For the alcohol industry, the event provided multiple causes for celebration. Not only had the Chancellor gifted them with another prime piece of televisual product placement, but 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 the 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 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-to consume and displace much of the time and energy which might have been expended on other leisure activities like pubs or drinking at home.”
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 commands 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, a 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 organization 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 1000 pending their agreement to criticize a damning new book on 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 percent of stabbings and 50 percent 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
Graham Bright certainly knew 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 becomes law. Ian Greer also recommended the use of “co-ordinated parliamentary pressure, using the beer club and other friends of Whitbread.”11 Indeed, the primary culprit in the ‘Cash for Questions’ scandal, Neil Hamilton, acted as the parliamentary consultant to the Brewers’ Society from 1987 to 1989,12 while Conservative MP James Couchman, the 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 regarding his “lonely life.” An 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 1 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 lager above, strolls through a fantastically colored 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 the 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.
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 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 while 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.