Global Alcohol Trends of 2019

What do you learn when you spend a year (almost) curating alcohol policy and science news from around the world on a daily basis?

In 2019, several interesting global trends emerged, relating to changing alcohol norms, new evidence on alcohol harm, industry interference and alcohol’s negative effects to development. I’m attempting to summarize and explore a few of theres trends in detail:

  • Alcohol-free way of life,
  • Science about the real effects of alcohol (alcohol harm),
  • Alcohol industry,
  • Alcohol as a human rights issue (women’s and child rights), and
  • Alcohol as obstacle to development.

The post can be read in its entirety to get a round-up of 2019, or read in specific trends. Feel free to choose the approach you find more interesting.

Alcohol-free way of life

The alcohol-free way of life received the spotlight throughout 2019. Starting from Dry January, to the sober curious and growing sober movement, globally there is a trend to stay alcohol-free as people become more health and wellness conscious.

It is also becoming increasingly easy to stay or become alcohol-free as choices for this way of life expand. Alcohol-free events, parties, pop-ups, bars and other spaces are opening up. Keeping up with consumer trends the alcohol-free beverage market has also seen a massive growth.

Dry January campaign

In January 2019, with the Dry January campaign, research found that there are multiple benefits of going alcohol-free even for one month. According to the study by Sussex University with 800 Dry January participants, after participating in the campaign,

  • Alcohol consumption days fell on average from 4.3 to 3.3 per week;
  • Units consumed per alcohol consumption day dropped on average from 8.6 to 7.1;
  • Frequency of being drunk dropped from 3.4 per month to 2.1 per month on average.

Youth driving the alcohol-free lifestyle trend

The more health and wellness conscious younger generations, starting from millennials, are driving the alcohol-free lifestyle trend around the globe. There are many reasons why millennials prefer the sober life or a greater deal of alcohol-free choices. Some of these are:

  • Alcohol is an economic drain.
  • Alcohol makes them sick.
  • Alcohol use hinders taking responsibility in life.

The good news is the trend is changing the pervasive alcohol norm in society and its continuing to Gen Z, who are currently using the least amount of alcohol for their age in history.

Millennials Are Bored By Alcohol, Prefer Sobriety

This positive lifestyle trend has been reported in countries such as, Finland, Australia, Scotland, Germany and the United States (US).

Expansion of the alcohol-free choice

With the growth of the alcohol-free way of life, brands are adapting to consumer demand. The no-alcohol market has been growing exponentially over the last few years. Zenith Global predicts a sales growth of almost 10% a year over the next five years for European No Alcohol Beverages in the UK. The European No-Alcohol market was worth €5.9 billion in 2018 and will be worth €9.3 billion in 2023.

In the on-trade, no and low-alcohol beer is the fifth-fastest growing beer type in the US, and has a total value of US $77 million. In US retail meanwhile, non-alcoholic drinks are worth US $7 billion more than they were four years ago, with sales growing by US$1.1 billion in the last year alone.

There are also many alcohol-free spaces ranging from bars to pop-ups opening up to support the development. Online communities for recovery and sobriety have also been growing and helping people stay connected to others who share similar interests and so has the availability and attractiveness of events and places which are alcohol-free. Day Breaker, Listen Bar, Sober Sensation, Hello Sunday Morning, Soberistas, Sober Girls Society, Mindful Drinking Festival and many more examples show the global momentum.

NYC: Interest in Alcohol-Free Lifestyle Growing

Science about the real effects of alcohol (alcohol harm)

2019 further strengthened the scientific evidence base on alcohol harm globally and further established that there is no safe level of alcohol to consume. The year also further strengthened the science about several specific harms from alcohol such as its homicide risk, alcohol harm to unborn babies from parental – including fathers’ – alcohol use and alcohol’s role in deaths of despair.

No safe level of alcohol consumption

In April 2019, a landmark study published in The Lancet challenged and dismissed the myth of benefits from low-dose alcohol consumption for better heart health. This genetic study involving 500,000 Chinese people, found blood pressure and stroke risk increase steadily with increasing alcohol consumption. The study also dismissed the possible protective factors against stroke from taking 1 to 2 alcohol units a day, because these factors are found to be largely non-causal.

