Background Alcohol is the third largest risk factor for disease burden worldwide, after hypertension and tobacco use. Although there is an extensive evidence base on the most effective interventions to reduce alcohol harms at a population level (through targeting marketing, availability and price), the main focus of alcohol industry initiatives has been on providing information and education. “Responsible drinking” messaging (e.g. “Drink [product] Responsibly”) which frequently appears on product labels and adverts is a central element of such corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities. It has been argued that such messaging is vague, and potentially part of broader CSR activities to protect industry interests at the expense of public health. This study aimed to identify how industry defines responsible drinking, and in what contexts it is used.
Methods Qualitative documentary analysis A document search was carried out to identify publicly available documents (annual reports, shareholder communications, press releases and website content), published or available between January 2014 and July 2016, from two representative multinational alcohol producers (Diageo and AB InBev), Diageo’s DrinkIQ website, the Portman Group, the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, the International Centre for Alcohol Policy or ICAP, and the DrinkAware Trust (all organisations funded by alcohol producers). These were compared to alcohol-related documents from Public Health England, WHO, Alcohol Concern and Addaction during this period.
Coding was performed iteratively using NVivo 11 (version 11.2.2), and analysed using the hermeneutic approach, which involves reading and understanding meanings of individual texts, identifying sub-themes or ‘codes’, identifying thematic clusters of codes, triangulation between sources, checking reliability/validity, and illustrative use of representative case material.
Results In total, 321 documents were evaluated, of which 101 referred to responsible drinking and were therefore included in the analysis.
The term “responsible drinking” was used almost exclusively by industry or industry-funded organisations. Responsible drinking was not clearly defined with relation to any particular level of alcohol consumption, and government alcohol guidelines were rarely referenced. Long-term health harms (such as non-communicable diseases) were not mentioned in association with responsible drinking. Instead, responsible drinking was typically linked to behaviours (such as underage drinking).
Conclusion Responsible drinking is a strategically ambiguous, industry-affiliated term allowing multiple interpretations. Industry sources rarely reference government drinking guidelines in the context of responsible drinking, instead stressing individual responsibility and risk management. Public health practitioners should be aware of these distinctions, and the industry framing of ‘responsible’ drinking, and use clear language regarding lower-risk drinking.
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