The alcohol industry spreads and perpetuates a number of myths in order to distort the truth about scientific facts concerning the harm their products cause and the most cost-effective and impactful policy solutions to prevent and reduce that burden of harm.
Big Alcohol works aggressively to spread myths about the effects of alcohol and the harm that it causes in order to undermine and obstruct policy-making processes that would regulate the alcohol industry more strictly and coherently.
Big Alcohol pursues such an agenda because it pursues its own profits ruthlessly, no matter the consequences for public health and societal development.
We have compiled an overview of nine very common myths, and provide explanations for each, as well as evidence from independent science to provide shatter Big Alcohol’s myths.
Big Alcohol claims:
Consuming alcohol is normal, common, healthy and very responsible…
The alcohol industry portrays the ”regular” user of alcohol as social who enjoys and is the centre of a vibrant social life. The alcohol industry makes a concerted and conscious effort to associate consumption of alcohol with sport and health, luck, propsperity, tradition, and good manners – all to perpetuate the myth that alcohol is normal, common and healthy.
Almost always in advertising alcohol is linked to health, sports, physical beauty, romanticism, having friends, and leisure activities. For example, the alcohol industry works to perpetuate the myth that alcohol and sports do belong together.
The “regular” user contributes largely to the overall costs of alcohol harm in Western societies, because they usually do consume more than ”recommended” units.
Alcohol use actually decreases athletic performance. However, numerous ads, wrongly imply that sports and alcohol are complementary activities. Others feature sponsorship of a wide range of sporting events or endorsements by sports stars. Evidence shows that student athletes sponsored by alcohol brands show greater alcohol problem behaviour than those without alcohol sponsorships.
Alcohol use is related to unemployment, loss of productivity, violence, suicide, child abuse, diseases and addiction, and poverty.
Alcohol use causes cancer – and is therefore not healthy. There is no “safe” amount of alcohol use.
Big Alcohol claims:
The damage done by alcohol is caused by a small group of alcoholics who cannot handle alcohol…
The majority of people who use alcohol in high levels (above the recommended units) are in fact ordinary, everyday people. The majority of alcohol consumers are no social deviants, homeless living on park benches – as the alcohol industry would have people believe.
As a matter of fact, Big Alcohol earns its largest shares of profits from the people who use alcohol regularly and heavily. That is why the total consumption model is highly relevant for preventing alcohol harm and reducing alcohol-related harm: if the overall consumption in a population is reduced, alcohol harm decreases, too.
In his book “Paying the Tab” Prof. Philip J. Cook has analysed the data from the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) and examined of the costs and benefits of alcohol control in the United States.
Evidence from the United States
The top 20% of American alcohol users account for well over half of the alcohol consumed in any given year.
Consider that 30% of adults don’t use alcohol at all and that another 30% of adults consume less than one alcoholic beverage per week, on average. It means that up to 60% of adults virtually are not contributing to the alcohol industry’s profits.
On the other hand, there are the top 10% of American alcohol consumers (24 million adults over the age of 18) consuming 74 alcoholic beverages per week, on average. That equals 18 bottles of wine, or three 24-can cases of beer. Even alcohol users in the 9th decile – consuming more than 15 alcoholic beverages per week, on average – are way above “recommended limits” (which are too high anyway).
Current statistics show that 16.6 million American adults had an alcohol use disorder in 2013.
But only about 1.3 million adults received treatment – which means that there is a gigantic problem in society, only society is hardly aware of it. And that is largely due to the myth perpetuated by the alcohol industry, that a small group of socially deviant alcoholics is causing a few problems with alcohol
Evidence from Australia
In Australia, more than 3.8 million Australians average more than four standard drinks of alcohol a day (double the recommended health guidelines) and these alcohol users are targeted by the alcohol industry and branded as “super consumers”, according to the latest report from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education. It means that 20% of Australians are consuming 75% of the alcohol.
Evidence from Germany
In Germany, every second bottle of alcohol is purchased by a person with alcohol problems. 10% of the population account for 50% of the total alcohol consumption in Germany.
Illusion and reality
The alcohol industry wants people to imagine that alcohol is primarily consumed by suave, hip and healthy, attractive young adults on the beach and in parties.