Landmark Study: Alcohol Increases Stroke Risk

The study adds to the current genetic evidence showing that the apparently protective effects of low-dose alcohol intake against stroke are not mainly caused by alcohol itself, and are largely artifacts of reverse causation and confounding.

Another study published in the journal Cancer in December 2019, found that any amount of alcohol increases cancer risk. The study involved alcohol use patterns of 63,232 cancer patients and a healthy control group. It was found the minimum risk for cancer was 0 years of alcohol consumption.

New Study: Any Alcohol Use Raises Cancer Risk

Both these studies add to the growing body of evidence that no amount of alcohol is safe for consumption.

Alcohol fuels homicide

In July 2019, the Global Homicide Study highlighted alcohol’s role in fueling violence. According to the study, out of the 37% homicides committed under the influence of psychoactive substances, 90% are committed under the influence of alcohol.

The study also stresses that the role of alcohol in homicide cases appears to dwarf that of other substances and lists restricting access to alcohol and other availability measures to reduce alcohol fueled violence.

UNODC: Global Homicide Study Highlights Role of Alcohol

Both parents need to skip alcohol before conception

Research generally focuses on the mothers’ alcohol use when it comes to the safety of an unborn child. A study published in October 2019 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, found the father also needs to stop alcohol use before conception to reduce the risk of the baby developing congenital heart disease.

According to the study findings,

  • Babies have a 44% increased risk of congenital heart disease when their father used alcohol three months before conception, compared to babies whose dads did not use alcohol.
  • When the mothers used alcohol during this time period or during the first trimester, babies had a 16% increased risk of disease.
  • Men should not consume alcohol for at least six months before fertilization, while women should stop consuming alcohol one year before, and avoid it while pregnant.

Study: Fathers Should Also Skip Alcohol

Alcohol’s role in the rise of deaths of despair

“Deaths of despair” is a term coined by economists Dr. Anne Case and Dr. Angus Deaton to define the rise in deaths primarily driven by alcohol, drug overdoses, suicides, and liver disease, which in turn, decrease quality of life and overall life expectancy. First identified as a trend in the United States, a similar trend is also now observed in the United Kingdom.

Alcohol plays a major role in deaths of despair, contributing to overdose, suicide and liver disease. Alcohol also decreases quality of life and leads to a range of diseases which increase (premature) mortality.

Alcohol follows and contributes to a range of mental health disorders which increase the risk of suicide. Alcohol use disorder (AUD) is comorbid with other mental disorders such as depression, bipolar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Research shows for instance, nearly 1 in 4 males and 1 in 5 females are intoxicated – with BAC levels of 0.08% or more – at the time of a suicide.

Alcohol and “Deaths of Despair”

Alcohol also adds to the death and disease burden from cancer and injuries. Raising awareness on alcohol harms and the dangers of using alcohol to cope with challenges in life could help reduce the number of these deaths of despair.

Alcohol industry

The alcohol industry interferes in public health policy making globally to further their interests. They use lobby front groups as well as alcohol industry funded organizations and corporate social responsibility projects to manipulate policy and spread doubt about scientific evidence of alcohol harms. The industry is also often caught up in unethical business practices ranging from tax avoidance to human rights violations.

Movendi International has mapped out alcohol industry interference worldwide. This section will follow a few case examples for alcohol industry interference in policy and science and unethical business practices of the Big Alcohol.

Alcohol industry interference in policy making

In July 2019, Movendi International reported on the formation of the World Spirits Alliance (WSA) which is a lobby group on behalf of liquor industry giants. The group is a global lobbying front group that aims to protect the profit interests of distillery businesses.

The European lobby group SpiritsEurope and the national lobby group Distilled Spirits Council of the United States are also founding members among the full list of 17 members.

The WSA will represent industry interests before international organisations including the World Trade Organization (WTO), the World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations (UN). The lobbying goals of the group include, tariffs, non-tarrif trade barriers, import quotas, licensing restrictions, product standards, marketing regulations, intellectual property and distribution.

