Co-regulation and alcohol industry political strategy: A case study of the Public Health England-Drinkaware Drink Free Days Campaign
This article examines the Drink Free Days (DFD) campaign run by Public Health England and the alcohol industry funded alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, in eight English regions in 2018–2019. More specifically, it examines uses, and usefulness, of the campaign to the alcohol producers which fund Drinkaware. It draws on 36 semi-structured interviews with policy actors and a framing analysis of industry social media accounts and news coverage of the campaign.
Industry-associated bodies such as Drinkaware have been identified as key components of alcohol industry strategies to influence policy and shape the regulatory contexts in which they operate in three ways.
- First, funding such bodies forms part of corporate social responsibility programmes which allow companies to position themselves as legitimate policy actors and ‘part of the solution’ to alcohol related harms.
- Second, reliance on industry funding incentivises governments to co-operate with industry actors and provides leverage in policy debates.
- Third, their programmes absorb policy bandwidth and deflect from more effective, evidence based interventions (e.g. on pricing and advertising) which affect industry sales and profits. This is particularly effective if the perception of independence from the industry is created.
The analysis presented below suggests that the DFD was not used explicitly by the industry actors for public relations purposes. However, it was useful to their broader strategic aims. It reinforced the position of Drinkaware as a key policy actor and promoted the particular, industry-favoured understanding of alcohol harms and their solutions which it promotes. This is in keeping with the previous insights from international research literature on corporate political activity in health harming industries which finds that policy influence is often subtle, indirect and designed to embed organisations within the policy architecture.
It suggests that government agencies should proceed with great caution in entering into such partnerships with industry associated bodies.
Even if the DFD campaign was not used strategically by the industry in intentional, short-term, transactional terms, it was advantageous to the industry in other ways:
- Reinforcing the position of Drinkaware as a key policy actor and thus the engagement of industry-funded bodies in the alcohol policy process; and
- Reputational advantage to Drinkaware through the association with a government health body such as PHE.
The very existence of Drinkaware thus represents both an informational and a diversional advantage to the alcohol industry actors, by promoting favourable policy narratives and deflecting attention from more effective policy interventions such as the regulation of pricing and promotional activity.
Understanding the importance of these entities requires a nuanced understanding of corporate political strategy as subtle, ongoing and often imperceptible as has been advanced by alcohol scholars previously.
- The DFD campaign was not promoted by alcohol industry actors.
- The partnership between Drinkaware and PHE was useful in indirect ways.
- It legitimises Drinkaware and reinforced its key position in UK alcohol policy.
- It promotes an industry-favourable policy framing.
- The campaign benefits industry regardless of whether there is industry influence over Drinkaware.