Big Alcohol Agenda: Attack Public Health Policy; Take Credit for Health Improvements

August 24, 2014

Big Alcohol trade groups recently amped up their full-court press against evidence-based alcohol policies yet again, slamming scientific research by alcohol policy experts while claiming credit for public health improvements those same policies engender.

Trade groups including the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the Beer Institute (BI), and the American Beverage Association (ABA) spend millions on lobbying to influence regulators and policymakers to allow ineffective policies such as industry self-regulation of advertising, and reject evidence-based policies that prevent excessive consumption and resulting harm, including increasing alcohol taxes and restricting alcohol availability. These groups associate their alcohol brands with improvements in public health data, while sponsoring ineffective, branded information/education campaigns, front groups, and responsible drinking messages that serve as promotion and public relations for their members. But while their branding and promotion paints them as good corporate citizens, their communications within the industry paint a different picture of their real agenda and tactics.

Trade group lobbying efforts give the alcohol industry enormous influence over policy and regulation. In a recent interview with an industry newsletter, new Beer Institute President Jim McGreevy boasted of his chumminess with Capitol Hill and the 35 meetings he had with politicians in the previous month. Politics has been his game for his entire career: he went from making political connections as a government policy aide, to Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at the ABA, where he fostered those connections to promote the ABA alcohol agenda. Another interview in an ABA member newsletter clearly spells out the agenda, portraying alcohol producers as victims of public health research and government agencies such as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and crediting the ABA for legislative victories that indicate its unequivocal opposition to tougher drunk driving legislation and alcohol tax increases.

Though his efforts are now focused on the beer industry, McGreevy's tactics remain the same: maintain an high-pressure, preemptive battle to control alcohol policy and employ aggressive public relations to control public messaging about alcohol and health. In the interview, McGreevy detailed his strategy of rallying the entire beer industry around specific policy goals so that policy makers hear the message loud and clear: Don't mess with Big Beer. McGreevy then outlined immediate BI policy goals, which include exerting influence to revamp U.S. dietary guidelines in the beer industry's favor and fighting any attempt to increase beer taxes.

At the same time they lobby hard to defeat policies that reduce alcohol-related harm, industry trade groups credit their alcohol producer members for changes in national drinking data, as well as leadership in public health. Recently the Beer Institute and DISCUS both publicly congratulated themselves for a decrease in underage binge drinking. These groups and their associates are also not above launching attacks on respected alcohol researchers when findings point to products made by alcohol producers.

Alcohol trade group efforts pay off: they allow the industry to effectively bully the government into undertaxing alcohol; design an advertising self-regulation scheme that allows overexposure of alcohol promotion to children; and absolve themselves of their products' role in the annual $223.5 billion in economic harm and 88,000 deaths due to alcohol in the U.S.; making grievous harm statistics seem like a personal problem, rather than the public health crisis they are.

More Schools Mixing Beer, Football at Stadiums

August 24, 2014

In a concerning trend, college campuses already struggling with alcohol-related problems are considering beer sales in on-campus sports stadiums to increase revenue. The number of campuses that serve alcohol in stadiums they own and operate has doubled in the past 5 years.

Alcohol-related harm is a serious problem on college campuses, where binge-drinking has increased sharply. Consequences include deaths, injuries, sexual assaults, academic problems, and health problems that include substance abuse and suicide attempts.

Given that most college students are under the minimim legal drinking age, colleges promoting alcohol and serving alcohol at sports (and other) events doesn't make sense. Creating an environment that encourages positive expectations about drinking promotes consumption and underage use instead of academic and future success. To protect students from alcohol-related harm, colleges must adpot and enforce strong alcohol policies that curb the availability of alcohol rather than promote and serve it.

New PAM Report: Post-Privatization in WA

August 27, 2014

A new report from Public Action Management (PAM) details impacts of Washington State I-1183, which handed the state monopoly on spirits and wine sales to private corporations. Costco designed the ballot initiative and spent more than $22 million to make it happen, intent on undermining the three-tier system designed to protect public health and safety. The initiative allows large grocery stores to sell Big Alcohol's products; squeezes the wholesale tier; and cuts out smaller producers and independent retailers.

Conveniently for Costco, I-1183 specified that spirits sales licenses would be limited to large retailers. The Costco campaign for I-1183 promised voters a free market system that would provide greater convenience, lower prices, and increased funding for public safety enforcement. The PAM report describes major outcomes that contradict the campaign's initial promises:

  • Spirits prices actually increased, while product variety decreased;
  • Availability increased, but small, independent spirits outlets were forced to close, unable to compete with giants like Costco;
  • State revenues initially increased due to one-time sales of state-owned liquor stores and special assessments, but will likely decrease over time;
  • Rather than a free market, two companies (Costco and Safeway) now control 93% of the WA market;
  • $10 million promised for local public safety enforcement never materialized; and
  • Reports of theft, particularly by youth, increased substantially.

The report also points out that while it is too soon to make conclusive statements about I-1183's long-term impact on underage drinking, drunk driving, and other public safety concerns, the long-term impact of privatization will likely be averse, as it has in other states that privatized alcohol sales.

Overall, the report concludes that the primary beneficiaries of I-1183 were Costco and other large, national grocery chains, while the public will not likely benefit financially or socially in the long term. With corporate sights set on Oregon and Pennsylvania, voters should listen and learn from Washington, and the privatization promises broken in that state.

Oakland City Council Rejects Proposals for Digital Billboards Along 880 Freeway

August 13, 2014

On Tuesday, July 30th, the Oakland City Council in Closed Session, rejected the proposals from Foster Media and Iris Media (co-owned by Oakland Port Commissioner Michael Colbruno) for 8 more additional digital billboards along Highway 880. All Council members present voted to reject the billboards with Councilmember Kaplan abstaining. The proposal had been making its way through City departments for many years and was the first time since July of 2012 that the Council has voted to enforce its own billboard ordinance that was passed in 1998. 

Karen Hester, co-founder of Scenic East Bay notes, "The overwhelming majority of the council has made clear its commitment to stop blighting our City with digital billboards that are a driving distraction and drive down property values. The vote puts the nail in the coffin on additional billboards and makes clear the desire to clean up the City and our image that we have been working so hard to promote."

The win is the latest in a series of victories for anti-billboard campaigns in the state. The people of the city of Albany just defeated a proposal to finance a city building with an electronic billboard. San Francisco has outlawed new digital billboards. The City of Los Angeles was forced by a court order to darken 100 billboards last year. 

This year Scenic East Bay, along with coalition members Sierra Club, Bike East Bay and others, also won a partial win by pressuring CalTrans to enforce regulations which forced Foster Media to withdraw 2 of its 5 applications for billboards that would have blighted the new Bay Bridge. CalTrans has approved billboards 3 of the 5 billboards but Scenic Bay is still exploring the legality of one of the approved locations.

To see a brief slideshow of digital billboards and their ill effects visit:

Contacts: Karen Hester, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 510-654-6346 
Naomi Schiff, This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., work 510-835-1717 cell 510-910-3764

Founding members of Scenic East Bay,