The group as such is not new having come together in 2003 to interfere in the WTO ministerial trade talks in Cancun, Mexico in that year. But the formation of the WSA highlights to ever increasing focus of Big Alcohol on lobbying to derail, obstruct and undermine alcohol policy formulation and implementation.

Big Alcohol: Liquor Giants Create Global Lobby Group

Meanwhile, the lobby front group representing Big Alcohol at the EU level Spirits Europe” has been pushing for re-establishment of a special interest group in the EU Parliament.

In the United States, Big Alcohol policy interference is prominent. Despite overwhelming evidence of alcohol harm in the country, in 2019, the US Congress extended a major tax break for the alcohol industry which has been in place since 2017. The one year extension has been estimated to cost the government a total US $1.2 billion.

USA: Congress Extends Big Alcohol’s Tax Break

Another example of the alcohol lobby interfering in policy-making came from Australia, where the new National Alcohol Strategy (NAS), which was eventually adopted, was heavily watered down due to alcohol industry interference.

Several key changes from the first public consultation draft and the revised draft after Big Alcohol’s involvement were the following:

  • Erasing a clear statement about the ‘alcohol industry having no role in developing national alcohol policy’ and all safeguards against conflicts of interest;
  • Watering down of alcohol pricing policies; and
  • Undermining of alcohol advertising regulations.

Australia: Alcohol Strategy ‘Lacks Ambition’

It is not surprising that the alcohol lobby could interfere to this extent in Australian alcohol policy considering the amount of money the industry pumps into Australian politics. The liquor, hotels and gaming lobby made its highest level of donations in seven years in 2017-18. They have pumped more than $1 million into political parties.

Another example of documented alcohol industry interference comes in the form of a report by the Association Nationale de Prevention en Alcoologie et Adictiologie (ANPAA). The report exposes Big Alcohol tactics in France such as

  1. The aggressive reactions of Big Alcohol to Health Minister’s (evidence-based) statements on wine,
  2. The repeated delay of the publication of the Mildeca plan; or
  3. Multiple examples of violations of the Evin law in 2018.

ANPAA, France: Exposing Big Alcohol Lobbying

In the Asian region the Wine Industry rallied against a new alcohol tax in the Philippines. The tax was planned by the President as a measure to fund the country’s universal health care program. While Big Alcohol interference reduced the possible tax receipt, the bill withstood the onslaught of lobbying by the wine industry and was ratified by Congress.

Philippines: Wine Industry Rails Against Alcohol Tax

In India, Big Alcohol has lobbied against road safety measures. India’s Supreme Court ruled to ban the sale of liquor in proximity to major roads to reduce the number of deaths caused by drivers under the influence of alcohol. Only Big Alcohol was dissatisfied with this measure because they lost profits while lives were saved.

Why Big Alcohol Opposes Road Safety in India

Pernod Ricard, Carlsberg and Diageo have all been vocal about their opposition of the ban, citing their loss of profits and sales growth. The industry also implements ineffective education programmes such as the Youth Road Safety Learners License Programme by Diageo.

Diageo, in particular strategizes to achieve market dominance in India. For this in 2019, the company interfered with public health policy by,

  • Engaging in road safety programmes;
  • Advocating for weakening of local alcohol policies under the guise of increasing Indian States’ ease of doing business rankings; and
  • Intervening and influencing tax policies.

In Vietnam, the alcohol lobby significantly watered down the new alcohol law. For example by removal of the online alcohol sale ban which was initially proposed. However, the law has been implemented in the country with several positive measures to reduce alcohol harm in Vietnam.

Vietnam: Big Alcohol Lobby Destroys Alcohol Law

In the African region, Big Alcohol has been found to interfere in public health policy to their advantage as the region is seen as huge growing market for the industry. For example in Uganda, 11 out of 26 alcohol companies were found to violate the sachet alcohol ban. This is possible because the Minister of Trade is heavily influenced by the alcohol industry. The Minister has been involved in close discussions with the industry and in the industry’s process to introduce new bottling packaging for alcohol.

