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Recreational Drug Wars: Alcohol Versus Ecstasy

In this article, Jim Carey, a freelance journalist, investigates how the alcohol industry has responded to the threat of competition from ecstasy.

For the second year in succession, Chancellor Kenneth Clarke
punctuated his 1996 budget speech with swigs of malt whisky. For the alcohol industry the event provided multiple cause for celebration. Not only had the Chancellor gifted them with another prime piece of televisual product placement, he had also boosted industry hopes of increased sales by cutting tax on alcoholic spirits.

In the same parliamentary year, the British government backed a private members bill giving local authorities the power to close dance clubs if police report evidence of drug taking. During the passage of the Public Entertainments (Drug Misuse) Bill, particular and persistent reference was made to ecstasy as the prime target of the new law.

To the alcohol industry, any measures which clamp down on the recreational use of ecstasy are only likely to increase sales of their product. With the recreational effects of E diminished by alcohol consumption, people taking ecstasy tend to drink far less alcohol. This encroachment on the alcohol industry's domination of the market became financially significant in the late eighties, when the exploding rave culture in the UK swung youth preference away from alcohol and pubs, towards ecstasy and communal dancing.

A report on Leisure Futures, published in 1993 by influential market analysts the Henley Centre for Forecasting, revealed that between 1987 and 1992, pub attendance in the UK fell by 11%, with a projected 20% decrease by 1997. Estimates used in the report suggested the percentage of 16-24s taking any illegal drug doubled to nearly 30 per cent between 1989 and 1992. Using a rather conservative estimate suggesting one million people attend licensed raves each week, the Henley Centre estimated UK ravers were spending £1.8 billion a year on entrance fees, cigarettes and illegal drugs.

The report concludes: "This of course poses a significant threat to spending for such sectors as licensed drinks retailers and drink companies. Firstly some young people are turning away from alcohol to stimulants; secondly raves are extremely time consuming and displace much of the time and energy which might have been expended on other leisure activities like pubs or drinking at home."1

In presenting the Public Entertainments (Drug Misuse) Bill, MP Barry Legg noted that "there was a lot of money involved in the business" and that the new bill would "squeeze every penny of profit from the drug dealers".2 Indeed, profit levels attainable from the sale of alcohol are the kind which command considerable political lobbying power. Evidence suggests that this power has been regularly employed in a sophisticated marketing war waged between the alcohol industry and rave culture since the late eighties.

In 1989, a new public relations alliance was formed by the UK's leading alcohol companies. Instrumental in setting the ball rolling was Lord Wakeham, a Tory peer and then chairman of the Ministerial Group on Alcohol Issues. According to Anthony Hurse, civil servant at the Department of Health: "Lord Wakeham made it clear to the alcohol industry that he would like the industry's collaboration. He spoke to Peter Mitchell [Director of Strategic Affairs] at Guinness who agreed he'd do what he could."3 As a consequence of Wakeham's suggestions, the UK's seven leading alcohol companies including Whitbread, Bass and Seagram, launched a new PR organisation from the headquarters of Guinness plc in London's Portman Square. The Portman Group's publicly stated aim is "to promote sensible drinking" However, according to Professor Nick Heather, Director of the Newcastle Centre for Alcohol and Drug Studies, the Group's real agenda is rather different: "The attempt to distance alcohol as a drug from other kinds of drug and to give it a good face is the main activity of groups like the Portman Group."3

With over £1 billion being cut from government research funding over the last ten years, scientists have been forced to compete for private funding. The Portman Group is just one of the many corporate interests which have populated this funding vacuum. In late 1994, the Portman Group operated a scheme which offered medical scientists £2,000 pending their agreement to criticise a damning new book on alcohol.

Published in 1994 in conjunction with the World Health Organisation, 'Alcohol and the Public Good' was unequivocal in its emphasis on the connection between alcohol and ill health.4 According to Professor Griffith Edwards, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry at the University of London and chairman of the team which compiled the report: "The Portman Group is using sleaze tactics to try to undermine this work. It is the result of an extensive review of scientific research by 17 contributors from nine countries, none of whom has been paid a penny or will receive any royalties. By offering money and anonymity to academics to attack their colleagues, the industry has poisoned the springs of healthy academic debate."5 Professor Edwards also reports being offered a charitable donation from the Portman Group pending his agreement not to use the phrase "alcohol and other drugs" in future reports.3

One of the people helping to facilitate this 'cash for criticism' scheme was Dr. John Duffy, a member of the Edinburgh University Alcohol Research Group. This supposedly independent medical research unit was set up in 1978 with core funding from the Scotch Whisky Association and is now heavily funded by the Portman Group. In a letter to a national newspaper, Dr. John Rae, director of the Portman Group, defended this backing saying: "We fund Edinburgh University because its alcohol research group is the best in the country."6 However, as Douglas Cameron, a Senior Clinical Lecturer in Substance Abuse at the University of Leicester and former advisor to the Portman Group, recently stated: "I think that the drinks industry have made every attempt to drive the research agenda in the direction it wants it driven."3 Indeed, the Edinburgh Unit is well known for its scientific support of the tangible health benefits of alcohol.

