We have published more than 340 alcohol policy-related news stories, more than 230 science digests, more than 200 stories exposing the unethical practices of the alcohol industry, and 11 community solutions stories. From all these stories, we have curated 41 Alcohol Issues Newsletters in 2021. It is safe to write that this work gives us a good overview of the developments in alcohol policy, science, and Big Alcohol tactics.
I spotted seven trends that caught my attention in 2021. These are:
- Big Alcohol exploits the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Governments improve alcohol availability policies and laws to curb COVID-19 spread.
- The rising cost of alcohol harm on societies.
- Popular policy solution: Increasing alcohol taxes for domestic resource mobilization.
- #BigAlcoholExposed: Alcohol industry human rights violations.
- Community wins against Big Alcohol.
- Sober bars: Booming business model.
1. Big Alcohol exploits the COVID-19 pandemic
2021 is the second year in which we are living through the COVID-19 pandemic. Just as seen in 2020 in 2021 the alcohol industry has continued to exploit the largest global health crisis of our time in their favor. Pandemic focused marketing tactics or “crisis washing” and pushing governments to weaken alcohol policies are two major tactics of the industry. The aim of Big Alcohol by using these tactics is to increase alcohol consumption and maximize industry profits. This is despite the lethal interaction between COVID-19 and the products and practices of the alcohol industry.
Several reports by leading public health organizations exposed the alcohol industry practice of crisis washing:
- The SPECTRUM research consortium released a report entitled “Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm: Unhealthy commodity industries and COVID-19“, exposing alcohol industry’s pandemic exploitation.
- A report by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education and the Cancer Council WA found that the average Australian on social media was exposed to an alcohol advertisement every 35 seconds.
- The groundbreaking report titled “Alcohol and the coronavirus pandemic: individual, societal and policy perspectives” shows the lethal interaction between alcohol and the ongoing health crisis.
‘Crisis washing’ is where the alcohol industry exploits the COVID-19 crisis to directly increase their profits or get good PR for their brand or company (which indirectly increases profits as more people are compelled to buy that brand). This is done through two main tactics:
- Associating alcohol products and brands with the work of health professionals, emergency services and other frontline workers during the pandemic through CSR type activities (for example, donating food for healthcare workers, donating resources for hospitals, making hand sanitizer), and through “branded COVID-19 products” (such as branded masks).
- Promoting alcohol use as a coping mechanism to manage pandemic related stressors and burdens.
While engaging in ‘crisis washing’, alcohol industry lobby front groups subversivly pushed for alcohol deregulation to weaken alcohol policy protections such as weakening online alcohol sale and home delivery rules.
1.1 Alcohol lobby fuels alcohol harm in United States
In the United States for example, the products and practices of the alcohol industry were already causing serious health and social harms before the pandemic. During the pandemic the alcohol industry’s strategies of marketing their products as coping tools during such a difficult time, and their deregulation agenda, have led to a dangerous rise in alcohol use and resulting problems in the country. These harms include:
- More and more workers experiencing alcohol and other substance use problems. For instance, in one research 49% of American workers stated they were experiencing an alcohol or other substance use problem.
- A growing number of people below the age of 40 is presenting at hospitals with alcoholic liver disease.
- The American Association for the Study of Liver Diseases (AASLD) reports a 30 to 50% increase in the number of hospitalizations and deaths caused by alcohol-related liver disease over the past year (2021).
In the U.S. Big Alcohol’s push to weaken existing alcohol policy systems across federal states has led to the following negative changes:
- At the beginning of the pandemic, 31 states included cocktails-to-go as a temporary measure.
- In 15 states the measure was extended by two to five years.
- Another 16 states made cocktails-to-go a permanent law.
- At least nine states passed laws allowing direct home delivery of alcohol.
1.2 Big Alcohol lobby accelerates alcohol harm during pandemic
The push for weakening alcohol laws and policies by the alcohol industry was also observed in South Korea. Here, Big Alcohol lobbied to weaken online alcohol sales regulations, citing “business downturn” due to the pandemic. However, data from the Korea Customs Service contradict the business downturn argument since the alcohol industry in South Korea recorded more sales in 2020 even amidst the raging COVID-19 pandemic.
In India, too, the alcohol industry lobbied for making alcohol more available through online alcohol sales and home delivery of alcohol products. The pressure from the alcohol industry on Indian state governments led some states to trial various online sales methods including a token system.
In South Africa, where the government successfully reduced alcohol availability through temporary alcohol sales bans, the alcohol industry deployed the Big Tobacco Playbook trying to muddy the evidence that proved health improvements gained from reducing alcohol availability during COVID-19. This attack on public health was countered by a scientific, original research which found that the trauma cases in South African hospitals greatly reduced during the temporary alcohol sales bans.
