12 Jun 2020

Academics call for end to alcohol industry-backed youth education programme

9:02 am on 12 June 2020

New Zealand academics have slammed an in-schools live theatre programme designed to educate young students on the dangers of underage drinking.

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File image. Photo: AFP

Their focus is the interactive programme Smashed, which is supported by the alcohol industry-funded organisation, The Tomorrow Project.

In an editorial in the New Zealand Medical Association Journal released today, University of Otago professor Jennie Connor said it was time to ban all interaction between the alcohol, tobacco and unhealthy food industries and our education system.

Professor Connor said it was "perhaps ironic" that while schools were unlikely to take money directly from the alcohol industry because it was "so clearly wrong", some had accepted the trojan horse that Smashed represented, and had invited the industry in through the front gate.

But the Life Education Trust, organisation running Smashed, said it did its due diligence, took expert advice, and was told the show could complement existing health education before bringing it to New Zealand.

Professor Connor referred to a paper by the executive director of Alcohol Healthwatch, Dr Nicki Jackson.

Education best left with teachers, expert says

Dr Jackson told RNZ she wanted the programme stopped, after an evidence-based critique revealed how alcohol companies were finding their way into education systems around the world.

The UK based Smashed now operated globally and was introduced to New Zealand schools last year.

Dr Jackson said the alcohol industry was not a health educator, and it was best left with those who knew students best - the teachers.

She said Smashed was billed as a "responsible drinking programme", yet none of its resources defined what that was, and it was being delivered to Year 9 students.

"Almost a third of New Zealand high schools were exposed to this programme last year. It's a one-off session, it's three actors that come in and deliver a 30-minute theatre-based session followed by a 30 minute discussion.

"The evidence is clear, the statement from the health education association is clear ... one-off sessions are not evidence-based. We need something that is integrated into the New Zealand curriculum."

Dr Jackson believed it was a subversive attempt by the alcohol industry to raise its profile.

"Absolutely and the evidence pointing to that is overwhelming. This is an attempt to whitewash the alcohol industry image."

'An instrument of global alcohol corporations'

Prof Connor said in her editorial that along with its website - "Cheers" - The Tomorrow Project was "an instrument of global alcohol corporations in New Zealand".

She said it was an example of a "social aspects organisation" funded and governed by New Zealand Winegrowers, Spirits NZ and the Brewers Association of New Zealand, many of whose brands were owned by the world's large alcohol corporations.

"Adolescents and young adults are important to alcohol corporations. They suffer a disproportionate amount of harm from alcohol, which gets attention in the media.

"While not personally responsible for their lifelong exposure to the physical, social and regulatory environments that drive drinking, they are vulnerable to being depicted as personally irresponsible about their drinking, and therefore in need of 'education'."

Smashed show runners say reaction 'disappointing'

The head of the Life Education Trust, John O'Connell, whose organisation delivered Smashed to New Zealand Schools, said it was disappointing that the programme was being undermined by people arguing from an ideological point of view, rather than talking to the students about their thoughts.

O'Connell said everyone learned in different ways and the programme had reached many where others had failed.

"I'd have to question how someone who hasn't had any contact with us at all - hasn't asked to see the programme, can come to this conclusion."

O'Connell said the trust sought advice before bringing the programme to New Zealand, and were told it could complement health education in the national curriculum.

"We did due diligence, we took expert advice and I think there's a lot of conflicting information going on here."

Dr Jackson said the results of the academic critiques would be presented to school boards and principals, for their consideration on whether to run the programme.

O'Connell said everyone had their own motivations. He said the organisation to which Dr Jackson belonged was funded by the Ministry of Education.

"We're more interested in supporting the health and wellbeing of kids. If you were to look at their responses and the feedback from teachers - those who are actually in front of the young people, well, I'm more interested in their views ."

He said the Smashed presenters were supported by material from the health promotion agency.

"It's public health information developed by this government, but how it differs... if you look at theatre, it's a different way for kids to interact and engage.

"Not every kid can sit there and cope well behind a desk, so a chance for them to engage, to understand behaviour, to see the consequences and to talk about it, is a way of making sure all kids can learn.

"Telling kids 'not to' doesn't actually really work."

Prof Connor said trust was placed in schools and teachers that what they provided was reliable and fair.

"If alcohol companies wanted to help they could offer no-strings-attached funding. After all, teachers are the experts in high school education and they know their students."

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