Liquor, Loss & Lies: Dark Secrets of the Alcohol Industry
In late 2019, the FDA witnessed an incredible rise in underage e-cigarette use. A government report predicted the usage rate to be around 28 percent in high school students, with health officials calling the trend “an epidemic”.
The rise was believed to be at least partially due to certain attributes that separated e-cigarettes, or ‘vapes’ from traditional cigarettes. Advertisements for the devices were colorful and fun, often featuring models under 35 who were made to look youthful and energetic. They came in a variety of attractive flavors, ranging from mango to mashed potatoes to chocolate mousse.
As mainstream news media caught wind of this public health issue, e-cigarette makers quickly found themselves on the receiving end of condemnation from the public and lawmakers alike. In February 2020, the FDA issued a ban on the sale of all flavored e-cigarettes.
Many e-cigarette makers also changed their advertisements to feature older models and more muted colors. Juul, the company who produced the advertisement linked above, vowed that their future ads would require models to be at least 35 years old.
These events suggest that the American public will not tolerate marketing of addictive substances to minors – not exactly a controversial suggestion. Defending the youth from corporate exploitation is an easy platform to stand behind.
And before I spoke with Ilana Pinsky, a visiting researcher of the Robert Wood Johnston Medical School, I assumed this was the reason why the world’s largest alcohol companies would not resort to such practices. As it turns out, those companies are acutely aware of the sort of manipulative marketing people will not put up with – which is why they’ve become very skilled at hiding it.
Even Dr. Pinsky, who has written the vast majority of her 100+ publications on the effects of alcohol and alcohol abuse, discovered these dubious practices almost by accident.
It happened after she had published her Master’s thesis in Brazil in 1993, she told me during an interview. According to her, many Brazilians didn’t understand alcohol as a signifitant social issue, and focused educational programs on other substances.
“When they did those programs in schools, they would talk about heroin, cocaine, eventually marijuana”, she said. “They would not focus on alcohol. And alcohol was always the main issue.”
Her thesis, which itself concerned alcohol abuse, came at a time when Brazil’s awareness of alcohol as a public health issue was rapidly growing, she said. After her publication, she was contacted by a spokesperson from an alcohol company.
“They were encouraging me to be a voice of public health, working together with the industry. I think he wanted me to be an ally.”
Dr. Pinsky believes the corporations responsible for the manufacturing and distribution of alcoholic beverages (‘big alcohol’, she called them) were attempting to win over the Brazilian people as they came to recognize alcoholism as a major public health crisis. She believes they meant to appear as a ‘helping hand’ in order to dodge the sort of outcry building (and soon to culminate) between Americans and tobacco companies at the time for similar reasons.
She also spoke about the sorts of advertisements for alcohol that would appear on television, recalling a particular Superbowl ad shown in 2019. The ad, which featured two attractive women dressed as mermaids, promoted the low calories and “delicious flavors” of a new brand of spiked seltzers.
Although advertisement analytics site iSpot.tv did not list the names of either mermaid, actress and author Ingrid Haas revealed on Vice that she auditioned for the ad. Haas’s age or birthday are not listed on IMDB or similar websites, but an extended profile page on IMDB Pro does say that she graduated from college in 2009. Assuming she graduated at the age of 21 or 22 would make her either 31 or 32 when she auditioned for the role.
“[These spiked seltzers are] like a flavored soda,” said Dr. Pinsky. “They talk about the flavor, it’s easy to drink. And so many kids watch the Superbowl.”
Her most recent publication, an article titled “Public Health and Big Alcohol” [Full Text], first appeared in The Lancet Global Health in May 2020. It speaks to a number of programs established by major alcohol corporations for the purpose of maintaining adequate levels of something the article calls ‘Corporate Social Responsibility’ (CSR). CSR describes the need for a corporation to take ownership of the issues brought on by the sales of its product. In the case the article speaks about, for example, alcoholic beverage maker InBev is proposing a global campaign to combat the issue of drinking and driving.
On paper, this appears to be a very good-natured attempt by Inbev to address public health concerns related to alcohol abuse. But things just don’t add up – not for this program, nor for those who created it.
From Dr. Pinsky’s article:
“What is absent from these [Inbev’s] proposals is one of the most relevant interventions to substantially decrease road-related deaths and other kinds of alcohol-related harm: reducing per capita alcohol consumption. There are decades of public health data to support the relationship between decreased alcohol use and increased public health safety.” (Pinsky 2020)
So why aren’t InBev focusing on reducing alcohol consumption? There’s only one explanation – an explanation that Pinsky’s article speaks of, and one that she spoke to me about during our conversation. It is, in my opinion, the single most important takeaway from her interview, and provides the most effective angle through which similar deceptive practices can be unveiled.
InBev is a company that sells alcohol. It is in direct conflict with their interests to encourage people to drink less alcohol.
The article continues to suggest that InBev is establishing such CSR programs as a secondary means to market their own products – according to the company’s 2019 report for investors (quoted from Pinsky’s article), it “bases its product expansion model on an evaluation of the degree of alcohol market maturity and on each country’s alcohol consumption” (Pinsky 2020). These factors make Latin American countries key locations for the company’s expansion. Brazil, which brings in over 35% of Latin American alcohol sales, has far more active CSR programs than anywhere else in the region.
The final example Dr. Pinsky shared with me was perhaps the most frightening. She presented me with the homepage of the International Alliance for Responsible Drinking (IARD), and said, “Anytime you hear anything which says “Responsible Drinking”, anything with that language in it, it’s the alcohol companies. When you hear that language, what they really mean is, Drink More”.
This was the first time during our interview where I outright didn’t believe her. This organization had a mission statement, a good website, had led educational programs in schools, and had no clear link to any alcohol company. A large slideshow, featuring high-quality images of organization representatives speaking with children, played across the site’s landing page.
She then led me to the company’s “Progress Reports” documents. I opened the 2019 document. On the very first page, I found this:
Every name on this list is one of a company that sells alcohol. It is in direct conflict to the interests of all companies to encourage people to drink less alcohol.
Ilana Pinsky hopes her latest publication, as well as those she has published prior, will raise public awareness of the deceptive and exploitative capitalism employed by big alcohol. “No one knows about this”, she told me. “And once you see it, you see it everywhere”.