The Liquor Bottle Label Battle: Medical Community Rallies Around Alcohol Health Warnings

a faded and battered skull-and-crossbones flagIt seems like such a simple thing: letting consumers know what is in the thing they are about to put in their body. But ever since Upton Sinclair's The Jungle, it's been a laborious slog to get corporate actors to simply engage transparently with the products they profit from. Now the idea that public has a right to know the risks and contents of their own recreation has come for the alcohol industry.

Big Alchool and its lackies responses have been, predictably, apocalyptic and desperate.

In 2020, Canadian researchers got permission to place prominent alcohol health labels on products at the state liquor store in Whitehorse, Yukon. Preliminary findings were encouraging, showing a slight decrease in purchasing of labeled products compared to both nonlabeled in that store, and all (unlabeled) products in a control store in another city. In addition, consumers were more likely to recognize the health risks in the labeled bottles and more likely to support policies to limit that risk. What was in equal parts encouraging, discouraging, and insane, however, was the lawsuit threatened by the alcohol industry to suppress the labels calling attention to cancer risk.

To be clear, the cancer risk from alcohol use is noncontroversial. And yet the Canadian team noticed that recognition of that risk was low. What they also noticed is that the lawsuit may, ironically, have driven awareness of the risk even higher--from the coverage and the sense that the state and the medical researchers were being pushed around by faceless corporations.

Since then, the impetus for confronting the industry head-on has been snowballing. In September, the New England Journal of Medicine, one of the preeminent medical journals in the country, ran an op-ed from Harvard Chan School of Public Health researchers detailing the evidence and need for these labels. "The alcohol industry spends more than $1 billion each year to market its products in the United States," the authors write. "As a result, the most readily available information about alcohol comes from alcohol companies themselves. The industry has also actively suppressed efforts to educate consumers about the health risks associated with alcohol."

The authors go on to observe that effective labelling has already been demonstrated in tobacco control science. The most effective labels are 1) displayed prominently on the front of product packaging, 2) designed to include photographs or icons, not just text, and 3) rotated from month to month or bottle to bottle to prevent consumers from getting inured to the message.

If this sounds like a reasonable proposal from a creditable source that no one in their right mind could argue with, then you haven't met the water-carriers for Big Alcohol. The Washington Times has already decided that alcohol warning labels are synonymous with Prohibition. (Crucially, the Times did not mention the cancer warnings, only ingredient labels--while the op-ed is incoherent at best, it seems Big Alcohol's lackeys learned at least one thing from the Canadian experience.) The industry salvos will keep coming, as they always have. And the more they do, the more opportunity the public health community will have to explain the truth, until stamping on a bottle is no more controversial than a bottlecap.

READ MORE about the demand for effective labeling of alcohol.

READ MORE about the cash and deception behind "healthy drinking."

Image by Nicolas Raymond via Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

2022 California Legislative Roundup: Defending Against Deregulation

old sealed packs of baseball cards piled in a boxThe California 2021-2022 legislative sessions has finally, mercifully, drawn to a close. Fueled by a massive, nationwide and international industry push to make emergency COVID-19 deregulatory measures permanent, Alcohol Justice and the California Alcohol Policy Alliance (CAPA) faced an unprecedented array of dangerous bills. Most prominently among these, the 4 A.M. bar bill made its fourth appearance in five years, and again went down to defeat amidst a widespread rejection of the cynical and cavalier assumptions made by its authors. Organizing throughout the Central Valley and Los Angeles area, much of it involving CAPA members, helped local communities shout down the economic interests of Big Alcohol. That wasn't the only fight CAPA and AJ were involved in this year.

Like we do every year, we present a brief rundown of alcohol- and opioid-related legislation. The number of bills supported an opposed by CAPA and AJ are as follows:


For purposes of each organization's "batting average," we use the following formula: (# of OPPOSED bills that FAILED + # of SUPPORTED bills that PASSED / total number of BILLS)

AJ went 11 for 27, for a 0.407 batting average.

CAPA went 3 for 6, for a 0.500 batting average.

For irrelevant context, major league batting average leader was Mets 2B Jeff McNeil, with 0.326.

