also working on legal risks in relation to alcohol.
Although the DISCUS/Tobacco Institute/H&K axis maintained strategic connections between the two industries, it was not the only connection. British American Tobacco included a report on the WHO alcohol program from April 1984 in their monitoring, which identified the WHO staff member, Marcus Grant, who would become the founding president of the International Center for Alcohol Policies, the first global alcohol industry social aspects organization.
Previous WHO investigations have exposed the role played by a British American Tobacco consultant, Paul Dietrich, working with others, in attacking the organization. Dietrich also covered alcohol in the mid-1980s onward, arguing in a British American Tobacco–sponsored initiative that WHO should be fighting malaria and cholera rather than such first-world concerns as alcohol and tobacco. He attacked publicly funded research designed to show that alcohol was “bad”. This was claimed to amount to a “scientific prohibition”. A survey of ministers of health in developing countries claimed to show that alcohol was among the lowest ranked priorities. Correspondence does suggest that Dietrich’s arguments were used successfully to overturn a ban on alcohol and tobacco advertising in Czechoslovakia.
Although the developing science was recognized as a major strategic threat across the alcohol industry, as well as by the tobacco companies, the organizational character of the responses needed had not been agreed between the major companies or trade associations, within the United States or elsewhere.
The WHO was identified repeatedly as having “extreme and overstated concerns” about rising alcohol consumption in the 1960s and 1970s, which had led to worrying policy developments in the early to mid-1980s whose “cumulative effect was threatening to the world-wide drinks industry”. These stemmed from the “Anti-Alcohol Movement,” which posed “a genuinely serious threat to our freedoms to market our products”, according to Peter Mitchell, former Strategic Affairs Director of Guinness plc, speaking at the tobacco industry TABEXPO event in Geneva in 1998.
Mitchell’s account is that he personally set about persuading major company leaderships globally that a “joint effort was needed” because “at the apex [of the industry] is a handful of very large global players”. The outcome he described as the creation of an organizational model that was arms-length from the companies themselves, dedicated “to countering alcohol misuse and to encouraging sensible, moderate consumption” while also seeking to “demonstrate to political and public opinion that it was a responsible industry with sensibly regulated marketing practices”.
The strategic need of the alcohol industry was to promote “a pan-industry approach to the alcohol debate”. As a result, according to Mitchell, the industry was seen to be better positioned to implement marketing self-regulation, having gained better relations with government on all aspects of policy, as well as being regarded more positively by the public.
This retrospective account of the emergence of contemporary forms of alcohol industry social aspects organizations delivered to a tobacco industry audience, from a key figure involved, is consistent with the earlier data sources within the tobacco documents, although it does not directly cite them.
When the Century Council was launched, the press release identified six programs being funded with $40 million to address community interventions, target driving under the influence of alcohol and underage alcohol use, support treatment, and promote self-regulation of marketing.
The Century Council was renamed as the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility in 2014 and focused on driving under the influence of alcohol and underage alcohol use until 2019, when it closely aligned itself with DISCUS.
Alcohol industry trade associations such as DISCUS and FIVS continue to promote the policy positions they have advocated for decades in opposition to the existential threat posed by population-level alcohol science, while at the same time espousing rhetorical commitments to evidence-based policy.
The successor to the International Center for Alcohol Policies as the global-level social aspects organization formed by the major alcohol production companies is the IARD. IARD operates similarly to the trade associations and national-level social aspects organizations as a plausible and effective vehicle for public relations management of science and policy that is contrary to the interests of industry. The ongoing alcohol industry public relations enterprise has been successfully pursued for more than 60 years. Like the tobacco company strategy, it appears to have been successful in delaying the adoption of known effective policy responses for decades; unlike tobacco, that continues to be the case.
The publicly stated goals and practices of the IARD (International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, 2020)
“We are the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD), a not-for-profit organization dedicated to reducing harmful drinking and promoting understanding of responsible drinking. We are supported by the leading global beer, wine, and spirits producers, who have come together for a common purpose: to be part of the solution in combating harmful drinking. To advance this shared mission, IARD works and partners with public sector, civil society, and private stakeholders.
