Update letter to funders and stakeholders regarding criticism of PHE partnership

Date Published

21st September 2018




Dear All,


We wrote to you last week regarding the launch of our partnership with Public Health England (PHE) and wanted to follow that today with an update.

Our campaign with PHE encourages people to take more drink free days to help reduce their risk of developing serious long-term health problems. The campaign does not advocate, as some have suggested, that people take ‘two drink free days’ each week but rather that drink free days can be an effective moderation strategy to help reduce alcohol consumption overall.

Public reaction to the Drink Free Days campaign has been extremely positive.

In the last 10 days:

  • 380,000 people have visited the Drinkaware website, a third more than the same period in 2017;
  • 34,000 people have visited DrinkFreeDays.co.uk and 80% of them have used the DrinkCompare tool to see how their drinking compares to UK averages; and
  • 15,300 people have downloaded the Drinkaware app or PHE’s Drink Free Days app, both designed to help people track their drink free days and reduce their drinking overall.

At the same time the continuing opposition from a small number of prominent academics to the very fact of our partnership, has threatened to divert attention from the campaign’s message. In addition, comment in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) and The Lancet, repeated in The Guardian, has continued to make wholly unfounded and untrue assertions about Drinkaware. Our Medical Advisory Panel, as well as our Board, is responding directly to both publications to correct the factual inaccuracies that have been published, most notably:

Drinkaware disseminates messages that could mislead the public about the risk of cancer from alcohol consumption

Dr Fiona Sim OBE, Drinkaware’s Chief Medical Advisor, and members of her independent Medical Advisory Panel have strongly refuted this allegation which was made in an academic paper by Petticrew et al (2017). Their rebuttal, which was published in the same journal that had published the Petticrew paper - Drug and Alcohol Review - in February 2018, can be accessed here.

Drinkaware’s alcohol self-assessment tool on their website endorses heavy drinking

The Lancet article made this assertion after completing the ‘self-assessment’ tool on the Drinkaware website. This tool is in fact the Alcohol Use Disorder Identification Test (AUDIT) created not by Drinkaware but by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and used extensively in healthcare settings the world over. The Drinkaware website delivers the same result as other websites including Alcohol Concern and a number of regional public health sites, which also display this tool. Far from this being proof that we somehow endorse heavy drinking, it serves only to demonstrate that Drinkaware uses internationally-recognised tools and guidance.

Drinkaware advice refers to “daily” guidelines instead of the Chief Medical Officers’ low risk weekly drinking guidelines

The Lancet authors found a single instance where a reference was made to ‘daily’ drinking guidance on the Drinkaware website. We have acted immediately to update this page. It should be noted we accurately reference the UK Chief Medical Officers’ low risk drinking guidelines in the footer of every single page on the Drinkaware website, and information about the guidelines is referenced in the body of 36 pages on the website.

Drinkaware delivers ineffective information campaigns while avoiding or misrepresenting evidence on measures known to work, including pricing, marketing, and availability controls

As a charity concerned with reducing harm from alcohol, we fully acknowledge, as Public Health England’s Comprehensive Evidence Review demonstrated that price, availability and advertising are all key drivers of alcohol consumption. However, we are not an alcohol policy body and it is not our role to advocate what the policy responses to this ought to be; we do believe however, that public understanding and education is an essential component of changing behaviour, and in this context, that campaigns such as Drink Free Days have a vital contribution to make.

The alcohol industry is happy to fund the Drink Free Days campaign because it thinks the campaign will be ineffective or will divert attention from other more effective policies to reduce alcohol consumption
Drinkaware is not part of and does not speak on behalf of the alcohol industry. It is a matter of public record that Drinkaware is funded by voluntary and unrestricted donations from UK alcohol producers, retailers and supermarkets and many other bodies - some 125 in total; we are and always have been entirely transparent about this fact. Drinkaware is, however, an entirely independent organisation governed solely by its Trustees in order solely to fulfil its charitable objectives.

Donations to Drinkaware from alcohol producers and retailers are given without restriction, and our funders are not asked for, and, nor do they give prior approval to any aspect of our work. Our campaigns are based on the latest available evidence, are tested extensively with users and are signed off by our independent Medical Advisory Panel made up of highly respected professionals. We publish all of our campaign evidence packs on our website.

In summary, we refuse any longer to have our important work distracted as it has been in recent days. Some of the wilder accusations being made about Drinkaware belong simply in the realms of fantasy and reflect only on those making them. For our part we remain steadfastly committed to our partnership with PHE, to the aims of the Drink Free Days campaign and to our wider body of work.

We would like to restate our thanks to the many individuals and organisations that continue to send us personal messages of support. At the same time we remain willing to meet with any organisation that would like to raise questions or criticisms about our work.

If you would like any further information; do please contact us at Drinkaware on 0207 766 9900 or email us at ehindal@drinkaware.co.uk.

With best wishes,

Sir Leigh Lewis, Chair of Trustees and Elaine Hindal, Chief Executive