Perhaps more damning, given the current sociopolitical preoccupation with law and order, is the British Medical Association's (BMA) report on alcohol and crime published once again in the late eighties. This report highlighted alcohol's association with 60-70 per cent of homicides, 75 per cent of stabbings and 50 per cent of domestic assaults.7 According to an ex-rave music plugger at Virgin records: "There are so many stories about ecstasy that lie below the surface. Big rave events that I was involved with in the past had a very low police presence compared to the big rock festivals I've been involved with where there's alcohol. They knew people were going to be loved up and not violent."8

Ironically this interviewee asked to remain anonymous because of his current connections with the advertising industry.

Ignoring advice from almost the entire medical establishment, the Secretary of State for Health (Stephen Dorrell) raised his department's officially recommended weekly limits of alcohol by 33% in 1995. In response, Dr. Maristella Monteiro, a medical officer for the World Health Organisation, accused the British government of "being in the pocket of the drinks industry".9

The first legislative victory for the alcohol industry in its battle for market control, came in the form of the Entertainment (Increased Penalties) Act in 1990. This successful private member's bill was introduced by Conservative MP Graham Bright, who referred to it as "the acid house party bill". The new law placed fines of up to £20,000 on the organisers of unlicensed raves and had a highly detrimental affect on an exploding new culture with its impromptu venues. At the time, Graham Bright was parliamentary private secretary to Prime Minister John Major, a post he held for four years. Since 1979, Bright had represented Luton as an MP, a town which hosts the headquarters of one of the UK's leading brewery companies, Whitbread plc.

When the now infamous 'Cash for Questions' scandal broke in the British media in 1994, Tory MP Neil Hamilton's greedy associations with lobbyists, Ian Greer Associates, took centre stage. In contrast, Graham Bright escaped lightly, despite implicating associations with both Ian Greer Associates and some of Ian Greer's clients, including Whitbread. Evidence of Bright's associations with the scandal were exposed in a Cook Report programme prepared by Central TV. The programme revealed documents written by Ian Greer Associates, revealing Graham Bright to be one of the lobby firm's conduits to political influence. Although one of the most eagerly awaited documentaries of the year, the programme was inexplicably pulled from the broadcasting schedule by the heads of Carlton TV. Since that date leaked transcripts of the programme have been used to reconstruct parts of the censored programme and broadcast on Channel Four.10

As the 'Cash for Questions' scandal began breaking in the media in 1994, Graham Bright was quietly dismissed as PPS to John Major, given a knighthood and sidelined as one of three vice-chairmen of the Conservative Party. As a result of the scandal, Ian Greer Associates finally went into liquidation in 1996, but not before they had acted on behalf of Whitbread plc in helping to establish a parliamentary beer club. With its 125 member MPs including Chancellor Kenneth Clarke, it is now the largest industrial group within parliament. Indeed, Greer's firm sent a proposal to Whitbread in 1993 that read: "Members of the beer club can be encouraged to raise excise duties at treasury questions but also through, early day motions, adjournment debates and private members business". At the time, Greer's firm was receiving £30,000 a year from Whitbread for their services.

Although the most silent MP in the House of Commons for two years running, Graham Bright certainly knew to how to get things done as "private member's business". His 1990 anti-rave legislation was one of a minority of private member's bills that actually becomes law. Ian Greer also recommended the use of "co-ordinated parliamentary pressure, using the beer club and other friends of Whitbread."11 Indeed, primary culprit in the 'Cash for Questions' scandal, Neil Hamilton, acted as parliamentary consultant to the Brewers' Society from 1987 to 1989,12 whilst Conservative MP James Couchman, personal private secretary to the Leader of the House of Commons, is also an advisor to the Gin and Vodka Association. Despite this web of political manipulation, the alcohol industry's involvement in the lobbying scandal received scant attention.

The sophisticated response to the market threat posed by ecstasy has been multimedia in its strategy. When Tory MP, Iain Mills died from 'acute alcohol intoxication' following an excess of dry gin at the beginning of 1997, the newspapers reported the story in terms of his "lonely life". A understated approach when viewed in contrast to the media reaction to one of the rather less frequent ecstasy related deaths. Complicity in the distribution of relative misinformation about these two drugs is commonplace in both national and regional media, when many such media sources have economic interests in maintaining good relations with the alcohol industry. Whitbread alone spends £20 million on marketing and advertising each year.

Advertising, described as "the science of influencing public opinion", has borrowed heavily from images taken from rave culture, even though it has been harnessed to usurp that very culture. One recent television advertisement for Holsten Pils shown in the UK, illustrates the point: An actor, clutching a bottle of the aforesaid lager, strolls through a fantastically coloured computer simulated landscape. In the closing shot, a smiley yellow tablet comes zooming out of the sky and, in idiotic voice tones, advises the actor to "get wired man". The actor, replies "Get a life sucker" before pulling on a string to deflate the tablet like a spent balloon. The connotations are obvious.