The fact is that the alcohol industry overwhelmingly sells its products to heavy alcohol users.
The Pareto Law in Economics states that “the top 20% of buyers for any consumer product account for fully 80% of sales. But the consequences of the Pareto Law are different when it comes to industries like alcohol, or tobacco, because their products are addictive, carcinogen, teratogen and toxic to the human body. However, Big Alcohol’s profits are heavily dependent on selling their products to heavy alcohol users – which is why they try to hide this fact.
Prof. Cook writes:
[T]he heaviest [alcohol users] are of greatly disproportionate importance to the sales and profitability of the alcoholic-beverage industry.
If the top decile somehow could be induced to curb their consumption level to that of the next lower group (the ninth decile), then total ethanol sales would fall by 60%.”
Big Alcohol claims:
Normal adult non-drinkers do not, in fact, exist…
The alcohol industry tries to convey the message that non-users don’t genuinely matter and are not part of the social fabric and contemporary culture and tradition.
This message runs contrary to the Guiding Principle G) of the WHO Global Alcohol Strategy. The alcohol industry claims that there are only a very few groups who can be excused from not using alcohol: only children under 16 years of age, pregnant women and motorists are accepted and recognised as non-users.
Non-users are less healthy, according to Big Alcohol.
It is unscientific to compare the health of alcohol users and non-users in the plain way that the alcohol industry suggests. Both groups cannot be compared because there’s no reliable data. The group of non-users is very diverse and much less consistent than assumed. Many non-users choose a life free from alcohol because of health conditions – such as cancer, diabetes, insomnia, high blood pressure, liver disease etc. – and are thus less healthy but not because of their alcohol consumption habits.
As shown above under myth 3, what society considers “regular” users today, in fact do consume more than ”recomended” units and thus expose themselves to health risks, like cancer, injuries and addiction.
In almost all countries around the world, even in Western societies that use alcohol most heavily, there are vast parts of the society who choose to live free from alcohol.
- On global level 62% of the world’s adults population reports that they have not used alcohol at all in the recent year.
The WHO Global Alcohol Strategy stipulates, in clear opposition to this Big Alcohol myth, that:
Children, teenagers and adults who choose not to [use] alcohol beverages have the right to be supported in their […] behaviour and protected from pressures to [use alcohol].
Big Alcohol claims:
Ignore the fact that alcohol is a harmful and addictive chemical substance (ethanol) for the body…
The alcohol industry runs expensive marketing campaigns to convince people around the world that their products are needed in all kinds of settings, situations, events and conditions. The alcohol industry wants alcohol to be present wherever and whenever possible. Their message is simple: the assumed gains that alcohol use brings with it are much more important; the negatives that come with alcohol use are insignificant and can be ignored.
Claims Big Alcohol makes to back up this myth are:
”Alcohol is a tasty, prepared with craftsmanship.”
”The natural origin of beer counts.”
”Wine is particularly beneficial for body and spirit.”
”With liquor the age-long tradition guarantees the quality.”
Myth #4 is essentially about making sure people (consumers) focus on the portrayed and constructed gains from using alcohol (the + Side) instead of thinking about the losses that come from alcohol consumption (the – Side).
Despite all the evidence about the great harm that alcohol causes to human health and society, to our economy and democracy, the alcohol industry works to ensure that whenever people see their products they think of something positive, instead of the reality of alcohol.
Ethanol (alcohol) is a detrimental, carcinogenic, toxic, and addicitive substance that is foreign to the human body. Chemically alcohol is a hard drug for the human body causing physical and mental dependence.
There is no safe limit for alcohol use. The newly updated European Cancer Code recommends 12 ways to prevent and reduce the risk of cancer, for example:
If you [use] alcohol of any type, limit your intake. Not [using] alcohol is better for cancer prevention.
No matter whether beer, wine, or liquor there are no health benefits (like for the heart, for instance). It’s a myth that the type of alcohol matters because the substance ethanol is always the same. In an editorial for the British Medical Journal, Mike Daube, Prof. Health Policy wrote in February 2015:
[Alcohol’s health] benefits are now evaporating, helped along by an important contribution in this week’s issue. Through analyses based on the Health Survey for England […] Knott and colleagues show that if there is any beneficial dose-response relation, it is limited to women aged 65 or more—and even that association is at best modest and likely to be explained by selection bias.
