Alcohol Justice's Best and Worst of 2023: WORLDWIDE

ASTRONAUT GUARDIAN DOGSIndefatigable watchdogs Buster (angry) and Sergio (stoked) rate last year's major developments in the California alcohol landscape.

Sergio prevents; Buster just vents.

Your Childhood, But Alcoholic
three copies of an image of a white short-haired chihuaha looking very cross against a blank background. his name is Buster. he is very mad indeed at terrible alcohol policy.

The past year marked a true explosion in alcoholic products carrying established non-alcoholic brands. From Coca-Cola to SunnyD to Dunkin Donuts, the alcohol industry doubled down on the concept of “take your childhood, and get you drunk with it.” While the category is loose—sometimes collapsed with hard seltzers and/or ready-to-drink cocktails—market research firm Precedence Research estimated a market size of $16.75 billion in 2023, an increase of as much as 60% in two years.

That market may not be completely legal. These products do not just prey on adult drinkers’ nostalgia for youth, they employ branding readily identifiable by actual youth. They already boast the attributes necessary to introduce alcohol to someone without a taste for it—heavily sweetened, heavily flavored, sold in single-use containers. Watchdog groups have long been calling foul over alcopops, heavily-flavored malt beverages sold in packaging reminiscent of sodas, energy drinks, and other youth-friendly products. What they did not expect was that, rather than reform the product lines, the industry would simply do away with the “reminiscent.”

Already regulators are trying to pass laws preventing sodas and their alcoholic cousins from being sold in close proximity, to limit accidental purchase. But Buster warns us that the threat is more deepset than mistaken identity. Instead, any product at all that youth grow attached to will be used to encourage them to start drinking an alcohol-spiked echo.

In Myanmar, Brands Fund Genocide With Juice
three copies of an image of a white short-haired chihuaha looking very cross against a blank background. his name is Buster. he is very mad indeed at terrible alcohol policy.

Alcohol Justice joined an international movement led by Amnesty International to push Kirin, a Japan-based international megabrewer, to end partnerships with Myanmar’s army. Rather than merely doing private business in the country, Kirin’s production license piped revenue directly at specific army units, units that were heavily implicated in genocidal actions against the Muslim Rohingya minority on the Bangladeshi border. In 2022, Kirin withdrew from Myanmar.

That was far from the final victory, however. In November 2023, a report from Justice For Myanmar, via Movendi International, showed that Big Alcohol continues to flood the coffers of violent actors in the country. Tax documents show that Heineken, Carlsberg, and ThaiBev combined to directly channel $27.6 million to the junta via goods taxes, though the total may be as high as $155 million. Despite renewed vigilance from the international community, the Myanmar military, which came to power in a 2021 coup, continues to perpetrate violence against dissidents. Despite the withdrawal of most major international companies following the coup, these three brewers struck deals with an oligarchic local family to keep the taps open.

Alcohol’s profitability lies at the heart of most of its sellers worst behaviors. But Big Alcohol’s eagerness to ally with violent leadership immediately after being internationally shamed for doing that same thing is contemptible.

Bud Light Throws Trans Model Under the Bus
two copies of an image of a white short-haired chihuaha looking very cross against a blank background. his name is Buster. he is very mad indeed at terrible alcohol policy.

The surreal anger over Bud Light’s use of transgender TikTok influencer Dylan Mulvaney may have simmered down. (It also may have not, since Presidential candidate Donald Trump has been publicly calling for reactionary followers to “forgive” Bud Light producer Anheuser-Busch InBev [ABI]—and Buster cannot imagine a scenario in which he was not paid to do this.) But by all indications, it left Mulvaney herself high and dry.

The campaign was simple: Bud Light sent Mulvaney a few cases, including a can with her face printed on it. The backlash was possibly even more simple: conservative culture warriors called for a boycott of Bud Light, and their followers responded in an extremely normal and proportional manner. But the consequence for Mulvaney herself seems to have been horrifying, including stalking and death threats. Most tellingly, after the campaign backfired, she never heard from ABI executives again. Not to apologize, not to check in, not even to formally retract their endorsement.

