Big Alcohol is in the forefront of unhealthy industries exploiting the pandemic for their own gain. During the ongoing pandemic the alcohol industry, as well as other unhealthy product industries, has used the COVID-19 to achieve corporate goals, whether through marketing and sales, influencing government policy, or generating positive publicity using philanthropic and other “corporate social responsibility” initiatives. This activity has been dubbed crisis washing.
As Movendi International previously reported, this pandemic exploitation was exposed in a report by the SPECTRUM research consortium entitled “Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm: Unhealthy commodity industries and COVID-19“.
The report outlined four main strategies used by these industries:
- Pandemic-tailored marketing campaigns and stunts,
- Corporate social responsibility programmes,
- Fostering partnerships with governments, international agencies and NGOs, and
- Shaping policy environments.
One common theme of industry activities was how they attempted to associate their products with the work of health professionals, emergency services and other frontline workers during the pandemic. An example is how in Russia, Heineken’s local subsidiary donated meals and its energy drink to doctors and nurses on night shift.
Additionally, some companies sold “branded COVID-19 products”. Many alcohol companies in several countries created branded masks.
One particularly unethical advertisement was done by Brazilian brewer Kraken. The company created a graphic in the style of their logo to resemble a pair of lungs, with the slogan “Good beer is like air: you can’t live without it,” and encouraged consumers to isolate, use sanitizer and have more beer for fun.
But alcohol is known to cause many noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), including cancers, cardiovascular and respiratory disorders, diabetes and dementia. And having an NCD is linked with higher risk of being infected with the coronavirus and worse prognosis if infected. Nevertheless, the alcohol industry – which increases the risk of COVID-19 – continues to position themselves as part of “the solution” to the pandemic.
It’s been quite astonishing to watch it all play out,” said Lucy Westerman of the NCD Alliance and co-author of the report.
These behaviours are not unfamiliar; they are things we see anyway. But what we notice is that it was amplified; the pivoting was so rapid right at the beginning of the pandemic. The industries start literally saying, ‘We are part of the solution.’”Lucy Westerman, Co-Author, Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm: Unhealthy commodity industries and COVID-19.
Big alcohol exploitation of the pandemic in Australia was exposed in another report by the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education and the Cancer Council WA. They found that the average Australian on social media is exposed to an alcohol advertisement every 35 seconds.
Movendi International published results of another groundbreaking report by renowned international experts lead by Harold Holder in partnership with civil society organizations. The report titled “Alcohol and the coronavirus pandemic: individual, societal and policy perspectives” shows the lethal interaction between alcohol and the ongoing health crisis.
- Alcohol increases the health and societal problems arising from the pandemic. For example, alcohol weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to infections. And alcohol-centric social contexts have been COVID-19 super spreader events.
- Alcohol increases the burden on healthcare and emergency services which are already stretched due to the COVID-19.
- The alcohol industry exploits the pandemic to change alcohol laws to their private benefit.
Becky Freeman, a public health researcher at the University of Sydney and a long-term investigator of the tobacco industry says the widespread use of “crisis washing” shows how vital it is that pandemic responses include efforts to reduce and prevent NCDs, rather than maintain the “artificial separation” between NCDs and communicable conditions like COVID-19.
A new paper by researchers from Australia, Brazil and Indonesia states that these “supranational corporations” have size, power, global reach, and capacity which allows them to circumvent countries’ laws and regulations. This power is “effectively allowing them to operate ‘above’ the nation state.” These corporations can avoid or reduce payment of corporate tax. This reduces the capacity of the government to finance health services and programs, and the public health system’s capacity to prevent and treat NCDs.
The Signalling Virtue report stresses the importance of seeking to “build back better” rather than succumbing to industry pressure to adopt approaches to taxation, trade and regulation that have long proven damaging to health and development.