Distilling the curriculum: An analysis of alcohol industry-funded school-based youth education programmes

PLoS One. 2022 Jan 12;17(1):e0259560. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259560. eCollection 2022.

Abstract

Background and aim: For decades, corporations such as the tobacco and fossil fuel industries have used youth education programmes and schools to disseminate discourses, ideas and values favourable to their positions, and to pre-empt regulation that threatens profits. However, there is no systematic research into alcohol industry-funded youth education programmes. This article serves to address this important gap in the literature.

Methods: Using a discourse theoretical approach informed by poststructural discourse theory and critical discourse analysis, we analysed teaching materials from three school-based youth education initiatives which focus on alcohol consumption and health harms: Drinkaware for Education, The Smashed Project (funded by Diageo), and Talk About Alcohol (Alcohol Education Trust). These materials, some of which are disseminated internationally, are provided to schools through intermediary bodies in receipt of alcohol industry funding.

Findings: The analysis found that these materials drew from and presented discourses of personal responsibility, moderate alcohol consumption, and involved a narrowing of the problem definition and causes. The locus of the problem is located by the discourses within individuals including youth, with causes of youth alcohol consumption repeatedly presented as peer pressure and 'poor choices', with little or no mention of alcohol industry marketing or other practices. All programmes promoted familiarisation and normalisation of alcohol as a 'normal' adult consumer product which children must learn about and master how to use responsibly when older. The discourses constructed in these materials closely align with those of other alcohol industry corporate social responsibility discourses which employ selective presentation of harms, including misinformation about cancer, and ambiguous terms such as "responsible drinking". Furthermore, the role of alcohol price, availability and access, and the impacts of alcohol and the industry on inequities were not articulated within the discourses. The research was limited to an analysis of teaching materials and further research is needed to explore their impact on youth, teachers and wider discourses and social norms.

Conclusion: Alcohol industry-sponsored youth education programmes serve industry interests and promote moderate consumption while purportedly educating children about harms and influences of alcohol use. There are considerable conflicts of interest in the delivery of alcohol education programmes funded by the alcohol industry and intermediary bodies in receipt of such funding. Alcohol education materials should be developed independent from industry, including funding, and should empower children and young people to understand and think critically about alcohol, including harms and drivers of consumption, and effective interventions needed to protect them and others from alcohol-related harms. Independent organisations can use this analysis to critique their materials to strengthen alignment with meeting student and public health interests. The ongoing exposure of children and young people to such conflicted and misleading materials needs urgent attention from policymakers, practitioners, teachers and parents, and resources dependent on industry support should cease being used in schools.

Grant support

MvS is funded by a NIHR Doctoral Fellowship (Ref NIHR300156, https://www.nihr.ac.uk). MP, NM and CK receive funding from the SPECTRUM Consortium which is funded by the UK Prevention Research Partnership, a consortium of UK funders (UKRI Research Councils: Medical Research Council, Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Economic and Social Research Council, and Natural Environment Research Council; charities: British Heart Foundation, Cancer Research UK, Wellcome, and the Health Foundation; government: Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office, Health and Care Research Wales, National Institute of Health Research, and Public Health Agency (NI) https://ukctas.net/spectrum/announcement.html). SVK acknowledges funding from a NRS Senior Clinical Fellowship (SCAF/15/02 https://www.nhsresearchscotland.org.uk), the Medical Research Council (MC_UU_00022/2 https://mrc.ukri.org) and Scottish Government Chief Scientist Office (SPHSU13 https://www.cso.scot.nhs.uk). The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.