I predict a lot of debate and attention to the idea that alcohol consumption is healthy or harmful. A key strategy for public health groups and other advocates of further alcohol controls (such as a minimum unit price of alcohol) is to reframe the debate – by challenging the idea that alcohol can be healthy, in particular circumstances, if consumed in small amounts. A key strategy for the alcohol industry is to maintain that image so that they can argue that alcohol policy should be targeted at problem drinkers only. One is a public health argument calling for general policy measures that influence the drinking habits of the population (e.g. raise prices, ban promotion). The other is an individualised argument calling for specific measures that deal with particular people (e.g. provide NHS services for alcoholism; change police powers to deal with anti-social behaviour). So, the *way we understand the evidence* is key battle ground in the policy debate. That is why you will find public health groups so bothered by the fact that the industry takes such an important part in the production, dissemination and interpretation of the evidence within government and when communicating with the public (e.g. drinkaware.org is funded by the industry).
Now, in my day, as an undergraduate, we might try to interpret that sort of story in terms of early insights on Power by people like Bachrach and Baratz. Power is not simply about visible conflicts in which one group wins and another loses (such as in a policy debate in government). Rather, groups may exercise power to reinforce social attitudes (perhaps to make sure that the debate does not get that far). If the weight of public opinion is against government action, maybe governments will not intervene. In this case, if the vast majority of people think that moderate alcohol consumption is healthy (or not harmful), they may not support control measures that affect the whole population. In fact, it is a measure of public health group success that it even *occurs* to us to consider the issue. Still, a key part of the minimum-unit-price debate is that it punishes responsible drinkers as much as problem drinkers. This will not be such a powerful argument if the vast majority of the public begins to believe that we are *all* problem drinkers (well, apart from me – I don’t touch the stuff).
See also: http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/archives/34735
‘Alcohol’s evaporating health benefits’ http://linkis.com/www.bmj.com/content/kpLcG
3 responses to “Alcohol: the Harmful versus Healthy Debate”
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Reblogged this on Paul Cairney: Politics & Public Policy and commented:
Reblogged to coincide with the latest headlines: ‘Drinkers Told Any Alcohol Carries Cancer Risk ‘ http://news.sky.com/story/1618772/drinkers-told-any-alcohol-carries-cancer-risk?dcmp=snt-sf-twitter
See also: After the War on Tobacco, Is a War on Alcohol Next? https://paulcairney.wordpress.com/2013/10/25/after-the-war-on-tobacco-is-a-war-on-alcohol-next/