Alcohol companies shouldn’t be barred from publicly-funded events
“Taxpayer pays for international temperance shindig” – Christopher Snowdon from the Institute of Economic Affairs didn’t miss the mark in his website blog when he lambasted the organisers of the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (GAPA) conference held in Edinburgh last month.
Although the three-day summit was supported by, among others, the Scottish Government, NHS Scotland and the World Health Organisation – and co-hosted by publicly-funded Alcohol Focus Scotland (AFS) – the door was slammed on representatives from the drinks industry.
When one drinks company employee attempted to book a place, the “conference team” told him he wasn’t “permitted” to attend as the Alliance was a network of organisations who “share information” on alcohol issues “free from commercial interests”.
This isn’t the first time a “health” conference has frozen out the industry.
Back in March 2011, when AFS co-hosted a conference with anti-smoking lobbyist ASH, a similar ban was imposed because the organisers didn’t want “vested interests” involved in a discussion on possible public health reforms that would take a “zero tolerance” approach to both smoking and drinking.
The late Evelyn Gillan, then chief executive at AFS, told the Scotsman newspaper (March 10, 2011): “Public health experts should be given proper deference and the alcohol industry are not experts on public health”. She also said that new research had stiffened AFS’s approach to drink.
And last year, when four public health campaigners found themselves at the same table as key industry players, including the Scottish Retail Consortium, the Scottish Licensed Trade Association and the Scottish Grocers’ Federation, it became just too much for them – and they walked out.
The National Licensing Advisory Group was a replacement of sorts for the short-lived National Licensing Forum, facilitated – but not “owned”– by the Scottish Government.
The then justice secretary Kenny MacAskill saw value in having the widest possible representation, telling SLTN (January 24, 2013) that “the absence of the trade would frankly be a bit daft”.
Commendably in my view, MacAskill stuck to his guns after resignations were handed in by Dr Gillan, Eric Carlin, director of Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, NHS public health consultant Dr Catherine Chiang and Nicholas Smith of the Edinburgh Alcohol and Drug Partnership – who felt that it was “not appropriate for the sellers of alcohol to sit on a body examining licensing”.
Responding to the latest spat, a Scottish Government spokeswoman pointed out that the GAPA conference wasn’t hosted by Holyrood. “The list of invited attendees was a matter for the organisers, and not the Scottish Government,” she said.
Fair enough, but in my view the government should not be providing support for events that exclude tax-paying key stakeholders – particularly when AFS enjoys substantial public backing.
According to its latest return lodged with the Scottish Charity Regulator, in the year to March 31, 2014, the organisation received government funding totaling £539,318 – more than half its overall income.
In his welcome to the conference delegates, the chair of AFS, Dr Mac Armstrong, described the summit as a “unique opportunity for researchers, NGOs, policymakers and health professionals to come together to share knowledge and inspire each other to advocate for the policies that will work to reduce the significant harm that alcohol causes in our countries”.
No doubt there was much valuable information sharing but it’s just beyond me how any progress can be made when responsible retailers – once again tiresomely characterised as “Big Alcohol” in one of the presentation titles – are left on the doorstep.
As one of my colleagues remarked, the drive to improve Scotland’s drinking culture will be far better served by dialogue instead of dogmatism, conversation instead of confrontation.