The beer giant Heineken has been found to exploit their aid and trade policies in the African region for their own gains. The brewer received millions of Euros in subsidies for agricultural projects in Africa and the programme is hailed by the Dutch government. However, objectives of the programme which could benefit the region are not being met. Despite this, Heineken exploits the region using their aid and trade policies to obtain tax reductions, for example in Mozambique.

Heineken in Africa: The Aid Is Lagging Behind The Trade

Alcohol industry interference in scientific research

Apart from influencing public health policies in countries and on global level, the alcohol industry manipulates scientific research to spread doubt about scientifically proven alcohol harms.

Empirical research has found that alcohol is linked with many health harms, including increasing the risk of cancer. Despite this proven fact, the alcohol industry continues to downplay the cancer risk of alcohol. A study published in February 2019 in the Drug and Alcohol Review on how alcohol industry social aspects/ public relations organisations (SAPROs) frame cancer risk found, these organizations manipulate scientific evidence by,

  • Providing inaccurate information,
  • Use of misleading language, and
  • Using a range of confounders to undermine risk.

The Strategies of Big Alcohol: Downplaying the Risk of Cancer

Another strategy of the industry is pink-washing their products. The alcohol industry manipulates science which clearly links alcohol to breast cancer with pink ribbons, partnerships with breast cancer charities, and general terms such as “breast cancer research” or “cure.” In quite a contradiction, these pink-washed alcohol products add to the cancer and breast cancer disease burden and couples up with charities which prevent and treat breast cancer. The association with breast cancer prevention and the alcohol industry is confusing to the public and creates doubt about the real breast cancer risk of alcohol.

The alcohol industry also undermines health harms of alcohol during pregnancy. It has been scientifically proven that no amount of alcohol use is safe before conception, during pregnancy and while breast-feeding the baby. Despite this evidence a study found that alcohol-industry funded websites omit and misrepresent the evidence on key risks of alcohol consumption during pregnancy. Thereby, nudging women to continue alcohol use during pregnancy.

Big Alcohol Endangers Pregnant Women

Another way Big Alcohol influences scientific research is by trying to promote “moderate” or “safe” levels of alcohol consumption. It has already been scientifically proven there is no safe level of alcohol consumption. This did not stop the alcohol industry lobby group Alcohol Beverages Australia (ABA) from resurfacing a report they published in 2017. The report contains misinformation including claims that alcohol use has health benefits such as reduced risk of heart disease, stroke and diabetes. This report was used last year for lobbying against the review of Australian alcohol consumption guidelines. Big Alcohol wants to loosen the guidelines claiming it is too “harsh” despite the clear evidence that the only safe level of alcohol consumption is no consumption.

Big Alcohol: Fooling People About “Safe” Consumption

Big Alcohol’s interference with scientific research was exposed in 2019, when a former research fellow of the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO) accused the organization of using public money to subsidize the alcohol industry. The organization has conducted research to help the alcohol industry using public money. In turn the organization’s researchers get to attend alcohol-industry funded conferences, get free alcohol and enjoy other perks.

The above example explains why it is important to declare conflict of interest (COI) in scientific research, especially addiction research. As one study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs in April 2019 states, the spirit of COI can be violated when the agenda of a funding source is dictated by an organization that has a financial interest in the outcome of the research.

Exposing unethical business practices of Big Alcohol

In 2019 multiple cases of Big Alcohol’s unethical business practices were exposed through news reports. These include:

  • Tax schemes and tax avoidance,
  • Price cartelization,
  • Bribery,
  • Trade practice violations,
  • Unethical marketing,
  • Promoting heavy alcohol use,
  • Environmental harm,
  • Exploitation of the African region.

Tax scheming, tax avoidance, price cartelization

Several major Big Alcohol companies have been caught in tax scheming, tax avoidance and price cartelization in 2019.

Bribery

An investigation by Danish newspaper Berlingske, uncovered that Carlsberg has bribed Indian officials to ensure swifter regulatory processing time and to get better manufacturing terms for their Indian brewery.

