Each year, the World Health Organization (WHO) holds an executive board meeting at its headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Major governments come together to discuss how to tackle the world’s biggest health problems, including the devastating effects of alcohol on a global scale. I know about these meetings because I was there this year to lead the charge against Big Alcohol interference. My job was to defend and promote alcohol policy measures that are effective and impactful.
If this sounds tragically boring, hang on. This is where my story gets personal. That’s because alcohol policy is personal, for each and every one of us.
There’s hardly a person in the United States who isn’t affected by alcohol in some way. When I was younger, my friend and classmate had difficulties preparing for school and always got terrible grades. I didn’t understand why — she was smart. Sometimes, we would study together for tests, and while she seemed to understand the content— the next day, she would fail the exam.
What I didn’t know about her at the time was that she was growing up in a home with parents who struggled with alcohol. I only ever thought of her parents as cool because their family owned the first VHS recorder in our neighborhood. While I was excited that my friend could watch cartoons and fairy tales whenever she wanted, she was actually watching her family drama unfold almost every night. I later understood why homework and tests were a struggle for her.
She was my friend and I didn’t know.
That’s just one example of the ubiquitous harm of alcohol. It’s woven into our social fabric to the degree that we run the risk of regarding it as normal — and, consequently, remain apathetic about what we could do collectively to tackle it.
That’s why alcohol policy solutions are personal, relevant, and urgent. They affect our workplaces, college campuses, board rooms, book clubs, factory floors, entertainment, sports, public spaces, roads, relationships, and self-esteem.
Alcohol policy plays a part in all of those advertisements that first informed women they were less interesting than a bottle of beer, and, later, that they should drink just like a man would. Now those ads tell women that we should hold our liquor to be able to sit at the same VIP table with men. This is alcohol propaganda — though some simply call it “marketing” — on TV, radio, billboards, social media, and in editorials. This daily avalanche of messages has been defining how we understand society, our role in it, and ourselves.
“Alcohol is woven into our social fabric to the degree that we run the risk of regarding it as normal — and, consequently, remain apathetic about what we could do collectively to tackle it.”
Alcohol policy is in those shops selling booze on every corner. The poorer the area, the more shops. Because of policy decisions, there are alcohol retail outlets close to schools. Alcohol is available close to churches or hospitals and treatment centers. Really, alcohol is physically available everywhere you go.
Alcohol policy is also present in why people don’t get the help they have the right to. It’s represented in your friend or loved one who wanted to get free from addiction but couldn’t afford to go to rehab or take time off from work.
The 3 “Best Buys” for Alcohol Policy
I was in Geneva at WHO to make sure that the three alcohol policy “best buys” become the priority they should be. That they’re taken seriously at an international level.
These are the most effective measures WHO recommends implementing to prevent alcohol-related harm. With them, our governments can reduce alcohol availability, ban alcohol marketing, and raise alcohol prices. These measures are a matter of our physical and mental health, bank accounts, safety and wellbeing, and social justice.
1. Reducing availability
The current policy for the availability of alcohol means that people can get it pretty much wherever and whenever they want. And when alcohol is easily available, people consume more of it. Alcohol doesn’t only affect the person who consumes the ethanol but it also causes social harm. This means, for example, that violence in communities increases and girls and women often do not feel safe in public spaces or even their own homes.
By addressing when alcohol can be sold, where outlets are located, and the legal consumption age, we actually tackle issues of women’s rights and freedoms. Deciding whether an alcohol retailer can open on every corner helps create safer, more inclusive, and healthier communities.
Have you noticed that there are usually more alcohol outlets in poorer neighborhoods and in communities where more minorities live? The alcohol industry is exploiting already vulnerable and marginalized people. Therefore, reducing alcohol availability means instituting a pro-poor and pro-equality policy solution.
2. Changing marketing
Alcohol marketing has to do with how ethanol, technically a poison to the human body, is presented to us. Big Alcohol uses marketing to tell us that alcohol is an important part of celebrating victory and dealing with loss, experiencing happiness as well as grief, being active and relaxing. It will help us feel whatever we want it to — as long as we consume it with and for every occasion. With effective marketing, a bottle of booze is always more than just the substance and its container; it’s the label, the story, the myth, the expectancy. It’s a placebo.
Like alcohol itself, alcohol marketing is everywhere. Literally everywhere. Advertising, sponsorships, and promotions of alcohol are omnipresent and invasive. And Big Alcohol invests big money into making us believe that their product is what we need. For its brand promotion in the US alone, AB InBev (maker of Budweiser) will spend $2 billion in 2019 alone. The company put $50 million solely into the Super Bowl.