A few of the key bills:

SB 930 aka The 4 A.M. Bar Bill Again Again Again Again. This bill, which would have extended last call hours in certain California cities to 4 a.m., has long been a bete noir for Bay Area lawmakers. Sen. Scott Wiener and coauthor Matt Haney (both D-San Francisco) re-introduced this bill--which had already been vetoed in 2018, failed in 2019, and was announced but pulled in 2020--as a mid-summer surprise gut-and-amend. The authors' hopes to rush it through the legislature before public awareness could build were short-lived, however, as an outpouring of community objection peeled off the cities hoping to be included in the legislation. The bill nonetheless made it to an Assembly floor vote, where it failed.

SB 980 aka The Secret Bar Bill. Another piece of legislation from Sen. Wiener, this bill would have made it much easier for bars to open without public awareness. It would also have facilitated legislative trickery by bad-actor applicants, and, most upsettingly, removed any obligated from ABC to deny a license based on close proximity to schools, parks, or other youth-oriented locations. On top of this, language in the bill made it considerably more difficult for license protesters to pursue that protest to its conclusion. The bill failed in committee.

SB 793 aka The Kids In Bars Bill. Yet another piece from Sen. Wiener, an obsessive industry deregulator and true friend of Big Alcohol, this would have waived any expectation that bars would deny entrance to underage patrons so long as there was a concert at some point that evening. Originally, the bill also included language creating Bourbon St.-style "party zones," although that language was stripped out. (Expect it to return.) The bill was passed and signed into law.

SB 1016 aka The Free and Appropriate Education for Individuals With FASD Bill. Authored by State Sen. Portantino (D-San Gabriel Valley), this bill expanded eligibility criteria for special education to include fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, guaranteeing appropriate and effective education for individuals with those disorders. Spearheaded by CAPA allies at the FASD Network of Southern California, the bill was passed and signed into law.

SB 620 aka The Don't Forget to Leave the Bottles Out for the Boozeman, Honey! Bill. While wine has long enjoyed a favored status in California with access to direct shipping denied other alcoholic products, beer and distilled spirits manufacturers both tried to claw out those privileges for themselves in 2022. Both those bills failed, in large part because the current situation--involving a three-tier system where manufacturers supply distributors who sell to retail stores and bars--is a job-creating engine. Manufacturers' abilities to cut out both distributors and retailers became an urgent labor issue, and union advocates joined AJ and CAPA in fighting this reckless legislation. It ran aground in the Assembly GO committee, and never moved to a floor vote.

More details on bills of note for Alcohol Justice are available HERE.

Details on opioid-related bills of note are available HERE.

Image by Mike Kalasnick on Flickr, used under Creative Commons license.

SB 930 Defeated in Legislature

an old pin with a white V on a red background, while around the edge is written "FOR VICTORY"At long last, SB 930 is dead.

The bill, the fourth effort in the last five years by San Francisco legislators to extend the last call times to 4 a.m., was defeated in an Assembly floor vote. Author Matt Haney (D-San Francisco) was granted "reconsideration," allowing him to call for another vote, but the legislative session expired before that vote was called.

"This is a testament to both leaders and community members across the state," said Cruz Avila, Executive Director of Alcohol Justice. "They tried to slip this bill through at the last minute. Instead, the people of California heard, spoke out, and defended their neighbors and families."

The bill started out in the Senate in February dealing with a housing issue. In early June, after the bill had passed over to the Assembly side, the authors pulled a fast one. They gutted and amended it to be yet another dangerous "pilot project" to fracture the protections of uniform, statewide 2 a.m. last call for bars, clubs and restaurants. Despite great opposition it passed through the Assembly Governmental Organization Committee by just one vote and made it to the Assembly floor in late July. There, in the wake of a series of official condemnations, massive public outcry, and the withdrawal of four of the original seven cities in the experiment, it failed passage but was granted a customary "reconsideration vote". That vote never happened so the bill failure rests on the July floor vote.

Previous verisons--all authored by State Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco)--were likewise stopped. The 2019 version stalled on the Assembly floor and the 2017 version was changed to mandate a study before the policy went into effect then withdrawn (Sen. Wiener's decision to withdraw it serving, in itself, as an admission that the purported harmlessness would not survive scrutiny). Only the 2018 effort made it through the legislature, but was vetoed by then-Governor Jerry Brown.

"While this is a victory," said Michael Scippa, Public Affairs Director for Alcohol Justice, "it's not the end. We have seen Sen. Wiener's obsessiveness with this issue, and Big Alcohol's dollars speak loudly."

"But this year," he added, "we saw just how much louder the people of California can be."
From all of the staff at Alcohol Justice: thank you to AJ supporters, CAPA members and supporters, and everyone else who lent their voice to defend public health, public safety, and community power.