Trade practice violations

Big Alcohol giants Heineken and AB InBev were caught in trade practice violations.

Unethical marketing

A range of unethical advertizing, promotions and sponsorships of Big Alcohol is also seen across 2019. The alcohol industry is always pursuing ways to increase their profits and three of their favourite target groups are women, children and youth. The industry targets women as traditionally women did not consume much alcohol and by pushing their products on women they can increase profits. Children and youth are targeted as these groups are the future and would make lifelong customers for the industry.

A good example of the industry targeting women is a campaign organized by alcohol industry front group Vin & Société. The campaign at first glance appears to be about preventing women from consuming alcohol while pregnant. But an integral part of the campaign confuses the public by misinforming on risks of alcohol during pregnancy and by omitting serious risks for the unborn child due to alcohol, such as, facial deformities, damage to vital organs, psychological and motor handicaps, risks of miscarriage, pre-eclampsia, premature birth.

Big Alcohol Puts Women, Newly Born in Harm’s Way

An example for Big Alcohol targeting kids comes from Australia where several alcohol producers started using labelling which are attractive to children on their products. Marketers used frozen vodka ice blocks and cheap ciders labelled with rainbows, unicorns and cartoons targeting minors. This unethical practice was used to promote Keloggs Nitro Milkshake beer, SlimChillers frozen wine cocktails and Little Fat Lamb’s “brewed fantasy” cider with guarana.

Another method the alcohol industry targets kids with is through social media marketing as it is hard to track. Heineken teamed up with a UK influencer who is highly popular with under 18-year old adolescents and kids, to promote beer via social media, thus reaching the young audience of the influencer.

Big Alcohol in the United States, marketed their products to health conscious millennials as “wellness” products – from “wellness beers” meant for athletes to paleo-friendly and keto-friendly natural wines. According to the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau (TTB), it is illegal to make health claims with alcohol products.

To promote alcohol to kids and youth the industry uses celebrities and product placement in popular movies and TV shows. The “James Bond 25”, Daniel Craig’s final movie of his time as actor of 007 is one example. Brands like Bollinger and Heineken paid big bucks to have their products placed all over the movie.

James Bond: Big Alcohol Pays Big Bucks

A popular strategy by Big Alcohol is using sports sponsorship to associate alcohol – a health harmful substance – with sports – a healthy activity – to perpetuate the alcohol norm. Alcohol sports sponsorship and advertising in sports programmes is extremely harmful for children and adolescents who often watch these programmes and idolize sports celebrities.

Several examples of alcohol marketing in sports are seen in the National Football League (NFL), Major League Soccer in USA and the Australian Football League (AFL).

Links Between Alcohol Marketing and Alcohol Consumption in Youth

Promoting heavy alcohol use

Despite the alcohol industry claiming to promote “responsible consumption” it has been found that the majority of the profits of the industry come from heavy and at- high-risk alcohol users. A 2019 study on alcohol industry marketing revealed that despite industry claims, they would aim only to increase market share, that their marketing increases consumption and targeted marketing is directled towards heavy alcohol users, women and youth.

Recruiting the “Heavy-Using Loyalists of Tomorrow”

One real world example of this alcohol industry marketing strategy is, how brewers in the Netherlands started to give incentives to student associations to increase and promote heavy alcohol consumption among college students. For example the hectolitre bonus can give a discount as high as 75%.

In 2019, Pernod Ricard was exposed for pushing heavy alcohol consumption and fueling an unhealthy alcohol norm within their workplace. The pressure to consume alcohol has made multiple employees sick and led to an employee taking the company to labour courts.

Environmental harm

Alcohol’s harm to the climate is a proven fact. According to the BBC climate crisis food calculator, beer alone, taken 3 to 5 times a week and within the guidelines for alcohol use provided by the NHS – amounts to 139kg of greenhouse gas emissions per year and takes up 2020 litres of water. 