The reason for bringing in Mulvaney is, again, simple. She is an influencer, with over 10 million followers on TikTok, the video-centric social networking site that draws a younger demographic. And trans rights advocacy is much higher among younger age groups, with 47% of 18 to 29-year-olds saying trans acceptance had not gone far enough, compared to 36% of the population in general. According to the New York Times, Alissa Heinerschied, the VP of Marketing for Bud Light, declared the brand was “in decline” because of the lack of young drinkers. So Mulvaney was clearly tapped to bring young (and, in some cases, likely too young) drinkers around to the product.

Instead, it blew up Bud Light’s market share and Dylan Mulvaney’s life. But as things stand now, 18-29 year-olds are drinking far less than the generations before them. The kids really do seem to be alright.

Industry Ringers Make a MACH-ery of Healthy Drinking Standards
two copies of an image of a white short-haired chihuaha looking very cross against a blank background. his name is Buster. he is very mad indeed at terrible alcohol policy.

Every five years, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) releases new standards for nutrition and healthy eating behaviors. These standards are determined by seating a number of significant experts in each nutritional category, and asking them to review the existing evidence and make a recommendation. Along with nutrients and sugars, suggested alcohol consumption levels are determined through this process. And the USDA may have reached out to the single least trustworthy experts in the country.

In 2018, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) announced a new study that would deliver measured quantities of alcohol to participants to determine the health outcomes. The study was a mess from the start: it was largely funded through alcohol industry grants, the outcomes were engineered to hide a number of long-term outcomes, the participants were selected in such a way as to quash detectable harms, and, most tellingly, the scientists conducting the study had been in a long-term communication with the alcohol industry prior to the launch of the project.

According to principles of ethical research, this should have discredited these researchers in the long term, but carrying industry water comes with certain perks, professional resilience among them. When the makeup of the panel conducting the initial round of review for the USDA guidelines (performed through the affiliated but nongovernmental National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine) was announced, it featured Dr. Kenneth Mukamal and Dr Eric Rimm—researchers behind the corrupt “safe drinking” study.

In the face of professional outcry from across the alcohol research community and a blown whistle from the New York Times, the two were removed from the panel. But the fact remained: absent constant watchdogging (Buster’s tail is wagging), unethical research behavior in service of Big Alcohol gets rewarded.

Industry Clouds EU Eyes
 an image of a white short-haired chihuaha looking very cross against a blank background. his name is Buster. he is very mad indeed at terrible alcohol policy.

The United States is not the only body having difficulty properly acknowledging the state of the science around alcohol consumption. In late December, the public health subcommittee of the Parliament of the European Union (EU) authorized a report on noncommunicable diseases. Noncommunicable diseases, or NCDs, comprise causes of morbidity and mortality that derive, not from infection or accidental injury, but from the kinds of behaviors only possible in our modern world. The majority of these are actively aggravated by commercial entities—including the alcohol industry.

The report had serious shortcomings when it came to alcohol: it suggested that the harms of alcohol only accumulated to people who drank in a harmful manner. To further drive that point home, it called for alcohol labels to include information on “moderate and responsible drinking,” an industry catchphrase used to hide truthful information on alcohol impact. To push back against this, Eurocare—backing a minority of members of parliament—pushed the following recommendations:

1. Recognising the Full Impact of Alcohol: The WHO European Region faces the highest level of alcohol consumption globally, leading to substantial health, economic, and social burdens. The current SANT report draft fails to address this
2. Challenging Industry Influence: The alcohol industry's lobbying efforts have led to worsened alcohol-related sections in the report. This undermines the effectiveness of policies aimed at preventing and reducing alcohol
3. Advocating for Clear Labelling and Public Awareness: There is a vital need for mandatory health warnings and full ingredient listings on alcohol products, in line with the goals of the Europe's Beating Cancer
4. Promoting Evidence-Based Policies: We urge MEPs to thoroughly fight any language that contradicts scientific evidence on the adverse health implications of alcohol
5. Strengthening EU Alcohol Strategy: A renewed commitment from the European Commission is needed to ensure transparent, evidence-based messaging on alcohol consumption, aligning with the EBCP and broader EU public health.”