Big Alcohol claims:
Alcohol problems can only be solved when all parties (‘stakeholders’) work together…
What the alcohol industry means is to say: ”We, the alcohol industry, feel greatly responsible for what can go wrong with our product and would gladly help to prevent adverse effects. Therefore we need to cooperate at all levels.”
The truth to this myth is: Big Alcohol is profit-driven by its statutes, and is compelled by company law to maximise profits for its shareholders. The alcohol industry thinks of increased sales because increased sales mean higher profits for the industry and its shareholders. They also mean bigger harm, more suffering, more premature deaths and lost economic productivity for society at large.
Big Alcohol’s message is: “It’s not necessary to use less alcohol, just use it a little differently.” But their promotion of the concept of ‘responsible’ alcohol consumption is a harmful myth. It’s harmful and unethical in two ways:
- It stigmatises all those people who have alcohol use disorders, marginalises them and blames them for their failure to handle alcohol. The consequences are tough: only a small percentage of people with alcohol use disorders actually receives treatment.
- The alcohol industry counter-acts its ‘responsibility’ messages through its own marketing campaigns and its commercial practices.
- The alcohol industry failed to lower the alcohol content of their products in the United Kingdom.
- Big Alcohol systematically violates its own rules of conduct.
The examination of myth #2 has shown that the ‘responsibility’ message runs contrary to Big Alcohol’s inherent profit maximisation interest. If the top 10% of alcohol consumers in the United States would lower their consumption to the level of the 9th decile, it would mean a 60% reduction of alcohol sales.
For this reason, Big Alcohol has accumulated a track record of opposing evidence-based, high-impact, cost-effective policy measures that would reduce alcohol use and protect more people from alcohol harm.
Current levels of alcohol use in Western societies and trends of alcohol consumption in the global south do in fact require a marked reduction in the total alcohol consumption, and a concerted effort to enact cost-effective, high-impact, evidence-based policy measures to achieve that.
Cost-effective and high-impact policy measures to reduce and prevent alcohol harm require an integrated approach of combining higher taxes, stricter marketing regulations, including advertising bans, higher legal age limits and other availability measures – the 3 Best Buys of alcohol policy are required.
Alcohol is the socially most harmful drug because of its omnipresence and wide-spread availability. Alcohol policies must be formulated by genuine public health interests.
Big Alcohol claims:
Alcohol marketing is not harmful…
The alcohol industry claims that marketing is largely ethical and that it does not affect overall consumption. It only affects which brands/ products consumers choose.
They say that: ”It’s simply intended to assist the consumer in selecting a certain product or brand. Marketing does not make people use more and in order to prevent a small group of producers or retailers from marketing indecent ads, we (Big Alcohol) have established effective rules ourselves. This system of self-regulation works globally and has excellent results.”
All evidence shows self-regulation does not work. The Health Committee of the UK Parliament examined advertising practices of Big Alcohol and found:
The industry’s own codes of conduct are systematically violated.
Self-regulation is anti-democratic: alcohol is no ordinary commodity and its governments’ task to protect citizens from alcohol harm. It’s a matter of social contract, accountability and promoting the best interest of the people. The alcohol industry, as producer, marketer, distributor, retailer and importer/ exporter of alcoholic products, has a completely different task.
Alcohol marketing targets youth and stimulates their alcohol use: young people exposed to alcohol advertising start using alcohol earlier and use more alcohol on occasions of consumption.
Big Alcohol uses social media to create ”personal” relations with children and youth.
Big Alcohol claims:
Education about responsible use is the best method to protect society from alcohol…
The alcohol industry works aggressively to create new occasions for using alcohol. It creates new ‘holidays’ or seeks to take over popular holidays to turn them into alcohol consumption occasions. This way Big Alcohol creates an alcohol culture where the se of alcohol is not reflected and where the only questions are which brand to consume and when someone starts taking up alcohol use. It is an intoxicating culture, with omnipresent alcohol marketing and myths. It’s a culture that eliminates the choice for people, especially young people, to ask whether or not they they want to take up alcohol consumption. The choice to live free from alcohol is eliminated from this Big Alcohol culture.