Alcohol Production, Consumption Fuels Climate Crisis

In Mexico, Big Beer company Constellation Brands Inc. is building a brewery in Mexicali – one of the driest parts of the country. The move has led to public outcry and the President of Mexico has criticized the company for their choice of place as it causes a significant water security threat to the area.

Further adding to the climate crisis, Big Alcohol companies AB InBev, Carlsberg and Heineken were also exposed in the 2019 list of major corporate plastic polluters compiled by Break Free From Plastic.

Exploitation of the African region

Journalist Oliver Van Beemen conducted a 6 year investigation into the operations of Dutch beer giant Heineken in the African region and published the book “Heineken in Africa”. The book reveals a shocking list of unethical practices in the region employed by the world’s second largest beer producer, including but not limited to:

  • Support for apartheid,
  • Complicity in genocide,
  • Support for authoritarian regimes and collaboration with rebel groups,
  • Unethical alcohol marketing, like beer promotion in schools,
  • The beer promotional girls scheme, running for almost two decades,
  • Exploitation of young women,
  • Sexual abuse, and
  • Fueling stereotypes about Africa.

Not A Love Story: Heineken In Africa

Alcohol as a human rights issue (women’s and child rights)

Despite the specific harms caused by alcohol to women and children I have shown above that the alcohol industry unethically markets and promotes their products to these two groups with the aim of increasing their profits. Women and children are also often on the receiving end of harm from others’ alcohol use. Both these aspects illustrate the violation of the rights of women and children due to alcohol.

Alcohol against women’s rights

Big Alcohol has a history of objectifying women to market their products. While the trend is declining in recent years (because now women are a target group to expand Big Alcohol profits) even in the 21st century sexist alcohol marketing has been reported. Last year, in Rwanda, the beer brand Skol drew public outcry for using sexist jokes on their labeling to market their products.

One scientific study found that being exposed to sexual objectification of women on alcohol advertisements related to whether bystanders will intervene in sexual assaults in alcohol use situations.

It is therefore cynical that the very same industry who uses sexual objectification of women to market their products are now trying to normalize women’s alcohol use by aligning with women empowerment and feminism.

The industry is positioning alcohol as a “gender equalizer”. This idea sells as there is a global trend for women empowerment and the feminist movement has been in focus throughout. One example comes from Canada where wine is promoted as “mommy juice”.

Canada: ‘Mommy Juice’ Normalizes Alcohol

One scientific study found 3 specific strategies used by Big Alcohol marketing to target women.

  • The pink trend is in full swing”: the development and promotion of pink alcohol products;
  • As much an accessory as a drink”: marketing that links alcohol products to fashion, make-up, or other stereotypical female interests and/or activities, or promotes products as a lifestyle choice;
  • Better for you alcohol choice”: marketing that promotes alcohol products as being lower in calories or ‘better for you’.

The problem is, alcohol use has very specific harms for women. Women have fewer enzymes used to break down alcohol before it enters the blood stream, which means alcohol can stay in their system longer. This increases the risk women have for alcohol related diseases such as cirrhosis, depression and even alcohol addiction. Furthermore, alcohol increases women’s risk of breast cancer, a fact which is not known by a vast number of women.

The marketing tactics of Big Alcohol are leading to an increase in alcohol use and harm among women globally as observed in 2019. Data from Poland, for instance, shows over 1.5 million women suffer from alcohol problems. In India, a country where women traditionally consume little or no alcohol, there is a reported rise in alcohol consumption including binge alcohol use.

Movendi International’s blog post “Don’t Poison My Rights” by Brenda Mkwesha explores how the alcohol industry is targeting women and girls around the world – and specially in regions where women consume less alcohol such as Sub-Saharan Africa and the Global South – to push their harmful products on women to increase their profits.

Don’t Poison My Rights

Big Alcohol’s contradiction in aligning with feminism and women empowerment is even more prominent considering how alcohol is a factor in many cases of violence against women. This is an aspect that is largely overlooked even by feminist organizations.

In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledged alcohol plays a role in violence against women when releasing the package “RESPECT – Preventing violence against women: A framework for policymakers”. WHO data suggest worldwide as many as 38% of murders of women are committed by a male intimate partner. WHO cited alcohol use along with other factors when explaining how gender-based violence is perpetrated.

