This week, scientists from Australia and the UK are taking a break from their professional research to wave their fists angrily at the alcohol industry. In hopes of reducing alcohol abuse, they are calling for a new approach to the debate over whether alcohol industry sponsorship of sports increases drinking among sports participants.  They want to shift the burden of proof to the alcohol industry.

The debate over sports sponsorship saw renewed activity last year when the findings of a 2008 New Zealand study among sports participants showed that those who received alcohol industry sponsorship – especially in the form of free or discounted alcohol – drank more heavily than those not in receipt of such sponsorship.

The study received extensive media coverage, but the Portman Group (a public relations body set up by the alcohol industry) and the European Sponsorship Association (whose members include leading alcohol producers) dismissed the results, citing no causal relationship between sponsorships and alcohol misuse. And since the Portman Group has ties to the alcohol industry, they must be lying and their objections to the study should not be considered as a result.

In an editorial to be published in Addiction, researchers say that the alcohol industry should be required to prove a negative--that industry sponsorship of sports does not cause unhealthy alcohol use among adults or encourage children to drink. 

They argue that "it should not be left to the public to demonstrate that alcohol industry sponsorship is harmful but rather, it should be up to the proponents of the activity, i.e., the alcohol industry, to show that the practice is harmless." 

On the contrary, it should be up to those who want to use coercion to advance their policy agendas to prove alcohol sponsorship is harmful. After all, nobody is forced to drink and, contrary to the opinions anti-alcohol activists, consumers do have the ability to overcome the influence of advertising. Therefore, let's find out if a serious problem actually exists before proceeding.

Lead author Dr Kypros Kypri said that the position taken by the drinks industry is reminiscent of that taken by the tobacco companies, which until the 1990s doggedly denied that there was proof of a causal association between smoking and lung cancer. Of course, the fundamental difference is that the alcohol industry is not denying that there are health risks associated with drinking, only that adults don't need bureaucratic nannies to monitor their behavior. 

 Dr Kypri suggested that "The latest moves by the major sporting codes in Australia, to lobby against the regulation of alcohol sponsorship of sport, are indicative that these bodies remain in denial of alcohol-related problems in their sports. In addition, it is clear that the these organizations have enormous vested interests in continuing to receive alcohol money and government should be careful to act in the public interest rather than cave in to the sports and Big Booze."

Although, "public interest" in this instance is highly subjective. More restrictions on individual freedom and higher taxes only constitute "public interest" if you ask the right people.

The editorial's solution to the scourge brought upon innocent consumers by "Big Booze" and their wicked sports sponsorships is truly creative and something you probably didn't see coming. In place of industry sponsorship, the researchers suggest that governments use the proceeds from alcohol taxation to sponsor sports via an independent body. 

Such an approach is already in place in Australia and New Zealand, where tax revenues from tobacco sales are used to sponsor sports and other activities through publicly accountable agencies. The authors point out that this has the added advantage of providing a more equitable and accountable basis for allocating sponsorship of elite and community sport than leaving it up to the alcohol industry to decide who gets funded.

Good point. Why should privately owned businesses and their customers have the final say when it comes to advertising and consumption of their product when that can be left to the benevolent shepherds in government?

Citation: Kypros Kypri, Kerry O'Brien, Peter Miller,
'Time for precautionary action on alcohol industry funding of sporting bodies', Addiction Online, doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2009.02711.x