Alcohol Policy and the Public Good

Article excerpt

Alcohol Policy and the Public Good, by Griffith Edwards et al. (Oxford, New York and Tokyo: Oxford University Press, 1994), 226 pp., $26.95 (paper only).

I remember vividly my first encounter with Alcohol Policy and the Public Good, a recent volume sponsored by the World Health Organization's (WHO's) Regional Office for Europe. It was in November 1994, in a basement room of a Washington, DC, hotel at the end of the annual meeting of the American Public Health Association, where several of the authors had assembled to announce its publication and to review its findings. The room was nearly empty, the presentations informative if dry, the atmosphere typical of many APHA sessions-bored and quiet. There had been a press release regarding the session, but no press came to the event-or, perhaps more accurately, to the non-event.

Yet I found myself in a state of euphoria at the end of the session. Despite the stale atmosphere, despite the dry presentations, despite the stiff writing of this volume, I recognized immediately its importance to the alcohol policy field and the potential for advancing effective policy measures on an international scale.

My excitement and expectations soon proved to be justified. Before Alcohol Policy and the Public Good was even available in the United States, it had caused a storm of controversy in England and Europe. The Portman Group, an industry-funded lobbying group based in London that has as its mission keeping alcohol policy advocates at bay, had secretly offered several researchers large fees in exchange for negative anonymous reviews of the book. Professor Nick Heather, one of the researchers whom the Portman Group approached, blew the whistle, and the incident was prominently reported in the press. Dr. John Rae, the director of the Portman Group, was unapologetic: "I want to ensure the debate is not dominated by views of the anti-alcohol lobby," which, he claims, includes ideologues rather than scholars (The Globe, 1995). But the industry had shot itself in the foot. The furor generated by the attempted purchase of negative reviews gave the volume more publicity and notoriety than the authors could possibly have anticipated.

Understanding the political context

The notoriety that Alcohol Policy and the Public Good has received since its publication appears at first glance to be unwarranted. It provides no new theoretical understanding of alcohol problems and no new insights regarding strategies for their prevention. Rather, it simply builds on previous work of the last two decades: the WHO-sponsored report Alcohol Control Policies in Public Health Perspective (Bruun et al., 1975); the International Study on Alcohol Control Experiences, a two-volume report also sponsored by WHO (Makela et al., 1981; Single, Morgan and de Lint, 1981); and Alcohol and Public Policy: Beyond the Shadow of Prohibition, a report of the National Academy of Sciences in the United States (Moore and Gerstein, 1981), among others. In one sense, Alcohol Policy and the Public Good is simply an extended, annotated bibliography, cataloguing the research conducted in the last two decades that substantiates the theoretical framework and conclusions established in these earlier reports.

Alcohol Policy and the Public Good's review of the research literature is itself an important achievement, despite the sometimes uneven writing style that is inevitable in such collaborations of distinguished international scholars. Yet other reviews have already been written (e.g., Walsh, Elinson, and Farrell, 1993; Gruenewald, 1993; Moskowitz, 1989; Ashley and Rankin, 1988; Holder, 1987; Room, 1984), and none of the conclusions or findings are new or very surprising to those in the field. So why is this volume so significant and controversial?

The answer to this question lies in its thoroughness, timing and sponsorship. The Portman Group has responded to Alcohol Policy and the Public Good with deadly seriousness for very good political (not research) reasons. …