Academic 'tussle' over alcohol report

By Martin Johnston

The Kiwi drinking culture in full glory as people party on Auckland city's Queen Street. Photo / Dean Purcell
The Kiwi drinking culture in full glory as people party on Auckland city's Queen Street. Photo / Dean Purcell

An academic tussle about alcohol and whether it causes violence has morphed into an unholy scrap over "religious temperance" and conflicts of interest.

British anthropologist Anne Fox's research group was paid by the brewer Lion to produce a 99-page report last year on the drinking, culture and violence in Australia and New Zealand.

Controversially, she concluded that drinking does not cause violence, and it is instead a culture of violence causes violence. She waved away the belief that alcohol has a dis-inhibiting effect and discounted policy proposals such as further restricting pub hours as tinkering at the margins of culture.

Her report is so strongly at odds with mainstream New Zealand public health research on alcohol that two researchers have taken her on with a stinging critique to be published tomorrow in a leading international journal, Addiction.

"We believe that Fox's report ... deserves careful critique because of its potential to undermine evidence-based counter-measures to alcohol-related harm," say Nicki Jackson, of Auckland University, and Kypros Kypri, of the Newcastle and Otago universities.

"In our view, the report lacks credibility as a piece of independent academic research, failing to present a balanced appraisal of the relevant literature. Dr Fox overstates the effectiveness of liquor accords, social marketing and alcohol education and underplays the causal role of alcohol in violence."

Professor Kypri told the Herald the report could not be left unchallenged to influence alcohol policy as it was already being used by the liquor industry and in submissions by government agencies. He said there was plenty of evidence that alcohol consumption was a risk factor for violence.

But before the critique made it to print, Dr Fox has made a pre-emptive strike, accusing Professor Kypri of an undeclared conflict of interest by being a director of a religious temperance -- anti-alcohol -- group, the "Independent Order of Rechabites".

But Professor Kypri said he is not a member of that group. He is part of the Australian Rechabite Foundation, which he said provided funding for research, advocacy and community action projects to reduce alcohol-related harm, "not to stop drinking per se".

He said this was not a conflict of interest.

"It attaches me to the point of view that reducing alcohol-related harm is desirable and that using evidence to do that is acceptable. I don't resile from that. That's relevant to someone who is a public health practitioner. Public health research is an applied discipline.

"I don't make any bones about the fact; I don't think anyone would find it surprising that, in fact, I advocate for strategies to reduce alcohol-related harm."

Professor Kypri said he was appalled at some of the claims in Dr Fox's Lion-funded paper.

He and Ms Jackson believe it fails to meet basic standards of research. They are concerned the research was apparently done without ethics committee approval and they highlight Dr Fox's statements that no external approval was needed and that her research methods included eavesdropping. She also failed to fully account for other research findings which did not support her report's main ideas.

In her response, Dr Fox said many of the arguments in her report were also in her earlier doctoral thesis, for which she was awarded a PhD degree.

"For decades, many esteemed social scientists have been challenging the unfounded hypothesis that there is a direct causal link between alcohol and violence.

"While my research was funded by Lion, an alcohol company, my contract was written with the strictest possible terms ensuring me complete freedom from interference in any aspect of the research."

Lion says it stands by the report and that Dr Fox is a highly respected anthropologist.

- NZ Herald

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