Oregon’s Top Health Official Meddled in Press Release at Behest of Alcohol Industry Lobbyists

Sejal Hathi’s proposed changes were slight, but they suggest a thawing of icy relations between public health officials and the beer and wine industry.

Dr. Sejal Hathi. (Oregon Health Authority)

Emails obtained by WW show that Oregon’s top health official suggested changing a routine press release after alcohol industry lobbyists said it was too negative.

The release was sent out, suggestion included, on April 4. The occasion: Alcohol Awareness Month.

On April 3, a top deputy to Oregon Health Authority director Dr. Sejal Hathi gave four representatives of the Oregon Beer & Wine Distributors Association, the Oregon Wine Council and other industry groups a draft copy of the release. Lobbyists wanted additions to the press release to make it “more balanced.”

“I would kindly ask that OHA share some of the ‘good news’ from a public health perspective around alcohol,” wrote Danelle Romain, head of the Oregon Beer & Wine Distributors Association. Romain included various statistics, including one showing binge drinking among teens had dropped by half.

Hathi, who was appointed to lead OHA last year by Gov. Tina Kotek, then emailed her chief of staff and communications director.

“Is the PR amenable to adding one of the stats they put forward? Maybe about teen drinking?” Hathi wrote.

The stat was added and hours later the release was sent out. The relevant section of the email was expanded, with the first sentence focused on a 50% drop in binge drinking among Oregon teens.

An agency spokesman wrote back to the communications director that he felt “significant discomfort” with what he was being asked to do, although he now tells WW his concerns were addressed before the press release went out.

In an interview with WW this morning, Hathi said there was nothing inappropriate about her request. She didn’t realize teen binge drinking had dropped so precipitously and felt it was an important fact to mention.

“I think that Oregon’s alcoholic beverage industry must be a constructive partner in helping the state further prevent and decrease binge drinking and other harms associated with excessive alcohol use,” Hathi explained. “And in order to do that, we need to build a more transparent and trusting relationship with them.”

Activists say this is the wrong way to reduce the thousands of alcohol-related deaths in Oregon every year.

“OHA is trying to be nice to these people and play ball,” says Jason Renaud of the Mental Health Association of Portland. “That’s probably a mistake. It’s like cuddling up to a snake.”

It certainly did little to ease the hard feelings the alcohol industry harbors toward OHA. Asked by WW for comment, Romain released a statement chastising the agency. “OHA staff continue to provide misleading information on alcohol which shapes Oregon’s addiction narrative and damages the agency’s credibility and public trust,” she wrote.

Excessive drinking is a widespread problem in Oregon. OHA has calculated the total cost to the state in lost productivity and health consequences to be around $5 billion a year. On the other hand, alcohol is the state’s third largest source of revenue and the industry is one of the state’s most powerful lobbies.

The fact that the state’s top health official stooped to interceding on behalf of powerful industry interests in what should have been a routine task—public health officials warning Oregonians about the dangers of excessive booze—illustrates how the Oregon Health Authority’s relationship with the beer and wine industry is in flux following a period of intense criticism of the agency earlier this year.

The rift emerged last year when OHA ran a 60-second media spot over the holidays as part of its new “Rethink the Drink” campaign. The spot featured a dad struggling to explain to his daughter why he drank wine despite its consequences, and then putting a bottle back on the shelf. The industry was, understandably, not pleased with the implications.

Then, The Oregonian broke the news earlier this year that the agency had withheld a state-funded report showing increased alcohol taxes would do little to curb binge drinking. The industry has successfully fought such a tax for years, and legislators are currently gearing up to consider it once again.

In a flurry of letters to Gov. Tina Kotek, industry lobbyists demanded changes at the agency. “We urge you to consider what steps are necessary to clarify to OHA staff that recent actions are not acceptable and to the citizens of Oregon that such actions will not be tolerated,” wine industry lobbyists wrote in a letter to Kotek on Feb. 29. (Kotek’s office could not be reached for comment.)

The newly obtained emails, which were exchanged between March 20 and April 5, show agency officials offering what one industry lobbyist characterized as unprecedented access to their decision-making.

Early efforts at reconciliation began in February, when Hathi and top deputies met with industry lobbyists. Two months later, Ashley Thirstrup, Hathi’s chief of staff, had that meeting in mind when she told other agency officials, in an email, that she planned to share the draft release with wine lobbyists. “It will demonstrate that we heard them when they said they wanted to partner with us more closely on issues related to excessive drinking,” she said.

This was new. One lobbyist “applauded” the agency’s new outreach efforts, noting it had never happened before. “As far as I can tell, this is the first time your agency has done proactive outreach to Oregon’s craft alcohol sector,” wrote Dan Jarman, who represents the Oregon Winegrowers Association.

Robb Cowie, OHA’s director of communications, says giving industry representatives a preview of press releases is standard practice. And, he says, the sharing of the press release was not a solicitation for feedback.

Nonetheless, they got it.

Romain listed four potential additions to make the release more “balanced,” including the statistic about the drop in youth binge drinking and other indications that the industry was facing headwinds. “Oregon is seeing lifestyle trends towards ‘sober curious’ and non-alcoholic beverages,” it notes.

Hathi’s suggestion that communications staff incorporate one of Romain’s suggestions met immediate pushback.

“I have some significant discomfort here. Can we talk about this?” Jonathan Modie, the agency spokesman who was putting together the release, wrote Cowie.

Modie now tells WW his concerns were addressed after he realized he was not being directed to incorporate the suggestions wholesale.

Following Hathi’s suggestion, he edited a section on the consequences of heavy drinking. He swapped one statistic, 20% of deaths of adults under 50 nationwide are alcohol-related, with another: 20% of adult Oregonians report recent heavy drinking.

And he added a new sentence at the top of the paragraph: “Binge drinking among Oregon youth has decreased by 50% over the past few decades, according to Oregon Healthy Teens survey data.”

The press release was better for it, Modie says. “In no way did OHA alter its primary binge drinking prevention message,” he told WW. ”In fact, it ended up being an important change that better emphasized the agency’s concern about excessive alcohol use among adults.”

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