The benefits and beauty of sobriety as well as the insidious way that alcohol can creep into our lives and make us sick, for me, can be categorized into three distinct layers. 

The first layer is an appreciation for my physical body. My body is capable of so many things: running, jumping, piano and drawing. The realization that my body was capable of so much made me realize that I didn’t want to jeopardize it by poison I knew was so unpredictable and harmful.

The next layer was built through the understanding of human struggle and my place within the paradigm. I realized that I not only create my own reality, but I also have a hand in creating the space around me in which others also inhabit. Alcohol had an adverse effect on my life, and my alcohol use likely had an adverse effect on others’ lives as well. I learned that I could reduce the trauma others experience when I keep alcohol out of my life. 

The alcohol industry invests immense amounts of money to make us believe that their product is a magic potion for all.”

The third layer is societal in nature. In sobriety, I’ve learned how to value myself and my relation to others, and I’ve also begun to understand how alcohol affects us on a broader level. I’ve learned that alcohol companies impose immense injustice on this world by using their money and influence to keep us sick by promoting a product that is deadly. The alcohol industry has successfully generated an illusion that we as a global collective have bought into that ethanol, in the form of alcohol, is the remedy for our lives. 

The alcohol industry invests immense amounts of money to make us believe that their product is a magic potion for all. 

Big Alcohol uses its power to foster policies, companies, organizations, and marketing efforts that feed addiction.  At the same time, it wields that power to block policies that would reduce people’s alcohol use.

Here’s how it works:

“Big Alcohol,” as we’re calling it, consists of producers, distributors, retailers, and marketers of alcohol products together with their various Social Aspect Public Relations Organizations – SAPROs. These SAPROS, according to the Institute of Alcohol Studies in the United Kingdom, “manage issues that may be detrimental to the beverage alcohol industry.” They do this in several ways, including using money to influence policy that could harm the industry and recruiting scientists. Think Anheuser Busch, which is actually the largest beer producer, owning a third of the global market.  

Big Alcohol knows how to design products that create instant gratification, that fuel addiction and exploit how our brains work. They also know how to develop marketing messages that appeal to the youngest and most vulnerable among us. To make matters worse, Big Alcohol then invests in companies and causes we care about. 

Here are a couple of examples:

  1. The Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria has partnered with Heineken. On top of Heineken’s obvious focus on the consumption of its products, the company also uses so-called “beer girls” that are reportedly forced into prostitution and unsafe sex in order to sell as much beer as possible 
  2. UNITAR, the United Nation’s Institute for Training and Research, has partnered with  AB InBev to advance road safety together. 

Big Alcohol doesn’t just invest in the organizations and causes we care about, though. It also 

1. Promotion of “Healthier” and “Safer” Products

To disguise the fact that alcohol is a toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic and addictive substance, the alcohol industry needs to wrap it into something attractive. 

These companies have created “zero-calorie” beers and “gluten-free” products to appeal to a healthy lifestyle. Though these products might have zero calories or no gluten, it doesn’t make them any less dangerous.  

“To disguise the fact that alcohol is a toxic, carcinogenic, teratogenic and addictive substance, the alcohol industry needs to wrap it into something attractive.”

2. Corporate Social Responsibility and public relations

Big Alcohol loves to describe themselves as responsible and their business as sustainable. In the age of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) where the expectations that companies would solve our current problems are growing, CSR is a very welcome step by governments and the public. As soon as we see that a company claims to care for and do something for society, we justify their products. It is understandable – we do not have time to dig deep and fact-check everything that is being said and done. And we are happy to hear a piece of information that confirms our beliefs or justifies our behavior. Unfortunately, this serves Big Alcohol.

What’s even more worrying, CSR activities of the Alcohol Industry are not only masking the efforts of a dirty business, their CSR activities have been found to be outright counter-productive to the goals they claim to support. In a study by Babor, Robaina, and Brown, that looked into the impact of alcohol industry’s CSR, the overwhelming majority (96.8%) of action lacked scientific support and 11% had the potential of doing harm. The conclusion is that while appearing to have a public health purpose, the CSR activities only provide a commercial strategic advantage but are unlikely to reduce alcohol use.

