Honest alcohol conversation needed

While the research row over an alcohol company-funded report by a British anthropologist which found no direct link between alcohol and violence is unsurprising, it is disappointing worthy content is being overlooked in the backlash.

The report - "Understanding behaviour in the Australian and New Zealand night-time economies: An anthropological study'' - was written by Dr Anne Fox, founding director of Galahad SMS, a company which (according to its website) designs and delivers programmes that provide "substance-misuse solutions''.

The report found "no direct relationship between per capita levels of consumption and rates of violence'', that "alcohol-related violence is just one aspect of a culture of violence'' and that  "scapegoating alcohol as the sole cause of violence merely diverts attention from violent men and the maladaptive cultural norms that allow their behaviour to develop and proliferate''.

The report said alcohol advertising had a negligible impact.

It contained very little about alcohol availability and legislation.

Dr Fox said her arguments formed part of her doctoral thesis at Imperial College in London.

It is well known universities struggle for research money and alternative funding will inevitably be taken up.

But it is also no secret various industries - from food and beverage, to agri-chemical and pharmaceutical companies - employ researchers to generate "findings'' beneficial to them.

It is important in any area with much at stake - big business, big money, big trade deals and big social ramifications - that competing interests are disclosed, therefore.

Dr Fox has made no secret of alcohol giant Lion's involvement.

According to her report's introduction, the project was "initiated'' by Lion and Dr Fox's research team at Galahad was "commissioned'' to examine the socio-cultural forces involved in "night-time economies''.

It does not take a cynic to translate "initiated'' and "commissioned'' to "ordered and paid for'', however.

A quick look at Galahad's website, which lists Lion as a "client'' (albeit alongside Government and local body agencies, alcohol advisory groups and the like), only seems to confirm this.

Dr Fox maintains her study has not been influenced by the industry, but there will always be the suspicion of bias in the findings.

Other researchers are concerned Lion is trying to use its power to influence licensing decisions and public policy and cast doubt over existing research which shows a link between alcohol and violence.

It is certainly questionable whether the "findings'' can be seen as such given the "brief'' from a paying client appears specifically to be to examine the "cultural drivers'' of alcohol misuse and anti-social behaviour.

It is a shame all round really, for the report raises valid points.

This newspaper has long maintained there is a cocktail of factors contributing to our appalling violence statistics, one of which is alcohol abuse, but another is undoubtedly our "frontier mentality'', a "hard man'' and misogynistic attitude - evident everywhere from the sports field and sidelines, to the workplace, to the home.

Dr Fox maintains the same in her report, and points to other big-drinking cultures (such as French or Scandinavian) where violence does not feature to the same degree as here.

She says we blame our bad behaviour on alcohol, even using it as a defence in court, we have a binge-drinking culture and we accept "drunken comportment'' more readily than other societies.

As we have argued too, she says the onus must be on individual responsibility, that parents could be better role models and that we could help youngsters better navigate the cultural minefield around drinking.

It is vital we keep debating the issues, examining the causes and hearing all the voices in the debate.

But that debate must be fair and honest.

It is a real shame, therefore, that Dr Fox has effectively silenced herself by aligning herself with an alcohol industry giant when her findings could have made a valuable contribution had they been genuinely independent.

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