WHO: Alcohol Major Factor in Violence against Women

Case examples for alcohol fuelled violence against women in 2019 come from:

  • Bolivia, where 90% reported gender-based violence cases involve alcohol;
  • South Africa, where alcohol was involved in 72% of sexual violence incidents taking place outdoors and 23.3% of incidents taking place at home; and
  • the United States, where 21% women report having experienced some type of harm including harassment and assault due to others’ alcohol use.

Alcohol against child rights

Almost all countries have a legal age for alcohol consumption. The legal age ranges from 16 years to 21 years, and those below the age are considered minors. It is against the law to sell alcohol to minors and in many countries alcohol marketing targeting minors is also banned. These laws are in place to protect children and adolescents from alcohol harm and to reduce alcohol initiation.

Despite these laws, as discussed above, Big Alcohol unethically, relentlessly targets children and minors through alcohol advertising promotions and sponsorship. Children also face harms due to parental or other adults’ alcohol use. Both these factors violate child rights and put kids in harm’s way.

Children are exposed to alcohol in many places, ranging from home, on the way to school and in digital media. For example, a 2019 report published with the Children’s Parliament in Scotland found kids (9 years to 11 years) described alcohol as “highly visible”. They were exposed to alcohol in various places including hotels, airports and train stations. The children told researchers that alcohol was portrayed in adverts as being “desirable and cool”.

Scotland: Children’s Parliament Seek Alcohol Change

The case is similar in Australia, where alcohol advertising is self-regulated by the industry. Self-regulation has failed to safeguard minors as a 15-year old can see alcohol marketing through Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, billboards, on public transport, at the supermarket, on television, and in the cinema all in one day.

One research published in the Addictive Behaviors Report in November 2019, specifically found links with alcohol advertising expenditure and underage alcohol use. Moreover, advertising was linked with minors’ intention to use alcohol in the future and current under-age alcohol use.

In 2019, the alcohol industry has been called out for using a variety of strategies to target children:

A specific threat to children’s and adolescent’s safety which is rising in 2019 is online alcohol retail and alcohol delivery. One major problem with online retail and delivery of alcohol is age verification. Often there is a lack of verifying age and the methods used are not strong enough and can be easily bypassed by a minor.

When it comes to alcohol industry marketing and children, other industries which partner with the alcohol industry can not escape responsibility of safeguarding children. The sports industry, social media sites and E-Sports industry are equally responsible as the alcohol industry for putting kids who engage with them in harm’s way.

It is because these industries fail in keeping children safe that strong comprehensive alcohol policies especially on restricting/ banning of advertising, sponsorship and promotion of alcohol is urgently needed. With the growth of digital media, an urgent need has risen to monitor and control online alcohol marketing exposure of minors.

WHO Europe: Call for Monitoring Digital Alcohol Marketing

The extent of how others’ alcohol use, including parental and other adult’s use, affects children was also in focus in 2019. While there is a certain awareness that having parents who have alcohol problems can diminish a child’s health and well-being, several findings in 2019 showed how non-dependent parental alcohol use also affects children.

One study published in the Alcohol and Alcoholism Journal in November 2019 demonstrated, the negative effects of parental alcohol use on children. Children can understand when a parent is under the influence of alcohol and it often makes them uncomfortable. Reported negative outcomes include, being given less attention, having more arguments and having to face increasing unpredictability. Younger children experience more of these negative outcomes.

UK: Parents’ Alcohol Use Affects Third of Children

Another study published in the same journal in December 2019 showed how children learn alcohol norms at a very young age. Results show that children as young as 4 to 8 years of age learn alcohol norms (situations where alcohol is used). According to the researchers, this knowledge puts kids at risk for early alcohol initiation and frequent alcohol use later in life.

Children’s Awareness About Normative Situations for Adults to Consume Alcohol

For further reading on how alcohol affects women and children’s rights check out the report launched in 2019 by FORUT – the Norwegian IOGT Movement’s Development Agency, on alcohol’s impact on women and children.