As one would imagine, these recommendations were passed over and the report authorized as is.

The refusal to acknowledge of the state of the science has been plaguing public health across multiple domains. But the most recent disappointment comes hot on the heels of the COVID-19 disaster and the enormous upswing in alcohol harm that followed. You can’t fight noncommunicable diseases without communication.

MLB Owners Rush Drunk Fans Into Their Cars
 an image of a white short-haired chihuaha looking very cross against a blank background. his name is Buster. he is very mad indeed at terrible alcohol policy.

The 2022 and 2023 baseball seasons saw a bevy of rule changes intended to slow down the traditionally staid and stately pace of the game. Many of these measures were successful (though we would not hesitate to sic Sergio, normally a good dog, on the extra-innings “zombie runner”), leading to… well… shorter games.

The seventh inning stretch is a universal tradition in ballparks, and for decades has heralded the end of the alcohol sales for the game. The reasoning was simple: give fans a couple innings to sober up. Do not let them hop behind the wheel with blood, adrenaline, and alcohol pumping through their veins. (This likely reduced chaos during nailbiting or devastating 9th innings.) But in the past 20 years, nearly every kind of entertainment has leaned whole-heartedly into alcohol revenue to boost earnings.

Baseball was no exception, and this made the shortened games threaten the amount of revenue ownership could rake in at the gate. As flagged by Phillies long reliever Matt Strahm, some teams responded by doing away with the alcohol sales cutoff. While the seventh inning limit was not the great protective measure professional athletics need—limiting alcohol money and marketing would likely be the most impactful way to reduce alcohol harm—it underlines owners’ basic loyalty: to the dollar, not the fans. And not to Sergio.

Point 05 Hits the Interstate
 a very happy white labrabor retriever against a yellow background. This is Sergio. He is an advocate for healthy communities in California, and he has smelled a victory for prevention.

Across most of high-income countries, the legal threshold of blood alcohol for dangerous driving falls at or below a 0.05% concentration. Most of the United States, however, stubbornly clings to 0.08%, both out of fear of industry backlash and because of a national resistance to any new public health-oriented legislation.

The one state bucking the trend is Utah, which instituted the world 0.05% standard in 2019. The subsequent results were dramatic. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, fatal crash rates dropped 19.8%, and more than 1 in every 5 Utahans who drank alcohol reported changing their behaviors in response to the law.

Other states, including California, have toyed with introducing this lower limit since. This past year saw four separate states advancing the proposal. None managed to get it to the Governor’s desk, but every attempt lowers the bar to get it done.

How Dry the Grey Lady Is
 two copies of a very happy white labrabor retriever against a yellow background. This is Sergio. He is an advocate for healthy communities in California, and he has smelled a victory for prevention.

Love it or hate it, the New York Times remains the United States’ paper of record. And in 2023, the paper started paying real attention to flood of alcohol harm throughout the country. Perhaps the pinnacle fo this coverage came in May, when its video team released a powerful and engaging video piece raising a powerful, simple, and usually popular solution to runaway alcohol morbidity: raise the excise taxes.

The piece, “A Toast to Raising Alcohol Taxes,” made the simple and powerful point that the cheapest prices for booze and the most income for producers leads to increased consumption, especially among lower-income and higher-consuming individuals. And as the piece de resistance, the website’s vox pop shows viewers supported raising taxes by a 72% to 28% margin. (The selection bias for respondents is obvious, of course, but so is the fact that the paper is now interested in courting people for whom alcohol policy is a concern.)

