Movendi International statement of concern regarding the role and actions of the alcohol industry during the COVID-19 crisis
Major alcohol producers have announced their commitment to helping fight the novel coronavirus, COVID-19. Alcohol producers are shifting production to make hand sanitizers.
While this is welcome, there are several reasons for caution and concern.
In this statement of concern, Movendi International addresses three aspects that show worrying developments. We also make three calls for urgent action to mitigate alcohol harm during the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Movendi International is gravely concerned about free PR and extensive media coverage of a health harmful industry; we are worried about preferential treatment of alcohol producers by regulators that might foment alcohol harm; and we are seriously concerned about the deregulation and weakening alcohol policy protections.
In light of latest developments, we call for concerted action and leadership:
- A commitment to tackling alcohol harm,
- To declaring alcohol retail outlets “non-essential” and to finding effective ways to care for all people affected by alcohol harm during the crisis, and
- To terminating alcohol subsidies and increasing alcohol prices in order to reinvest the resources into the healthcare system.
Three reasons of concern
Alcohol when ingested by humans is an immunodepressant, meaning it weakens the immune system and increases the risk of infection with COVID-19 and other infectious diseases, such as tuberculosis and HIV/ AIDS. But alcohol is also a powerful disinfectant and therefore can play an important role in personal hygiene and protecting surfaces against the novel coronavirus.
Concern #1: Free PR and extensive media coverage
Producing hand sanitizers and taking care of employees is the least the alcohol industry can do in this crisis.
Other people and professions are contributing with far greater efforts to the fight against the pandemic. All the people that work to keep societies’ essential functions running and all the heroes in the health workforce that put their own lives at risk to care for the sick deserve the media coverage and PR-attention that alcohol producers are getting.
Therefore, Movendi International cautions against the promotion of alcohol brands, free media coverage and PR-celebrations of an industry that is not and has never been a responsible corporate citizen. Political leaders and the media should refrain from providing a platform for brand exposure and free coverage of a health harmful industry.
Why is this a problem?
Corporate social responsibility initiatives are known to be strategies by the alcohol industry to do well by appearing to do good.
Positive brand exposure, marketing their brands to a wider audience, and generating public support for their business and products are the goals the alcohol industry is pursuing in order to stimulate consumption – which keeps fueling alcohol harm.
Concern #2: Preferential treatment of the alcohol industry
As governments are considering and instituting COVID-19 protection and containment measures, especially physical distancing policies, curfews and lockdowns, evidence clearly shows that the alcohol industry is lobbying for preferential treatment.
In fact, the production of hand sanitizers is not altruistic behavior. Alcohol producers are entering the healthcare market in order to bolster their case and credibility for favourable treatment.
In some countries and jurisdictions, alcohol industry lobbying and corporate social responsibility have succeeded in acquiring “essential service” status, protecting alcohol retail outlets from being shut down, as all other businesses that are not essential for society’s functioning during the lockdown phase of the pandemic.
Why is this a problem?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic healthcare systems and services were heavily burdened by alcohol harm.
But now, with all available resources being diverted to the fight against the novel coronavirus and for the lives of infected people, the strain that alcohol is putting on health systems is felt more severely and acutely.
Therefore, measures to reduce overall alcohol consumption and related harm are important – and doctors are urging governments to take action.
Concern #3: Deregulating and weakening alcohol policy protections
The alcohol industry is lobbying for tax reductions and the suspension of alcohol retail restrictions. The alcohol industry is also using this crisis to market their products in novel ways. This leads to alcohol promotions in contexts and times that up until recently were off limits. Aggressive marketing campaigns expose children and youth to alcohol promotions.
Why is this a problem?
Weakening alcohol policy protections is likely to have severe consequences in the short- and long-term: alcohol harm might not decrease as would be expected in times of crises and it is likely difficult to reinstate the same level of alcohol policy protections after this pandemic is over.
Movendi’s calls to action
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a public health and economic crisis. It times of extremely scarce resources, societies benefit from more regulation of the alcohol industry in order to decrease alcohol harm, alleviate alcohol’s burden on the health and economic system and to reinvest those resources to benefit public health and wellbeing.
- Commit to tackle alcohol harm by using evidence-based, proven solutions.
Alcohol harm has severely undermined the strength, resilience and capacity of healthcare systems to respond to crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. And alcohol harm keeps compounding the fight against the pandemic. Proven, cost-effective and evidence-based alcohol policy solutions are available, should be used and should not be weakened – as means to protect public health and support the health system.
- Declare alcohol retail outlets non-essential and find effective ways to provide services for all people, alcohol users and non-users, affected by alcohol harm during the crisis.
Alcohol is not an ordinary commodity and alcohol harm is multifaceted and pervasive. A major dimension of alcohol harm is the damage to others than the alcohol user. Comprehensive impact assessments should be conducted and will lead to the conclusions that alcohol retail outlets are non-essential businesses, that there are other tools to care for people with alcohol depenendence without further jeopardizing the health and well-being of other community members.
- Cut subsidies, increase alcohol prices and invest the resources into the healthcare system.
Movendi International calls for the termination of all subsidies to alcohol producers. As resources are scarce, as health systems are overburdened and as societies struggle to keep economies afloat, resources should be used in the most sustainable and health-promoting ways. It is clear that continued subsidies for transnational alcohol producers and their marketing campaigns are counterproductive and harmful.
To raise alcohol prices and to ban digital alcohol advertising and promotions are important measure to protect public health. These evidence-based alcohol policy solutions would help protect health, alleviate the serious alcohol burden on health system, and generate much needed resources for our struggling societies.
In this way, alcohol policy solutions help enhance the fight against the pandemic and strengthen health systems in the long run.
ACT Health Promotion, Brazil
Inštitut za raziskave in razvoj “Utrip” (Institute for Research and Development “Utrip”), Slovenia
Notes to the editors
Alcohol harm: public health damage, eroding human capital, undermining economic productivity
The alcohol burden on health systems: Report on alcohol and health and well-being for all (SDG 3), see pages 8-24 and especially pages 21-24
Big Alcohol Exposed: harmful practices and products
About Movendi International
With 134 Member Organization from 56 countries, Movendi International is the largest independent global movement for development through alcohol prevention. We unite, strengthen and empower civil society to tackle alcohol and other drugs as serious obstacles to development on personal, community, societal and global level.