By Jason Blanchette and Michele Simon
Overconsumption of alcohol remains the third largest cause of preventable death in the United States, causing roughly 88,000 Americans to die prematurely each year. Moreover the costs of alcohol problems to society top $200 billion annually. The alcohol industry, in attempting to deflect blame away from its incessant and exploitative marketing practices, especially to youth, loves to keep the focus on illegal activities such as drunk driving. (Never mind that most alcohol harm stems from disease, crimes, and other forms of injury.)
Enter the Century Council, a front group for the distilled spirits industry, backed entirely by the world’s largest corporations including Bacardi, Beam, Diageo, and Pernod Ricard. This group is funding a program this semester with Suffolk University Law School in Boston purportedly to teach law students how to prosecute and adjudicate drunk driving cases.
Both the law school and the Century Council are touting the program as “the first-of-its-kind intensive course in order to further advance the fight against drunk driving.” After the class is tested in Boston, it will be made available to law students nationwide, spreading the industry-funded campaign.
Is the law school faculty so ignorant of the policy making process and of conflicts of interests that they failed to see this partnership for what it is: giving PR credibility to alcohol corporate lobbyists at the expense of public safety.
Prosecution is not a public health prevention strategy, rather it’s a distraction aimed at focusing on individualized solutions that occur too late to have significant positive impact. By forming this partnership, Suffolk has become a tool for spirits industry lobbyists to show off to legislators about its alleged desire to eradicate drunk driving; all the while they continue to lobby against effective policies.
Alcohol corporations have a well-honed reputation for inserting themselves into public health interests while lobbying against policies (PDF) that would reduce alcohol-related problems, including drunk driving policies. Truly preventive policies lead to consumption of fewer drinks before setting out on the road, but also result in lowered revenue for alcohol corporations.
For example, for many years, the alcohol industry fought Mothers Against Drunk Driving (PDF) in lowering the blood alcohol limit to .08 despite ample evidence that lowering the limit prevents traffic fatalities. Now comes recommendations from the National Traffic Safety Board and alcohol policy researchers to lower the blood alcohol limit to .05 to save between 500 to 800 lives annually, while alcohol industry trade groups, including the Distilled Spirits Council, are opposing such measures.
It’s repugnant for a law school charged with training new lawyers to take money from an industry that benefits from harming public health. Imagine if Phillip Morris donated money to a law school to help train young students in how to enforce teen smoking laws, would that be acceptable?
With this egregious partnership, Big Alcohol not only builds positive PR but also shifts the attention of budding advocates, protecting the industry from these future lawyers focusing on the underlying cause of the problem – excessive marketing practices and undermined alcohol control policies – and instead turns legal attention toward individuals to prosecute.
Meanwhile, pressure is mounting in Massachusetts to change state policy to remove the state cap for bars and other “on premise” liquor licenses in Boston. The city is also considering extending operating hours for bars and other alcohol outlets. Alcohol outlet density and hours of operation are two key areas of public health policy known to impact alcohol harm. Other research-based policies for curbing alcohol problems are raising alcohol taxes and curbing marketing, especially to youth. If Suffolk University Law School truly wants to “further advance the fight against drunk driving” it should turn to the nation’s top alcohol researchers for guidance, some of whom are in their own town at Boston University School of Medicine.
Partnering with the public relations arm of the nation’s most powerful distilled spirits corporations may result in “a first of its kind course” but it doesn’t set a good example for law students, nor does it advance public health goals. It only advances the cause of the very industry that is contributing to drunk driving in the first place.
Jason Blanchette, MPH, is an alcohol policy researcher at Boston Medical Center and is active in alcohol policy advocacy in Boston. This opinion is his own.