3. Self-Regulation

Self-regulation is exactly what it sounds like. A company regulates itself rather instead of using public policy and legislative measures to ensure it is operating in a safe and ethical manner. Yes, it’s like putting Voldemort in charge of Hogwarts.

An alarming example of the reality of self-regulation is the Responsibility Deal in the UK.

4. Pervasive Marketing

Children and youth are exposed to an avalanche of alcohol glamorization in social media and in the public space. Jean Kilbourne has done a great analysis of alcohol propaganda among the US College students in her “Spin the bottle” work and she reveals Tobacco and Alcohol industries’ marketing strategies in “Deadly Persuasion: The Advertising of Alcohol and Tobacco”. 

“Alcohol advertisers are promising us everything that is impossible to gain from a substance– feeling of belonging, self-esteem, freedom, and happiness.” 

Alcohol advertisers are promising us everything that is impossible to gain from a substance feeling of belonging, self-esteem, freedom, and happiness. By playing with our minds and vulnerability, they make us believe that ethanol wrapped in a fancy bottle or gulped from a massive mug is life-changing and While some call it marketing, I call it exploitation.

5. Aggressive Lobbying

In 2018, Big Alcohol has spent more than $30 million on lobbying the U.S. Congress alone. Effects of the lobbying work so well that the ripples reach the global level. The US is one of the countries actively opposing the introduction and implementation of effective alcohol policy initiatives in WHO discussions. 

Mural painting in Lithuania where the three decision-makers behind the comprehensive alcohol law introduced in Lithuania are portrayed as terrorists.

6. Shifting the Focus and Manufacturing False Debate

When jurisdictions try to move to implement better alcohol policies, Big Alcohol “warns” of economic losses and cites the numbers of employment opportunities that are threatened. In reality, the conversation should be broader and more nuanced: alcohol harm costs societies more than the alcohol trade contributes, and while some jobs will be lost, new ones will be created and the net effect is actually positive for the economy.

The alcohol industry always likes to paint public health campaigns and public health policymaking as government interference into the private lives of enlightened citizens. In reality, Big Alcohol uses billions of dollars to sell us a harmful product.

7. Attack Legitimate Science and Intimidate Scientists

Like other industries have done in the past, Big Alcohol has used its money and power to lobby government and thwart sound, scientific research in order to push its own agenda.  

One such example is the case of the National Health Institute in the United States whose scientists solicited funding from Big Alcohol. In this case, as Vox reports, “five alcohol companies helped fund — and potentially shaped the design of — a 7,800-person randomized controlled trial overseen by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a center at the NIH.”

Money is powerful, and the scientists involved in the study actually asked the alcohol companies to help fund the research. According to the Vox article referenced above, “The researchers behind the study reportedly persuaded alcohol industry executives to fund them by arguing the trial “represents a unique opportunity to show that moderate alcohol consumption is safe and lowers the risk of common diseases” — before they had even enrolled their first patient.”

8. Fund and Run Disinformation Campaigns

The way the alcohol industry downplays the societal burden of alcohol is truly problematic. For example, the phrase, “Responsible Drinking” has been used around the world to entice drinkers to indulge, but only to an extent. This shifts the blame to the individual for drinking too much rather than the alcohol company for pushing a harmful substance, which works out, of course, in favor of the company. That is why we have not seen a single campaign by alcohol industry about alcohol being a carcinogen, but we have seen many “pinkwashing” campaigns like “RELAX4tatas” or “notes of hope” with Sheryl Crow and Chateau St. Jean. 

Big Alcohol belongs in exactly the same category as Big Oil, Big Tobacco and all the other harmful industries ruining the health of people and the planet alike.

Big Alcohol causes harm by enticing and glamorizing hyper-consumption of its harmful products. It also works hard to shape the values of people and communities to identify consumption as a primary source of happiness, joy, sense of meaning and the “good life.”

With Big Alcohol at the helm of so much destruction in our society, being sober, in and of itself, is one of the most powerful acts of resistance.