Through the promotion in traditional media such as TV, radio, and print, and the recent explosion of sophisticated online promotion as well as sports, music, and fashion events sponsorships, Big Alcohol makes sure their brands are integrated into our daily lives.
“Big Alcohol makes sure their brands are integrated into our daily lives.”
This phenomenon is even more prevalent among young people — and our youth is one of the main targets of alcohol advertisers. Young people exposed to alcohol marketing start consuming alcohol earlier and consume more if they are already using alcohol. The more alcohol ads kids see, the more alcohol they use. The earlier people start using alcohol, the more they use later in life.
Women also need to pay special attention. As we are collectively driving the #MeToo and Time’s Up movements forward, decades of gains in gender equality, female liberation, and women’s rights are being threatened by an onslaught of alcohol marketing targeting health-conscious women, moms, teenage girls, and college students. After years of objectifying, sexualizing, and dehumanizing women through sexist advertising, the alcohol industry has now discovered women as a revenue source.
3. Increasing prices
The two most effective approaches to increase the price of alcohol are taxation and changing the minimum unit price. These are truly awesome tools that have been shown to prevent and reduce alcohol harm. By making alcohol more expensive, consumption declines, as does a range of alcohol-related problems.
Putting the right tax on alcohol products means that the products will become less affordable to those who are most vulnerable to alcohol harm. It also means more funding for governments that can then spend those extra funds on prevention, treatment, and recovery services. Overall, it means less alcohol-related harm.
A triple-win measure like that sounds like a pretty good deal to me.
The usual alcohol industry arguments against increasing price are that proper taxation of alcohol products would fuel the black market, illegal alcohol production, economic loss, and negative impact on employment rates. They say we don’t need a nanny state dictating what we should and shouldn’t consume.
To answer, in short: No, no, no, no, and of course not.
Skilled economists know how to calculate taxes so the black market and illegal production don’t flourish. Economic loss generally doesn’t happen as people tend to substitute their alcohol expenditures with spending on other (healthier) products and services. Similarly, with employment rates, any jobs lost in the alcohol business will be replaced by jobs in other sectors where spending increases. That means a net-positive effect on employment. It’s also hard to take complaints against a “nanny state” seriously since alcohol companies themselves are dictating our behavior.
“These three alcohol policy best buys can be life-changing. In many cases, they are life-saving.”
These measures affect their profit interests, which is why these push backs are disingenuous.
In the US, alcohol taxes have not been raised for decades, meaning that alcohol has become cheaper over time relative to inflation. The Trump Administration tax cut has effectively reduced alcohol taxes by 16% — which The Brookings Institution has estimated to cause approximately 1,550 additional deaths per year. These corporate-friendly policies have also served as a giant tax break for Big Alcohol at an even bigger loss to society.
These three alcohol policy best buys can be life-changing. In many cases, they are life-saving.
On the surface, sure, this may sound dry. But how about I put it this way?
- Reducing availability translates to fewer alcohol triggers and more protection from Big Alcohol’s nudges toward booze.
- Banning alcohol marketing translates to less manipulation of our minds and values, plus no more attempts to undermine our self-esteem and happiness.
- Increasing prices through alcohol taxation means less harm, more justice, and bigger investment into public programs.
These policies are also extremely cost-effective. For every one dollar invested in alcohol policy, governments get nine dollars in return. I’d claim that this is one of the best news for our economy and society that I have heard in a long time.
The Time Is Now to Take Up the Cause
It’s no easy feat convincing government representatives from around the world that tackling the alcohol epidemic should be a priority commensurate with the death, disease, and destruction it causes.
In meetings, I’m telling the stories of children and families, girls and women, boys and men, workplaces and communities suffering from different aspects of the alcohol epidemic. As I explain the numbers, I find people start to agree with me. Once we start talking about it, people get it. People know why these changes are so necessary because nearly everybody is affected by alcohol somehow.
And still, the action is lacking. Our decision makers are not (yet) stepping up with the urgency, conviction, and determination that’s truly needed.
Alcohol policy is everyone’s business. It is neither too complex nor too advanced, and it definitely is not just for a few experts. It’s a cause of the people. Or at least, it should be. In order for change to happen, we need to take up the cause. Only then will our civilians be as safe, our public spaces as open and inclusive, our human encounters as true, and our self-esteem as free as we wish them to be.
Alcohol taxes up.
Alcohol availability down.
Alcohol marketing gone.
Big Alcohol exposed and regulated.
That’s the formula. It’s scientifically and morally unimpeachable. It’s possible. It’s urgent. And it’s time.