Any education and awareness raising intervention in such an intoxicating culture – which societies in the Western world have become – is doomed to be ineffective and ultimately fail.
There are three specific reasons why the alcohol industry advocates for health education programs – despite the fact that they are costly and ineffective, sometimes even counter-productive:
- Promoting education measures means for Big Alcohol a chance to market itself as socially reponsible.
- Promoting education interventions provides a platform for the alcohol industry to market its brands to young people.
- Big Alcohol emphasises education and awareness-raising because it wants to avoid strict statutory regulation.
The alcohol industry usually makes the case that ”the large majority of ’regular’ users must suffer from regulatory, restrictive laws that are only intended to impact a minority of abusers.” But this argument has already been denounced above. See myth #2.
Most alcohol users consume alcohol in much higher amounts than the recommended limits and most of the alcohol harm is caused by these ‘ordinary’ people. Education campaigns and awareness raising programs are the most cost-expensive and the least cost-effective measures to prevent and reduce alcohol harm.
Education interventions simply do not have a chance against the omnipresent alcohol marketing and an intoxicating alcohol culture.
Increasing the information about an issue is not the same as changing the behaviour. Evidence shows that few people change their behaviour because of information alone. Environments need to be conducive to behaviour change. People around need to be supportive and encouraging.
For example in Sweden: 67% of young people say that they use alcohol because there is nothing else to do in the community where they live.
Big Alcohol claims:
If our products were truly dangerous, the media would tell us…
Most media are reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them. Media coverage of alcohol-related issues rarely addresses alcohol-related harm, but often sensationalises when celebrities publicly show alcohol problems. Although many media feature occasional stories about alcoholism, they usually treat it as a personal problem and focus on individual treatment solutions. Mostly the media contribute to glamorising alcohol and its effects.
In 2010, the 6 largest global alcohol producers spent more than US $2.1 billion on advertising. It means that the alcohol industry is buying the silence and the ignorance of the media. As advertising spending is increasing, reports that probe alcohol’s role in violence and other chronic problems are rare.
The role advertising plays in encouraging alcohol use is almost never discussed. Alcohol kills 3.3 million people every year. It means that every ten seconds a human being dies because of alcohol. Comparing how alcohol harm in general and the practices of the alcohol industry in particular are addressed by media outlets with the reporting about Big Tobacco and tobacco-related harm shows that major media outlets are biased towards the alcohol industry and refrain from reporting on the whole picture of alcohol harm.
Big Alcohol claims:
We promote moderation and responsible consumption…
Jean Kilbourne, internationally recognized for her pioneering work on alcohol and tobacco advertising, explains:
[One recent] Budweiser ‘moderation’ campaign says, ‘Know when to say when,’ as opposed to ‘Know when to say no.’ In the guise of a moderation message, this slogan actually suggests to young people that drinking beer is one way to demonstrate their control.
It also perpetuates the myth that alcoholics are simply people who ‘don’t know when to say when,’ irresponsibly engaging in willful misconduct, rather than people who are suffering from a disease that afflicts at least one in 10 [alcohol users].
Health promotion is better off without programs designed by the alcohol industry to promote ideas about “responsible” alcohol use. Evidence shows that Big Alcohol programs more or less subtly promote myths and damaging attitudes.
For example, one program by Miller beer, owned by SABMiller, defined “moderate” alcohol use as up to four beverages a day.
Another example was a Budweiser, owned by AB InBev, program called “The Buddy System.” It defined alcohol intoxication as having “too much of a good time.”
A recent ill-conceived campaign by BudLight, a brand owned by AB InBev, ran with slogans on bottle labels that read: “The perfect beer for removing ‘No’ from your vocabulary for the night.”
These messages are supposed to represent companies that promote “responsibility” and “moderation”. But obviously they don’t and do not have any interest in doing so. Big Alcohol messages often imply that being sober is having a bad time, and that the only good times come from alcohol use.
As Jean Kilbourne writes:
Even the industry’s ‘moderation’ messages imply the advantages of heavy [alcohol use].