Meanwhile alcohol companies like Seagram (Absolut Vodka), Holsten, Grolsch and Fosters are blitzing youth culture magazines with specially targeted advertising campaigns designed to re-establish alcohol as a drug of youth preference. Alcoholic soft drinks have exploded onto the market with extraordinary economic success. Within six months of being introduced to Norway, in 1996, Hooper's Hooch alcoholic lemonade had overtaken all foreign beer sales in the country.13 The company which makes Hooch is one of the UK's largest alcoholic drinks company Bass, co-sponsors of the Portman Group.

According to Sir Donald Acheson, president of the British Medical Association and ex-Government Chief Medical Officer: "It seems self-evident that alcopops appeal to those who are still drinking soft drinks. They might have a tendency to habituate people to alcohol in childhood."14 Ironically, the Portman Group issued a press release in 1996 recommending that children should be allowed a certain amount of alcohol, claiming it would help them know how to handle it in later life. So whilst Gordon's try to rejuvenate dry gin's greying image with athletic male models and bubbles, Seagram now operate an Absolut Vodka bar in one of London's most well known and politically connected dance clubs, the Ministry of Sound. "Absolut is hip at the moment in trendy clubs," says Mike Mathieson, founding director of youth marketing and PR company FFI. "There's a bit of a return to alcohol, which seems to be the new ecstasy substitute."15 Interestingly, FFI are the company which provided the street lingo for one of the most unusual anti-ecstasy advertising campaigns. In the week following Leah Betts' funeral 1,500 billboard poster sites displayed a picture of the teenager lying comatose in hospital. In large lettering next to the photo was the word 'SORTED', and in smaller lettering 'JUST ONE TABLET OF ECSTASY TOOK LEAH BETTS'.

The deluge of anti-ecstasy commentary following Leah's death in 1995 pumped wild and alarming conclusions into the public's perception of E. In fact it was Leah's fourth ecstasy tablet, not her first, and on the night of her death she had also been drinking alcohol.16 As the nearest person the UK has to an expert on ecstasy, Dr. John Henry, scientific advisor to the National Poisons Unit, was interviewed by just about every national newspaper. His quotes were used as 'authoritative scientific' back up for emphatic media tirades against ecstasy. However, according to Dr. Henry: "There was an over reaction to her death. An awful lot was made of it that I don't think was very scientific at all because the press were jumping on every word. I had things served up to me by journalists. It makes serious discussion very difficult."17

When the inquest into Leah's death confirmed she had died from drinking too much water, journalists took less notice. Asked what Leah's death teaches us scientifically, Dr. Henry is less dismissive of the truth: "It teaches us that if you take a lot of fluid suddenly when you've got no reason to do so, it's dangerous." As the vast majority of ecstasy related deaths have thus far been associated with dehydration, a common myth had circulated that water was an antidote to the chemical effects of ecstasy.

Drug education experts argue that Leah's death was likely to have resulted from misinformation and that misinformation is the greatest danger. It was also the greatest criticism levelled at the dramatic but inaccurate Leah Betts/Sorted posters. This poster campaign was unusual because it had been constructed by three advertising companies. Media buyers, Booth Lockett and Makin ­p; advertising agency, Knight Leech and Delaney and youth marketing consultants, FFI. The most remarkable aspect of the campaign was that each of the companies involved in the organisation and design of the project gave their time and work for free; highly unusual in a commercial advertising industry that would normally have netted £1 million in design, consultancy and site fees for such a campaign. Booth, Lockett and Makin even split the costs of printing with Knight Leech and Delaney.

There are many possible motives for this campaign, including prestige, creative design freedom and the personally held beliefs of some of the advertising executives involved. However, one contributory factor which precludes any of the altruistic intent portrayed by the companies themselves can be found by examining their client portfolios. For whilst Booth, Lockett and Makin have Lowenbrau as a major client, both Knight Leech and Delaney and FFI represent the 'energy' soft drink company, Red Bull. "There's a growth in the energy drinks area and it's very competitive," says FFI's Mike Mathieson. "We do PR for Red Bull for example and we do a lot of clubs. It's very popular at the moment because it's a substitute for taking ecstasy." Indeed, Red Bull are the joint most lucrative client on Knight Leech and Delaney's books, providing £5 million worth of business. The 'Sorted' campaign presented obvious commercial benefits to their client's product and therefore also to the advertising company's reputation as successful marketeers. The reverberations went far and wide, with Granada TV even making a programme for schools off the back of the campaign.

The emerging implications of this investigation are not that alcohol is bad and ecstasy good; both drugs have their pros and cons.

But when the Secretary of State for Health increased the officially recommended alcohol limits in 1995, he defended his manoeuvre thus: "Alcohol consumption will always be a major public health issue and it is important for the government to present a balanced view which recognises the risks but also offers soundly based and credible advice on which people can base their own choices."

Were this an approach applied to other recreational drugs, his statement might have been welcomed as a move to a more unfettered debate. Instead its selective application to alcohol is indicative of that industry's deep seated influence on national politics and culture. One drug has been made socially acceptable whilst the other has not, with the criteria for this selective demonisation having more to do with the pollution of public information by corporate interests than it does with concerns for public safety.

© Jim Carey, March 1997. From the book Ecstasy Reconsidered index
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