The more mainstream outlets channel common-sense alcohol control strategies to the public, the more the constant bowing to industry pressure seems like a series of missed opportunities. While it’s true that no news is good news, Sergio’s Corollary holds that a good editorial is great press.

ABV-Pegged Tax Blamed for Making People Healthier
 two copies of a very happy white labrabor retriever against a yellow background. This is Sergio. He is an advocate for healthy communities in California, and he has smelled a victory for prevention.

The vast majority of United States alcohol taxes take the form of a set rate per volume of product put on shelves. That is to say, all beers are taxed a one rate, all wines at another, all distilled spirits at a third. Yet this schema starts seeming ridiculous once producers “innovate” with extremely strong products in their category. A 12% ABV beer is equivalent in strength to a 24-proof spirit, yet normally sold in a single-serving, non-resealable container, and taxed in the lowest excise bracket. However, in terms of how much alcohol the consumer has, how much damage their body takes, and how much risk to others emerge from their drinking that amount, the cost of the two products is identical.

With this reasoning in mind, the United Kingdom launched into an overhaul of its tax system. While it did not adopt a true graduated ABV tax, it set dual thresholds where low-ABV products (under 3.5%) get a relative tax break, while all products over 8.5% ABV are taxed at an often higher level. (Because the previous, fragmented-by-product system was so ad hoc, a minority of wines actually got cheaper—but for the most part this new schema hits high-potency beers and wines much harder.) 

The result? A surge in reduced ABV beer, ostensibly to take advantage of the lower brackets. Outlets like the Daily Mail, who traffic in government skepticism, labelled the effect “drinkflation,” but the impact is more straightforward than that: moderation.

Ireland Brings the Warning Label Into the 21st Century

 three copies of a very happy white labrabor retriever against a yellow background. This is Sergio. He is an advocate for healthy communities in California, and he has smelled a victory for prevention. happy dog 3

Alcohol warning labels are a ubiquitous part of the packaging.

They are also nearly worthless.

Cramped, uninformative, vaguely hectoring yet also hyperspecific, the cramped cautions not to drink while pregnant or operating a forklift likely do little to change behavior if they are even seen. Yet burgeoning research shows they can be impactful. Alcohol’s influence on cancer rates is poorly understood by the public, and a Canadian study found that bold, colorful, and concisely educational labels not only increase awareness of this risk but lower purchasing overall.

On top of this, alcoholic products have long been exempted from ingredient disclosure laws. Allergens or other problematic ingredients are not disclosed, and the constant industry refrain of “drink responsibly” is time and time again undermine by lack of information about just how many standard drinks are in any given container. Even something as simple as calorie count is left off the label, unless of course the producer thinks they can sell more bottle by slapping it on.

The strong industry resistance to a reformed alcohol label already torpedoed previous efforts. But Ireland, looking at high levels of alcohol-related harm paired with low-levels of risk awareness, plowed ahead with the boldest reform to date. Signed into law in May of 2023, the Irish labelling regulations mandate large red-print labels that provide both health and content information in a high-contrast, easy to read location prominently placed on the back of the bottle. According to The Lancet, the warnings would foreground three messages: "drinking alcohol causes liver disease;" "there is a direct link between alcohol and fatal cancers;" and a graphical icon meant to warn against drinking while pregnant. 

The industry lashed out, deriding the policy as “anti-European,” but so far it has been upheld at the EU level. Threats to nullify it through U.S. trade interventions have so far likewise not resulted in the labels' withdrawalwithdrawal. However, the actual labels are not required to be present until 2026, and Sergio and the entire advocacy community should be on guard against efforts to strike it from the books. After all, knowledge saves lives, and even dogs get tired of burying bones.

From CAPA and Alcohol Justice: thank you, advocates, allies, and those who care, for your tireless work in 2023 and every year.

READ MORE about the Best and Worst of 2023: IN CALIFORNIA