Q&A: Why beer, wine, and spirits producers need to be at the NCDs table

Henry Ashworth, CEO of the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking. Photo by: IARD

It’s no secret that the excessive consumption of alcohol can have a detrimental effect on health. In fact, each year 5.15 percent of premature deaths globally are associated with the harmful use of alcohol and this harmful use is currently one of the key lifestyle risk factors.

Those producing alcohol seem like unlikely advocates for tackling the issue of NCDs but, according to Henry Ashworth, CEO of the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking, exclusion of such companies could be a bottleneck to success.

“I can’t speak for all producers or retailers of alcoholic drinks, but I can absolutely say that IARD members get it. They understand their role, they understand they’re catalysts of change, and are determined to combat harmful drinking,” said Ashworth, adding that in order to reduce the number of people suffering from poor health as a result of alcohol consumption, companies have a role to play.

“If you believe, as we do, that we have to turn a vicious cycle of poor health outcomes around into a cycle of growth, health, and well-being, it can only be done by a whole-of-society approach,” he said, adding that developing countries are disproportionately affected by such issues.

But how can these producers affect change in global health? According to Ashworth, it’s through dialogue, partnerships, and supporting global frameworks designed to reduce harmful drinking.

Sitting down with Devex, he explained this in more detail.

The conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you explain the link between alcohol and NCDs and the scale of the problem in developing countries?

I think there’s a good understanding that harmful use of alcohol is bad for physical, mental, and social well-being. But can we do more? Yes. The more consumers are informed, the more there’s a consistent message coming out from health care professionals, industry, and governments, the more we’ll be able to help people understand that drinking harmfully is not good for their health.

“If you believe, as we do, that we have to turn a vicious cycle of poor health outcomes around into a cycle of growth, health, and well-being, it can only be done by a whole-of-society approach.”

— Henry Ashworth, CEO of IARD

The only way we can achieve this is by building trust among the public, private, and development sectors, to have consistent messages, and to communicate them together. The whole-of-society approach is the only way to achieve that. Director-General Tedros Adhanom of the World Health Organization has come out strongly on this and we are firmly in agreement with him.

IARD members have shown their commitment many times over and continue to do so in terms of setting standards for responsible production and marketing of alcohol. Our members are taking proactive steps to support global actions through the producers’ commitments, particularly around areas such as under-age drinking, marketing codes, consumer information and labeling, drinking and driving, and engagement with retailers.

It’s absolutely in our members’ interests to tackle premature deaths and illness from NCDs and is totally compatible with their business and commercial objectives.

There have been suggestions that there are incompatibilities between commercial objectives and health objectives, but this is not the case when you’re looking at businesses that have been around for centuries and want to be around for centuries to come. Being part of the solution and combatting harmful drinking is central to the long-term sustainability of the companies that support IARD.

We’ve already started a process of wider dialogue with stakeholders about what more we can do. We want to do more. We are absolutely integral to this whole-of-society approach. The private sector needs to be led by responsible regulators and IARD are at the forefront of this — wanting to set standards for the wider industry in areas such as digital marketing.

How can the global development sector work with alcohol producers and distributors toward a more collaborative effort in tackling NCDs?

IARD member companies in communities, towns, and countries are already working with NGOs and will continue to do so. But IARD’s role is to continue to be part of a movement of positive change, which is why we fully support United Nations and WHO frameworks to reduce the harmful use of alcohol.

I think the biggest barrier to that is trust. The prize of building trust and shifting from a shared agenda to shared solutions is huge — and if we can do that then we're creating a movement much greater than the member parties.

To give you an example, we’ve been working very closely across sectors including with the government, NGOs, and the community in the Dominican Republic. These are people coming from very different backgrounds with very different views around alcohol misuse, but the regular dialogue has enabled us to come together through a common purpose.

The result has been a complete paradigm shift in the way that the public and private sectors are working together to tackle the harmful use of alcohol. And the consequence is a breakthrough in setting and enabling a regulatory environment and framework for preventing alcohol-related harm. As part of this work, IARD has supported the establishment of a maximum blood concentration limit for drivers and proposed high-visibility sobriety checkpoints.

The only way is to find a shared space to have a dialogue, and from dialogue comes the ability to say “actually we have a shared objective against the harmful use of alcohol. We have different skills and expertise we can each bring to the table.” Then the question is, how do you create a shared solution where each partner can bring their expertise to the table? It’s that which will further build trust.

What lessons has IARD learned so far in facilitating such in-country dialogues?

You have to be brave and start the conversation in a safe space so that you can be honest about what you think the challenges are.

Another key part of it is that there always has to be innovation. Innovation can come from anywhere — the public sector, private sector, or nonprofit sector. Then it's a question of systemizing and evaluating the innovative approach. There are many examples of innovation as a result of those three sectors coming together, building on reach, on communication, on expertise, and making sure that each partner is doing what they can — that’s where the breakthroughs will come from.

For more information on the work IARD members are doing to tackle the harmful use of alcohol through the producers’ commitments, click here.

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