Decline of mainstream media a boon for for-profit drug services; a bust for informed debate (11/08/16)

An edited version of the following article has been published on the Croakey health journalism website.croakey

The article is our response to recent media coverage and broader concerns about the marketing claims made by some for-profit AOD services.


As the capacity of mainstream media outlets to fund quality journalism continues to decline, they become increasingly reliant on cheap, externally sourced content. UnitingCare ReGen CEO Laurence Alvis highlights the increasing success of for-profit providers of alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment and drug testing services in securing free promotion (and occasional explicit endorsement) of their services by compliant (and unquestioning) media outlets. He argues that this success is distorting public understanding of the impacts of AOD use, the treatment options available and appropriate policy responses.


Melbourne, VIC, 11th August 2016: Those of us in the publicly-funded, not-for-profit alcohol and other drug (AOD) treatment sector have long faced a media conundrum. While we recognise the enormous damage done by tabloid reporting on issues relating to drugs, and the people who use them, we struggle to get our voices heard within mainstream media, to challenge the myths, stigmatisation and hyperbole that typically dominate the public debate.

While there is more that we can do as a sector to engage with community discussion of AOD issues, we are limited in just how we can advocate by two key factors: our duty of care to the people who use our services and the professional standards to which we are accountable, as a condition of our government funding.

We recognise that the media outlets have the right to determine what is ‘newsworthy’ but, in our experience, this typically requires us to provide a person in recovery to provide a personal narrative, or a sensationalist or inflammatory statement as a hook for a story. We don’t do sensationalism and, while we are developing our systems to support people who use our services to engage in public advocacy, we are deeply aware of the potential impacts of media exposure on people’s family relationships, employment prospects and long-term recovery.

For ReGen, social media and platforms such as Croakey have provided us with opportunities to reach a wider audience and support informed public debate. However, regular inclusion by mainstream media of our advocacy for a public discussion based on evidence and respect remains elusive.

It is in this context that we have observed, in the past two years, a rise in media coverage of AOD issues that is sourced from for-profit services.

Lack of accountability within the for-profit AOD treatment sector has been a longstanding concern. While there are for-profit services that provide good quality care, the absence of any regulation or requirements for transparency allows some services to make unfounded marketing claims of success. Such advertising exploits vulnerable families who are often desperate for a ‘cure’ and helps justify the often exorbitant fees charged by these services. It also helps justify the belief that ‘you get what you pay for’ as publicly funded services (that are provided at no – or minimal – cost) do not undertake this sort of marketing.

Thanks, in part, to capacity issues within the publicly funded treatment system and heightened community concerns about the impact of methamphetamine use in Australia, there has been a marked increase in the establishment of unregulated, for-profit services, clamouring to get in on the boom market. At the same time, as the impacts of budget cuts continue to affect the quality of coverage provided by mainstream media outlets, we have observed a significant increase in ‘advertorial’ content published on behalf of for-profit providers. Much of this content appears to take marketing claims at face value or, at best, does not present supporting evidence for such claims.

We have also observed the recent success of a private drug testing business positioning itself as a key player in the national drug policy debate, thanks to lazy reporting. Google ‘Andrew Leibie’ (of Safe Work Laboratories) and you’ll uncover an array of local and national coverage based on untested claims by Mr Leibie about a perceived problem, together with the implication that drug testing services are an essential part of the solution. The extent of this coverage has already raised concerns, but is simply a local example of the global marketing of testing for drug consumption as a solution to social ills, in spite of the evidence that it doesn’t work and can significantly increase harms.

Of particular concern to us is the absence of basic journalistic principles (including the critical assessment of information before publishing it) in much of this coverage. When major dailies uncritically repeat the claims of those with a clear vested interest, they implicitly endorse the services they represent. This pattern of poor journalistic (and editorial) rigour makes media outlets complicit in distorting public understanding of key issues and the promotion of potentially unethical practice.

Last week, ReGen responded to the latest example: a gushing promotional piece for The Cabin Chiang Mai, published by Fairfax’s Traveller site. As part of its international expansion the business has secured significant free (and similarly credulous) promotion through other recent Fairfax Traveller and NRL stories. In each case, the published articles do include a personal testimonial, but appear to have considered no alternative source to validate the service’s claims.

Since expressing our concerns to Fairfax, we have been contacted by the Editor in Chief of the Brisbane Times, who offered an apology for the editorial oversight and advised that the most egregious paragraph had been removed. However, at time of writing, the paragraph was still included in the original article.

Business for for-profit drug treatment and drug testing services is experiencing a global boom. This might be good for investors, but is unlikely to improve public health outcomes. In Australia, mainstream media continue to have enormous influence on public understanding of AOD issues, appropriate policy responses and how people can get help.

As a sector, we need to remain vigilant to ensure that the compliance of increasingly stretched media outlets does not further erode the quality of public debate. And we need to improve our own advocacy practice, to provide credible alternative media sources to those with vested interests.

We call on the Federal, State and Territory Governments to commit to the development of a consistent regulatory framework (such as those already in place for private hospitals) for for-profit AOD treatment services. Clear standards (and compliance requirements) for transparency, service quality and ethical practice by for-profit providers will help prevent unethical practice within the sector and, most importantly, improve the effectiveness of services for vulnerable individuals and families.

We also call on media organisations to work together with the AOD treatment sector to develop a code of practice for reporting on AOD use, treatment and recovery. There have been significant recent improvements in reporting of mental health and suicide. Alcohol and other drugs should be next.

Laurence Alvis