Why the Alcohol Industry and Public Health are not on the Same Team
Can the alcohol industry genuinely care about the health of its customers when its primary business objective is to gain revenue from one of the most harmful substances and when most profits are made off of people with drinking problems?
There is blatant hypocrisy when the alcohol industry invests in public health. The goals of public health initiatives are to promote healthy behaviors and prevent disease in communities. In contrast, the goals of the alcohol industry are to maximize its consumer base, sales, and profits by recruiting new customers and maintaining existing customers, particularly those who drink regularly and heavily. Historically, the alcohol industry has funded educational/training programs and promotional and advertising campaigns that promote “safe” levels of drinking. Although the purported goal of these initiatives is to protect the health and safety of customers and the larger public, there is strong reason to believe that the real aim is to bolster the industry’s public image and reduce the liability inherent in the sale and use of its products.
Adding to this hypocrisy is the fact that many of the “public health” efforts that the industry promotes are not based on scientific evidence, and some have even shown to be ineffective. Some examples include:
- Alcohol 101 Plus, an educational program, funded by the Foundation for Advancing Alcohol Responsibility (formerly the Century Council), which is comprised of America’s leading distillers. The program is a web-based program designed to educate college students about making “safe and responsible decisions about alcohol” and to make students aware of harmful consequences of drinking. Although it has been implemented in colleges and universities across the country, formal reviews of this program and others like it have not demonstrated effectiveness, especially in the long term.
- The alcohol industry has also marketed some of its products as “healthy” or “diet-friendly.” It has strategically used creative buzz words to attract health-conscious customers, including terms like “all-natural,” “light,” and “low-carb.” However, there is very little scientific evidence to support the claims made in these advertisements and they are misleading. After all, while it may be preferable to have natural ingredients and fewer calories in one’s diet, the primary ingredient in “all natural” and “low-carb” beers and hard liquors is still alcohol.
- Most concerning though are the industry-sponsored responsible drinking advertisements, which are focused on drinking and driving. The ads project pro-drinking themes, are strategically vague in nature, and present contradictory messages. Additionally, these ads put the burden on the consumer to be responsible, and imply that any adverse consequence of drinking is due to the irresponsibility of the consumer rather than inherent in the product, thereby taking away responsibility from the industry.
Despite the lure of significant funding from the alcohol industry for alcohol-related research and programs, researchers and public health officials need to be cautious when deciding whether to accept such funding or collaborate with the alcohol industry. Accepting such funding increases the appearance of doing the industry’s bidding instead of being primarily concerned with doing objective research in order to improve public health.
Ilana Pinsky, PhD
Ilana is a Research Scientist at Center on Addiction