2. Governments improve alcohol availability policies and laws to curb COVID-19 spread
Despite Big Alcohol lobbying to deregulate alcohol policies, several governments around the world took decisions to reduce alcohol availability even temporarily to curb the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reducing alcohol availability during COVID-19 lockdowns is recommended by the World Health Organization.
- Alcohol use reduces immunity making people more susceptible to the virus and its complications.
- Furthermore, alcohol use and alcohol-centric social events are linked to increased virus transmission because people remove masks to consume alcohol and are less likely to adhere to physical distancing while consuming alcohol.
- Additionally, alcohol related accidents and hospital admissions increase the burden on healthcare and emergency services which need all capacity in providing help to COVID-19 patients.
Governments have taken several approaches in reducing alcohol availability during the pandemic. The most effective measure being a temporary alcohol sales ban as observed in South Africa. A similar temporary alcohol sales ban was also used by the Zimbabwean government in January 2021.
Meanwhile, many European countries temporarily banned alcohol sales during the nighttime. Such as seen in Sweden, Estonia, Andalucia – Spain and Denmark. Norway temporarily banned on-trade alcohol sales such as in pubs, bars and restaurants in December 2021.
Asian countries such as Japan, Bangkok – Thailand, Phnom Penh – Cambodia also implemented temporary alcohol sales bans of varying levels, either only for the on-trade sector (Bangkok) or for both on- and off-trade sectors (Phnom Penh). Meanwhile, Malaysia declared alcohol non-essential during COVID-19 lockdowns, which temporarily bans alcohol sales when lockdown is in effect.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted inequities in the global burden of non-communicable diseases and the relative lack of attention to policy addressing alcohol use. This brings to focus the importance of continued advocacy by governments and civil society for a global binding treaty for alcohol.
3. The rising cost of alcohol harm on societies
The products and practices of the alcohol industry drain resources in countries around the world. This drain is specifically harmful now since governments need more resources to recover and build back better from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
A study by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) at Curtin University in Perth conservatively estimated the cost of harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry to the Australian people to be $66.8 billion. This figure includes tangible costs such as deaths caused by alcohol, hospital admissions, criminal justice system costs etc., and intangible costs which are things/ time lost due to the products and practices of the alcohol industry that can not be bought or sold.
Canadian Substance Use Costs and Harms (CSUCH) estimates the direct cost of alcohol on Canadian citizens (2017) to be an estimated $16.63 billion. This is only the direct cost and does not include indirect costs such as in the above Australian study. The direct alcohol cost in Canada is greater than that from either tobacco use or from cannabis, opioids and all illegal substances combined.
In Sweden, analysis by Ramboll shows that the total cost of alcohol-related health and medical care alone amounts to almost SEK 4.2 billion (approx. US$ 500 million) annually. These costs do not include primary care or substance use disorder care in the social services or other direct and indirect costs of alcohol.
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released a landmark report in 2021 detailing the economic harm caused by the alcohol industry. Alcohol-related diseases and injuries incur a high cost to society. Life expectancy is nearly one year lower than it would be, on average, if alcohol consumption in a population would be lower.
An average of 2.4% of health spending in OECD countries goes to dealing with the harm caused by alcohol consumption – and the figure is much higher in some countries. In addition, poor health due to alcohol consumption has detrimental consequences on labour participation and productivity.
Combined with the impact on labour force productivity, it is estimated that GDP will be 1.6% lower on average in OECD countries annually over the next 30 years due to alcohol harm, varying from 0.2% in Turkey to 3.8% in Lithuania.
Reduced productivity of employees amounts to US$ 595 billion (adjusted for purchasing power), according to the report.
4. Popular policy solution: Increasing alcohol taxes for domestic resource mobilization
Low and middle income countries (LMICs) are disproportionately affected by the harm caused by the products and practices of the alcohol industry. Alcohol is a major obstacle to development in these countries. As Movendi International has shown, alcohol obstructs 14 of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).
In 2021, more international organizations and decision-makers have recognized this harm and the potential of alcohol taxes for domestic resource mobilization to promote sustainable development.
- The World Bank called on Nigeria to increase alcohol taxes as recommended in the National Development Update report. Such a tax increase is estimated to raise an additional US$ 1.46 billion in revenue for the country.
- The International Monetary Fund (IMF) called on the Ghanaian government to increase the alcohol tax to boost sustainable development. The IMF emphasizes that tax reforms for alcohol and tobacco can generate 0.45% of GDP and help promote healthier behaviors among the population.
- The Vice President and Minister of Health of Zimbabwe Constantino Chiwenga proposed a tax increase for alcohol and cigarettes to help finance the health sector which is grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic.