Alcohol as an obstacle to development

In 2015, world leaders made a commitment to achieve 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030. The SDGs include 17 broad goals such as fighting poverty, hunger and the climate crisis as well as achieving health and well-being for all and gender equality and 169 targets to achieve these goals.

Unfortunately, after 4 years since adoption, the current trends show the world is far behind on achieving the set goals by 2030. The 2019 Social Progress Index, compiled by the US non-profit Social Progress Imperative, ranks 149 countries’ social performance over the past five years. The index offers a comprehensive snapshot of a country’s overall progress towards the achievement of the SDGs. It forecasts that at current trends the world will not meet the SDGs 2030 targets even until 2073, more than four decades past their target date.

World Failing to Achieve SDGs

The first Global Sustainable Development Report released in September 2019, highlights the need to increase funding for SDGs.

Alcohol is proven to be an obstacle to 14 out of the 17 SDGs. WHO recommended alcohol policy best buys are evidence-based measures which can reduce alcohol harm, help achieve and bridge funding gaps for SDGs.

  • Alcohol is jeopardizing human capital, undermining economic productivity, destroying the social fabric and burdening health systems;
  • Alcohol kills 3 million people worldwide every year;
  • That means: Every 10 seconds a human being dies because of alcohol;
  • Worldwide, alcohol is responsible for 7.2% of all premature mortality;
  • Alcohol harms young people disproportionately. Among people between the ages of 15 and 19, alcohol is in fact the number one risk factor for death and disability, accounting for 10% of all deaths in this age group.

There is an urgent need for prioritizing action on alcohol for health and development. The WHO-recommended alcohol policy best buys and SAFER package are evidence-based proven effective tools to reduce alcohol harm and boost development.

To increase technical capacity for the implementation of the alcohol policy best buys, WHO has released a new technical document guiding alcohol policy formulation. The technical guide comprises the five most cost-effective and high-impact strategies that help governments to prevent and reduce alcohol harm and related health, social and economic consequences.

WHO: New Technical Guide for Alcohol Policy

The new technical package is part of WHO’s work with the SAFER initiative and provides another important tool for policy-makers to step up their efforts in formulating and implementing evidence-based, cost-effective and high-impact alcohol policy solutions.

The WHO-recommended policy measures to prevent and reduce alcohol harm are:

  1. Increasing excise taxes on alcoholic beverages,
  2. Comprehensive restrictions on alcohol advertising, and 
  3. Restrictions on sales of alcohol.

Implementation of the three best buys would result in a return on investment of US $9 for every US $1 invested. Over 50 years, a 20% global increase in alcohol taxes accumulate as much as US $9 trillion in increased revenues globally and could avert nine million premature deaths. Revenues from taxes and licensing fees could also help cover, or even meet, the costs of a comprehensive alcohol control programme, the prevention and treatment of disorders caused by alcohol use, as well as contributing to the funding of other health and development priorities. 

Prioritising Action On Alcohol For Health And Development

Conclusions

2019 saw several major trends sweeping across the globe. Some trends such as, the alcohol-free lifestyle, are very positive while others such as, Big Alcohol’s exploitation of women, children and heavy alcohol users, were negative. The 2019 trends tell us a few things about where the world is currently headed:

  • People are becoming more aware of alcohol harms and choosing to stay or become alcohol-free (for different periods).
  • More and more independent scientific research is strengthening the evidence base about the harms of alcohol.
  • As alcohol appears to be loosing its place in (Western) society, Big Alcohol is aggressively fighting public health policy and science through lobbying, unethical marketing and targeting of women, children and youth to expand profits – especially in non-Western societies.
  • The alcohol industry’s corruption and other unethical business practices are increasingly getting exposed to the world.
  • Alcohol goes beyond individual impact, it is a human right’s issue, specifically affecting women’s and child rights.
  • Fast, immediate action to strengthen alcohol control policies as recommended by the WHO and public health experts are necessary to prevent and reduce alcohol harm and achieve sustainable development.

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