Ideasroom

No place for alcohol industry in classroom

By allowing the alcohol industry to look like they are ‘doing something’ by funding education programmes in schools hides their less altruistic practices

We all want Aotearoa New Zealand to be the best place in the world for children and young people. Essential to this is a high quality education system, where every learner has the right to a safe, healthy and supportive learning environment. These issues were at the forefront in recent months, as we all switched to home schooling, and public health evidence has been regularly and rigorously scrutinised to ensure our children were returning to a safe school environment.

Safety extends beyond the control of infectious diseases, it includes the creation of safe and healthy environments. Safety means ensuring we protect all our children from harm and danger. This approach should apply equally across every aspect of the learning environment and curriculum.

If there is one area we could expect a safe, healthy environment, it is the health and physical education learning environment. However, this is an attractive space for ‘corporate philanthropy’ where commercial agents enter into educational spaces, perhaps with questionable motives. One such example is an alcohol industry-funded programme called ‘Smashed’. This programme began in 2004 in the UK by one of the world’s largest transnational alcohol companies, Diageo, and has travelled the globe to more than 20 countries and ‘edutained’ more than half a million students. It has now made its way to New Zealand, with almost 100 of our secondary schools opening their doors to the programme last year.

The programme mainly uses external actors to deliver a one-off theatre session to promote ‘responsible drinking’ (without ever defining this) to Year 9 students. We were cautious of the programme so critiqued it from an evidence-based alcohol and education perspective. Our findings were published in the peer-reviewed New Zealand Medical Journal.

We found ‘Smashed’ reinforced industry rhetoric, omitted key health harms from alcohol (such as the leading alcohol-related cancers), and was strategically ambiguous (common to ‘responsible drinking’ programmes as found by others). From an educational perspective, it was found to undermine best practice in school-based alcohol education and hindered the provision of a safe and supportive learning environment which underpins our national curriculum and Health Education therein.

This is concerning. For many students, participation in the ‘Smashed’ programme may be their only exposure in school to information on society’s most harmful drug. This stands in sharp contrast to their level of vulnerability to harms from their own drinking (for example, poor mental health, suicide) and the drinking of others (for example, traffic deaths, violence). Adolescence is also a developmental period with heightened risk to alcohol problems. New Zealand research indicates that almost 50 percent of cases of alcohol abuse and dependence develop by the age of 20. Ethnic inequities in drinking and harm are most pronounced at this stage of life, underpinning the need for this developmental stage to have extra protections in place. Hence, our country’s evidence-based low-risk drinking advice recommends that young people delay the use of alcohol for as long as possible, especially those under 15 years of age as they are at the greatest risk of alcohol harm.

It is imperative that alcohol and drug education in schools is taught by those who know the students best - trained health education teachers. Opening the doors to a programme developed and funded by alcohol companies can be avoided, when teachers are already well-supported to teach in this area by their subject association, Ministry of Education guidance and programmes such as the NZ Drug Foundation's Tūturu project resources.

We, as New Zealanders, no longer accept the tobacco industry teaching our kids, and nor should we. Tobacco is a Group One carcinogen, but so is alcohol. We believe that the level of harm from alcohol in our society should provide sufficient rationale to adopt a similar position in relation to corporate philanthropy by alcohol companies in our schools.

We absolutely commend schools wanting to prevent alcohol harm among young people. But by allowing the industry to look like they are ‘doing something’ hides their less altruistic practices of lobbying against alcohol policies that we know will be effective in protecting current as well as future generations from alcohol harm. We simply can’t educate ourselves out of our drinking culture, especially when the wider environment supports and enables heavy drinking via low alcohol prices, high availability and ubiquitous advertising and sponsorship.

Our young people will be paying the costs associated with the current pandemic. This is on top of the massive cost of alcohol harm that society already carries. Our young people deserve best practice when it comes to alcohol education in schools. New Zealand can follow the leadership shown by ministers in other countries, who have clearly stated schools should not use any materials or resources developed or delivered by organisations funded by the alcohol industry. Affording a high level of trust to transnational alcohol companies to do the right thing for our kids comes with a high risk and a high cost. The well-being of our young people is too important to get this wrong.

Dr Jackson is Executive Director of Alcohol Healthwatch, a Ministry of Health funded NGO to reduce alcohol harm.

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