- The Ministry of Finance of Lesotho proposed to increase alcohol taxes by 15%. Unfortunately there is heavy alcohol industry interference in public health policy making in the country. A previous attempt to increase taxes was also derailed by industry interference.
- In Philippines, new survey data illustrated the alcohol harm in the country. But in a landmark move, the government increased taxes on alcohol and tobacco – overcoming Big Alcohol interference – in order to invest the revenues into achieving health for all and universal health coverage. The alcohol and tobacco tax increases aim to partially fund Universal Health Coverage (UHC). The government estimates to raise P25 billion (about $500 million) from alcohol and e-cigarette taxes and P16 billion (about USD 320 million) from tobacco taxes.
Alcohol taxes are important not only for LMICs but also for high income countries. In the alcohol policy side event at the WHO European Regional Committee Meeting, Movendi International President, Kristina Sperkova shared that public health oriented alcohol taxation is the number one solution to achieve a European Region free from harm caused by alcohol products.
We need a regional joint initiative for public health-oriented alcohol taxation.”Kristina Sperkova, Movendi International President
There are many benefits for a joint initiative on public health-oriented alcohol taxation in the European Region. This is a solution that keeps on giving. Not only will it reduce alcohol harm, improve people’s health and raise domestic resources but it can solve age old regional problems such as cross border trade issues, as seen in Baltic states.
5. #BigAlcoholExposed: Alcohol industry human rights violations
As in previous years, so also in 2021 we at Movendi International exposed the unethical practices of the alcohol industry, especially a shocking number of human rights violations.
5.1 Carlsberg’s child labor
Early on in the year, Carlsberg India was exposed for bribery and child labour. A May 2018 internal report by consultancy firm Ernst & Young (EY) on an audit of two Carlsberg warehouses found underage laborers at a location in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand. According to the report 24 of 41 workers there were under 21 – the legal minimum age of employment for those engaged in alcohol sales in the state – with some as young as 16. Carlsberg India has commented that the third-party provider was terminated immediately in 2018 following the findings in the internal report.
5.2 Big Alcohol targeting of women
In the United States (U.S.), Big Alcohol’s targeting of women has increased women’s alcohol consumption almost to the level of men. This is having drastic consequences since alcohol causes very specific harms to women, such as getting addicted with smaller amounts and in a shorter time than men.
The main Big Alcohol strategies to get more women to use more alcohol are:
- Pink-washing of alcohol,
- Marketing alcohol with other products such as makeup,
- Promoting “low calorie” alcohol as better for women, and
- Marketing alcohol as a gender equalizer by aligning with women empowerment.
5.3 Sexism in the craft beer industry
In the Western world, Big Alcohol has been pink washing alcohol products and brands, trying to align with women empowerment to peddle alcohol to women while objectifying women to sell more to men. However, the craft beer industry has managed to escape these charges by positioning themselves as different from Big Alcohol. This facade was broken down with a stream of revelations from women within the alcohol industry, specifically the craft beer industry, showing that sexism is systemic in the craft beer industry, as it is in their Big Alcohol brothers.
These women have revealed harrowing accounts of sexism, of being treated less than, being ignored, being paid less, and in the worst cases being sexually harassed and assaulted in their line of work. This reveals the internal sexism of the alcohol industry just like the external sexism seen in alcohol marketing.
5.4 Human rights abuses of Big Wine in Italy
A report by Oxfam exposed the grave human rights abuses of the wine industry in Italy, one of the biggest wine exporters in the world. The report revealed that workers in vineyards and wineries are subjected to a number of human rights violations:
- Forced labor,
- Poverty wages,
- Excessive working hours,
- Health and safety risks in vineyards and wineries,
- Lack of access to remedy,
- Restrictions to freedom of association,
- Sexual harassment and gender discrimination, and
- Poor, unsafe and unsanitary housing.
5.5 Harm caused by Big Beer’s thirst for the African Region
Big Beer and Big Alcohol in general have their eyes set on the African Region. The alcohol industry sees the region as a lucrative opportunity to maximize their profits. Why is this? Weak or absent alcohol regulatory frameworks and policies, a growing young urban middle class population and a growing labor force means the alcohol industry can freely push alcohol on African people with little to no ramifications.
Big Alcohol has pushed further into the African region in 2021. In mid-November, Heineken launched a strike in the decades long battle between Big Alcohol giants Heineken, AB InBev and Diageo to gain market dominance in the African region. Heineken acquired a 66% stake in their competitor the Distell Group in South Africa. At the same time, the beer giant will also acquire Namibia Breweries, and thereby taking full control of ‘Heineken South Africa’.