“IARD actively supports international goals to reduce harmful drinking, including the target in the World Health Organization’s (WHO) ‘Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD) Global Monitoring Framework’ of reducing the harmful use of alcohol by at least 10% by 2025 and United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 3.5. IARD’s member companies also positively impact a broad range of SDGs and want to do more.” (p. 2)
“IARD’s work is informed by scientific evidence on alcohol and health, including alcohol policy. By bringing together data and research on drinking patterns, alcohol in society, and regulations at a national level, IARD examines practices around policies and interventions that reduce harmful drinking. IARD’s tools and resources are intended to support stakeholders in formulating approaches that can be adapted to local needs and contexts.” (p. 3)
IARD views on: “Challenges & Setbacks to implementation of the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy” in response to WHO’s 2019 consultation (International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, 2019)
“7. Undue emphasis on reducing alcohol consumption per se, risks undermining Member States’ actions in priority areas such as underage drinking, drink driving, and heavy episodic drinking;
8. Over-emphasis on three ‘best buy’ policies [price, availability and marketing policies], can divert attention from other important evidence-based actions recommended in the GAS [Global Alcohol Strategy];
9. Lagging implementation and weak enforcement of enabling regulations, inhibiting supportive contributions from other sectors;
10. Barriers to a whole-of-society approach, particularly exclusion of the private sector from efforts or support public health;
11. Developments in digital technology which raise concerns for some, also bring opportunities to deliver better protection for minors and vulnerable groups, in line with the 2018 UN Political Declaration (PD) on NCDs [noncommunicable diseases];
12. Gaps in data collection and barriers to private sector support for increased data collection.” [numbers as they appear in original]
Discussion and summary
This study provides a somewhat fragmented appreciation of the unknown history of alcohol industry social aspects organizations, using internal documents. The U.S. distilled spirits industry regarded the harms caused by use of their products as a public relations issue to be managed. The strategy designed by H&K was founded on the importance of managing the science in highly similar ways to the approach they developed for the tobacco companies, reproducing a playbook of key messages that have endured for decades.
The key tenets were accepted by other parts of the alcohol industry in facing the common enemy of public health and social welfare.
The alcohol and tobacco industries have been deeply interwoven for decades in facing strategic threats to business interests. The science, which shows that the more alcohol consumed in a given society the higher the prevalence of a wide range of related problems, is unsurprising, yet it is still strongly attacked in alcohol industry public relations, as are the policy measures indicated by the evidence.
This study adds to existing lines of evidence on the policy-related functions of the International Center for Alcohol Policies.
Social aspects organizations have been shown here to be designed to manage public policy issues in order to safeguard business interests and not to act in the public interest, as is claimed. It thus may be more appropriate to refer to them simply as public relations organizations, rather than to accept the industry designation and perhaps unwittingly imply that they fulfil any social rather than business purpose.
Mergers and acquisitions mean that there are smaller numbers of companies dominating beer and distilled spirits production and marketing, with presumably greater capacity to perform such operations.
It is challenging to contemplate just how profoundly the alcohol industry may have biased what we think we know about alcohol. Ideas associated with the disease concept of alcoholism were foundational to the modern era of alcohol science and although they were not the sole prerogative of industry, they may have been particularly distorting of science, as well as to experience and understanding of the problems caused by alcohol in the general population.
It is noteworthy that alcohol features in the emerging literatures on undone science and forbidden knowledge. Obvious targets for further study include industry influence of the science of alcohol’s harms, benefits, and policy responses. The tobacco industry document archive is clearly an important resource to be more deeply mined in further studies. For example, closer study of historical issues may shed light on contemporary issues, and overlapping ownership and control, senior personnel movements, controversies in science, and important policy developments all provide targets for investigation.
There are also other less obvious targets for study. Tobacco industry actors successfully created ignorance about key issues for decades, and alcohol is clearly an under-developed science in relation to the scale of the problem. Most study of alcohol’s harm to others has only been since 2010. Major alcohol companies should be expected to have well-developed scientific programs, as with the tobacco companies. Yet we know little about internal research conducted by the alcohol industry.
As alcohol companies seek to develop new markets in low- and middle-income countries, the limitations inherent in national-level policy responses become more apparent. There has been no progress globally in reducing per capita consumption, and projections indicate that further increases are likely, particularly in low- and middle-income countries where it will do the most damage (WHO, 2018). WHO is seeking to accelerate efforts to reduce the alcohol use and harm.
Public health policy making relating to tobacco is protected from industry interference by the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control section 5.3, which requires signatories to act to protect the formulation and implementation of public health policies from commercial and other vested interests of the tobacco industry (WHO, 2012). The evidence presented here suggests that public health policy-making processes should also be protected from interference by alcohol company trade associations and public relations organizations in the same way, in some form of binding international agreement (Room & Cisneros Örnberg, 2020).
This study provides ample reasons to regard the nature of the threat posed by large alcohol companies to health as essentially similar to the threat from the tobacco companies.
This study changes our understanding of the alcohol industry, elucidating similarities and inter-relationships with the tobacco industry. Public health interests should be especially vigilant in respect of the subversion of science through efforts to
- to unravel the consensus reached in the research community
- to undermine the integrity of science by using research funding as an instrument of public relations, and
- to aggressively challenge research findings in the public domain.
Contrary to the industry public relations narrative, enhanced personal awareness and attending to one’s own behavior are not sufficient to address the nature of the problem. It is not best prevented by education. Policy measures are needed that influence the social determinants of individual behavior and manage the alcohol industry in the public interest.