The Alcohol Industrial Complex

By Dirk Hanson 06/08/11

A respected science journal blames the billion-dollar alcohol industry for  knowingly encouraging higher addiction rates and deaths.

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The alcohol industry continues to find ways to spend more than $6 billion on advertising and promotion every year. Big Alcohol is having no trouble branding itself in video games, music, websites, even instant messaging accessories. But that's only the beginning. The Marin Institute, a prominent alcohol industry watchdog, has noted a tendency by the industry to gravitate toward “regional festival and cultural celebrations,” everything from country fairs to Cinco de Mayo festivals to hot air balloon contests. Since the industry is hamstrung when it comes to broadcast, print, and general outdoor advertising, sponsorship agreements for these smaller-bore, concentrated efforts usually feature the added attraction of a license permitting a beverage maker to “place its brand logo and ads in the event program, and on signs, tickets, T-shirts, hats, and the event’s web site.” That’s a nice end-around. It also ties them into the all-important youth market, which tends to shun traditional media like newspapers, radio, and “that thing Oprah was on,” as Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield describes television. Perhaps the perfect storm for alcohol advertising remains Spring Break, when alcohol purveyors still manage to get away with things like all-you-can-drink contests and Lady’s Nights. And, for sheer perfection, some companies stage Spring Break Tours in Mexico, where that pesky matter of U.S. drinking ages doesn’t come into play, and consumers are hostage to brand messaging on a 24/7 basis.

 That’s the state of things, as examined by the medicine editors of the Public Library of Science (PloS), an open-access science journal, in a May 31st editorial entitled “Let’s Be Straight Up about the Alcohol Industry.” Editor Virginia Barbour and four others argue that “attention to and scientific research on the alcohol industry have not kept pace with the industry’s ability to grow and evolve its markets and influence in the health arena.” Pause and reflect on that statement for a moment. Barbour is saying that science, which played a tenuous, marginal, but crucial role in the public debates over cigarette regulation, is being left behind entirely in the matter of alcohol regulation.

The PloS editors note that, “as with the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries,” those who take on the alcohol industry “face a formidable and well-resourced industrial opponent.”  The solutions the editors offer sound familiar—stricter advertising and promotion regulations, minimum pricing schemes, mandatory safety labeling, and holding the industry legally accountable for “the harms associated with their products.” While so much in science clamors for our time and attention, the authors urge us to “support and fuel legislative, regulatory and community action to protect the public health. Let’s be straight up about the alcohol industry.” We even support the theft of a portion of our motto in support of this cause.

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Dirk Hanson, MA, is a freelance science writer and the author of The Chemical Carousel: What Science Tells Us About Beating Addiction. He is also the author of The New Alchemists: Silicon Valley and the Microelectronics Revolution. He has worked as a business and science reporter for numerous magazines and trade publications including Wired, Scientific American, The Dana Foundation and more. He currently edits the Addiction Inbox blog. Email: [email protected]

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