The battle between Big Alcohol giants spells harm for the people of the region. Big Alcohol is deploying their arsenal of tools to turn the largely alcohol free people of the region to the biggest beer consumers of the world. All of this to maximize profits as the popularity of beer is reducing in the Western world.
- Children and youth in the region continue to be exposed to an avalanche of advertising and other marketing.
- Several Big Alcohol turf wars are already exposing people to high availability of alcohol and exposure to relentless marketing.
- Women’s well-being is at risk since rising alcohol use means higher gender-based violence.
6. Community wins against Big Alcohol
Heart-Driven communities, civil society, activists, advocates, policy makers and citizens of countries have achieved several wins protecting public health from Big Alcohol.
6.1 Aboriginal communities fight win against Big Alcohol
One of the biggest wins in 2021 was the community win against Woolworths attempt at planting one of the largest Dan Murphy’s alcohol superstores in Darwin, in the middle of alcohol-free Aboriginal communities. This victory was the result of five a year struggle led by community members and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, as well as health and other civil society organizations to protect Darwin people’s health and well-being.
The alcohol-free aboriginal Bagot Community led by community elder Helon Fejo-Frith, civil society organization Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) and Olivia Williams, the founder of Blak Business, were prominently involved in ensuring the safety of Darwin communities.
On April 29, 2021 the Woolworths group released a statement that they would not continue with the proposed Dan Murphy’s in Darwin.
6.2 Football stars reject health harmful beverage companies
Popular football stars Paul Pogba and Cristiano Ronaldo removed bottles of Heineken and Coca Cola from press conferences in Euro2020. After this, Edinburgh City Football Club banned all unethical brands such as alcohol, tobacco and gambling from promotions of any form.
Edinburgh City does not think that professional sport should endorse or support these activities, and it is our pledge not to promote Alcohol, Tobacco, or Gambling in any form,” said a spokesperson for Edinburgh City Football Club, as per Edinburgh Live.
A spokesperson for Edinburgh City Football Club
6.3 Alaska communities safeguard alcohol taxation benefits for most affected by alcohol harms
In Anchorage, Alaska communities protected the alcohol tax dollars. In 2020, citizens voted in favor of a 5% tax increase on alcohol. The voters approved the alcohol tax revenue to be invested in three core areas including prevention. When the citizens found the alcohol tax budget for 2022 proposed by Mayor Dave Bronson was not fully in line with the initial vision, the Anchorage Theory of Positive Change Coalition, including Movendi International member Recover Alaska, called on the Mayor to stay true to the vision. In response the Assembly of Anchorage protected the intended use of the revenue from the alcohol tax increase.
6.4 Movendi International member shape global alcohol policy
In major global civil society action in 2021, Movendi International developed a comprehensive submission to the web-based consultation of the World Health Organization (WHO) on improving alcohol policy. The team at Movendi international analyzed what countries have done to implement the Global Action Plan in the past decade and then suggested 11 key suggestions to improve WHO’s draft alcohol action plan
- Ensure bolder targets and bigger ambition,
- Craft stronger conclusions evaluating the decade of WHO GAS implementation,
- Better consider the needs of the most vulnerable and devise stronger actions to protect those at risk of being left behind,
- Improve and enhance the structure and apply best practices from other WHO action plans,
- Ensure greater focus on the SAFER strategies,
- Facilitate country action,
- Don’t normalize Big Alcohol through the global alcohol action plan,
- Ensure greater focus on governance and infrastructure improvements,
- Improve resourcing as well as reporting and review of implementation,
- Update nomenclature in line with state-of-the-art evidence, and
- Convening an Expert Committee.
Movendi International members around the world took the messages to their governments to help advance ambitious alcohol policy at the global level.
Movendi International also collaborated with partners in the areas of alcohol policy as well as NCDs prevention and control to develop two more distinct submissions.
7. Booming sober bars and other businesses
Sober bars are growing and thriving around the world. More and more people are either switching to the alcohol-free life or are getting increasingly sober curious. Sober bars offer inclusive options for everyone to have fun, be healthy and meet friends in healthy environments.
- Creators Katja Kauf and Isabella Steiner opened Germany’s first alcohol-free kiosk or “sober Späti” in Kreuzberg, Berlin. Their concept stems from questioning alcohol habits which usually go unnoticed.
- Ireland’s first alcohol-free bar “The Virgin Mary” or TVM which opened in 2019 made plans to go global with the TVM brand, opening up their first franchise in Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
- The new owners of popular Scottish hotel “The Stromness” decided to go alcohol-free with the hotel. This is to suit the new identity of the hotel as a wellness destination.
These are seven major trends in global alcohol issues which I noticed across 2021. Did you see any other major trend? Feel free to comment below.