Distillers must take responsibility for their boozy energy drinks

The lines between big tobacco and alcohol are beginning to blur.

The lines between big tobacco and alcohol are beginning to blur.

WE HAVE come to recognise the familiar message from alcohol producers for us to drink responsibly. Perhaps it is time we should be asking those who make alcoholic beverages to produce responsibly. But with the lines between big tobacco and the alcohol industry beginning to blur, this may be too much to ask.

The tragic death of Sara Milosevic and the suffering of her family should remind us all of the pain of loss.

The loss, however, seems even more tragic as death came after drinking a beverage that should, by all accounts, be safe. Unfortunately, of course, this is not the case. The full account of how dangerous these drinks are may take some time to unfold. What does not take time, however, is a demonstration of a sense of responsibility by the manufacturers of alcoholic energy drinks to ensure that risks associated with this category of drinks are minimised, to the greatest extent possible.

Independent Distillers should remove this product from the shelves to ensure that there are no further deaths. A risk management approach in this regard is simply not good enough. If there is a potential for the risk of death, the producers should, as good product stewards, withdraw the product immediately. The Food and Drug Administration in the United States recalled this kind of product several years ago.

In the past, elements of the alcohol industry have listened to calls for responsibility when a product is found to carry too much risk of harm. To its credit, in 2008 Fosters and Lion Nathan dropped lines of high-alcohol- content ready-to-drink beverages and caffeinated alcoholic drinks. Independent Distillers unfortunately continued to market its products.

The alcohol industry is sometimes compared to the tobacco industry when it comes to acting responsibly. Both industries make products that harm. Both products increase the risk of cancer, and alcohol has the additional capacity to create serious acute harms. The alcohol industry has, however, in the face of criticism about its marketing practices, always distanced itself from big tobacco and its corporate activities.

Foster's is an interesting case. We would all hope following the takeover of Foster's by the multinational SABMiller in 2011 that producing responsibly would remain part of the Foster's identity. It is, however, not that clear a picture. SABMiller is actually majority-owned by a company called Altria, the new name for Philip Morris International. About 30 per cent of SABMiller shares are owned by Altria. Foster's is now ostensibly a part of big tobacco. So can we rely on it to produce responsibly into the future, or will it assume some of the corporate tactics of big tobacco?

Of course we wouldn't need to have a discussion about product stewardship if the government had banned these products in 2008 when the issue was first raised. The government had another opportunity in 2010 and the issue was referred to the Ministerial Council on Drug Strategy. Unfortunately the government has been unconscionably slow on this matter, perhaps revealing that more work needs to be done to improve the responsiveness of alcohol policymaking federally.

Product stewardship has rarely been part of the responsibility of the alcohol industry. I remember not long ago, speaking at a corporate function for a large takeaway alcohol retailer, and I asked the audience of company staff where their responsibility finished in regards to their product. Some responded that their responsibility as alcohol retailers finished at the exit door when the purchaser left the premises. Some of the staff and leadership were, however, more generous. Either way, the question of stewardship was an important one for that alcohol retailer.

I wonder what the company staff and executive at Independent Distillers think about their responsibility for the products they produce.

Associate Professor John Fitzgerald is a public health policy expert based in Melbourne University's school of social and political sciences.

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