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It is widely believed that corporate actors exert substantial influence on the making of public health policy, including in the alcohol field. However, the industry is far from being monolithic, comprising a range of producers and retailers with varying and diverse interests. With a focus on contemporary debates concerning the minimum pricing of alcohol in the UK, this study examined the differing interests of actors within the alcohol industry, the cleavages which emerged between them on this issue and how this impacted on their ability to organise themselves collectively to influence the policy process. We conducted 35 semi-structured interviews between June and November 2010 with respondents from all sectors of the industry as well as a range of non-industry actors who had knowledge of the alcohol policy process, including former Ministers, Members of the UK Parliament and the Scottish Parliament, civil servants, members of civil society organisations and professionals.
The paper draws on an analysis of publicly available documents and 35 semi-structured interviews with respondents from the alcohol industry (on- and off-trade including retailers, producers of wines, spirits and beers and trade associations) and a range of non-industry actors with knowledge of the alcohol policy process (including former Ministers, Members of Parliament and of the Scottish Parliament, civil servants, members of civil society organisations and professional groups). Interviews were recorded, transcribed and analysed using Nvivo qualitative analysis software. Processes of triangulation between data sources and different types of respondent sought to ensure we gained as accurate a picture as possible of industry participation in the policy process.
Divergences of interest were evident between producers and retailers and within the retail sector between the on and off trade. Divisions within the alcohol industry, however, existed not only between these sectors, but within them. Cleavages were evident within the producer sector between different product categories and within the retail sector between different types of off-trade retailers. However, trade associations were particularly important in providing a means by which the entire industry, or broad sectors within it, could speak with a single voice, despite the limitations on this. There was also evidence of ad-hoc cooperation on specific issues, which resulted from both formal and informal contacts between industry actors.
Alcohol industry corporations and trade associations collaborate with one another effectively where there are shared interests, allowing the best placed bodies to lead on a given issue. Thus, whilst industry actors may be deeply divided on certain issues they are able to coordinate their positions on occasions where there are clear advantages in so doing. Health policymakers may benefit from an awareness of the multiplicity of interests within the industry and the ways that these may shape collective lobbying positions.