Insights Nigel Fairbrass

Public health england refuses to bottle it

Bosses at Public Health England (PHE) might be forgiven a stiff drink tonight, after their joint campaign with alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, set off an unseemly brawl this week. 

[vc_row row_type=”row” use_row_as_full_screen_section=”no” type=”full_width” text_align=”left” background_animation=”none” css_animation=””][vc_column][vc_column_text]Bosses at Public Health England (PHE) might be forgiven a stiff drink tonight, after their joint campaign with alcohol education charity, Drinkaware, set off an unseemly brawl this week.  Drinkaware and PHE launched Drink Free Days on Monday, urging middle-aged drinkers to take two alcohol-free days a week.  The campaign was immediately overshadowed, however, by the resignations of Professor Ian Gilmore and Professor John Britton, co-chairmen of the Alcohol Leadership and Tobacco Control Implementation Boards of PHE.  In a faintly pompous letter to The Times, the academics objected to the tie up because Drinkaware is 92% funded by the alcohol industry and in their view such partnerships: ‘undermine, water down or otherwise neutralise policies to reduce consumption.’[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”691″ img_size=”full” qode_css_animation=”” css=”.vc_custom_1538416250839{margin-top: 32px !important;margin-bottom: 32px !important;}”][vc_column_text]Gilmore has form in wrecking industry initiatives, having flounced out of negotiations in 2011 to create a Responsibility Deal between industry and government.  In this instance, he has the apparent backing of almost 50 other public health grandees, who wrote to the PHE as recently as August, claiming the joint campaign would undermine PHE’s credibility, citing fairly minor sins of omission on Drinkaware’s website as evidence of its apparent deep complicity with the alcohol industry.


Response? The PHE looked wholly unprepared for the vitriol directed at them in the early part of the week, and under the circumstances might have been expected to fold their tents and live another day.  It was a surprise therefore, that Professor John Newton, PHE Director of Health popped up on the BBC’s Today programme (2hrs 36 mins) and the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show (56 mins) on Thursday morning, and against the run of play struck a decisive blow for supporters of common sense everywhere.  With an engaging bedside manner, Newton not only ably justified the PHE’s decision to back the campaign, but then did a far better job of defending Drinkaware than Drinkaware themselves had managed all week.  Against the shrill outrage of a BBC all too happy to assume the worst of alcohol companies, Newton then went as far as to describe industry efforts to support drinking guidelines as ‘well meaning’, no doubt guaranteeing him numerous enemies in the knitting circle of public health ideologues.


Impact? Despite PHE’s efforts, the fact that the drinks industry was such an easy bogey man to summon forth must have dismayed a sector which has worked hard in the last 20 years to get its house in order and align itself with society’s expectations.  However, in a week in which even the Archbishop of Canterbury has attacked the role of business, the inchoate fury levelled at a largely unblemished charity for taking ‘dirty’ money from industry has more worrying ramifications.  The widening ideological gulf between private enterprise and those on both the political left and right of the spectrum, appears to threaten any joint partnerships with national and local government.  It also calls into question the premise that business can play a meaningful role in resolving societal issues associated with its products, which for those in sectors such as gambling, or with products high in salt, fat and sugar such as Coco-Cola, Pepsi or MacDonalds, it may also have them reaching for the bottle this weekend.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]