2021 Legislative Roundup: COVIDWashing Runs Rampant

As in 2020, the 2021 California legislative session was obsessed with the generationally defining COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike 2020, however, legislative efforts to mitigate its impacts and protect public health were complicated by a new perspective: COVID-19 as an opportunity. The legislative session saw sweeping deregulatory measures in terms of alcohol sales, extending or making permanent "regulatory relief" measures that the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) originally intended as stopgaps to protect businesses during economic downturns. These measures were explicitly cheered on by Governor Newsom, whose own Plumpjack Group--a wine and hospitality consortium which he has placed in blind trust but refused to divest from--stands to benefit.

Yet the news was not all bleak. The Alcohol Justice and CAPA legislative "batting averages" for 2021 are below.
Positions Taken Passed Bills Failed or Held Bills
 AJ Supported 2  4
 AJ Opposed 7  11

Including all bills for which AJ took a position, our batting average was an impressive 0.541. However, that counts bills that were held over for the next legislative session as wins. Those bills may return next year and be signed into law. Including only bills that made it to the Governor's desk, Alcohol Justice went 4 for 12, for a 0.333 batting average.

For reference, the 2021 Major League Baseball leader in batting average was Trea Turner, with 0.328.

Probably the most significant loss was the expanded footprint for nearly every alcohol licensee interested in pursuing it. This resulted in the so-called "parklets" which have already become a flashpoint for noise violations and for being occasionally crashed into by intoxicated drivers. Other notable losses included allowing wineries to open more than one "tasting room," and continuation of the cocktail-to-go policies advanced by ABC as regulatory relief. The latter bill, however, was notably watered down to only allow these cocktails to be picked up in person, blunting app-based delivery companies' efforts to get deeper into the alcohol sales field.

Notable victories included bills that incentivizes the California justice system to provide buprenorphine or other medication-assisted treatment to returning citizens, and a strengthening of ABC's ability to use minor decoys when checking alcohol licensees' legal compliance.

Notably dangerous bills that may return include SB 793, a bill that would grant all music venues a liquor license regardless of the presence of minors. In essence, the requirement to card at the door would be lifted for any venue with a sound system. This policy is a remarkably ill-conceived effort to promote the entertainent industry, and not only greatly facilitates alcohol advertising to youth, but increases the likelihood young concertgoers will be subjected to dangerous or predatory behavior. Alcohol Justice is monitoring this and other two-year bills closely.

Image courtesy Dan Gaken. Used under a Creative Commons license.

New Watchdog Tool Puts Power Back Into the Community

two men lay on the sidewalk barely conscious after a bar fightFor over a year now, California state leaders have been calling for alcohol deregulation, framing it as an emergency measure to keep bars and restaurants afloat. Now, as the state slowly claws its way out of the pandemic-induced chaos, legislators are trying to make these "emergency" measures permanent. These "regulatory relief" policies--including app-based delivery of cocktails, service area pushed out into public space, and vastly expanded bar footprints--have one intention: to increase the amount of alcohol consumed in California.

This is a reckless and craven appeal to Big Alcohol lobbyists, and utterly unconcerned with the harms that befall the public. But the community has always had a way to talk back, by registering complaints about alcohol bars, restaurants, and stores to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC). However, many residents are not aware they have this power and right. To help directly connect our neighbors to ABC, Alcohol Justice has created the ABC Online Complaint Portal. This portal allows anyone to submit a complaint directly to ABC.

In addition, we have compiled a Field Guide to Regulatory Relief. Designed to work hand-in-hand with the complaint portal, the Field Guide lets residents know their experiences are not just pet peeves--they are real violations of the obligations alcohol-selling businesses have to be good neighbors.

We know what harms arise from uncontrolled alcohol sales. As alcohol taxes and regulations are slashed across the country, we are experiencing a spike in every indicator of alcohol overuse. Fatal liver disease has been on the rise for 20 years; alcohol use disorder for 30. California has seen steady increases in fatal DUIs, and reviews of death certificates find a 50% increase in the rate of alcohol-related deaths since 1999. Alcohol-related mortality is the major cause of preventable deaths among adolescents, being a deciding factor in motor vehicle crashes, homicides, and suicides.

Yet, as a California resident, you do not need to have witnessed death to have a right to complain about a venue. Noise, litter, violence or threatening behavior from patrons, reckless outdoor alcohol advertising, disregard for laws regarding sales to minors or minors on the premises--these are all good reasons to file a complaint using our portal. Complaints can be anonymous, or you can leave your name if you would like ABC to follow up with you.

This is not even a matter of taking the power back. The power has always been yours. Despite what many in the legislature would have us believe, selling alcohol is a privilege, not a right. Those who embrace it have an obligation to look after their patrons and communities, not just their bottom lines.

Budweiser’s Out-of-Bounds Cynicism

For many, the Super Bowl is the pinnacle—of athletic competition, of advertising, of alcohol consumption. This year, main sponsor Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) climbed a new peak by exploiting the global pandemic for alcohol sales and lying to the public, in a true hail mary of #COVIDwashing.

The multinational beer giant ran an advertisement prior to the Super Bowl touting Budweiser’s intention to donate all of its ad space to vaccine awareness. And this was true, technically. All of the ad time that might have been used to sell Budweiser instead ran public service announcements trying to encourage viewers to get the COVID-19 vaccine when it became available.

What ABI failed to mention, however, was that the donation applied only to the Budweiser brand. The brewer giant ran ads for four other brands it owns: Bud Light, Bud Light Hard Seltzer, Michelob Ultra, and Michelob Light Organic Seltzer. Make no mistake, Budweiser is not the most popular beer in America. That title belongs to Bud Light, and ABI had no intention of losing a dollar of that dominance. Meanwhile, the Budweiser ad spot donation was covered in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Fox News, CNN, MSNBC… which is the kind of exposure money just can‘t buy.

We have seen this pattern of behavior from Big Alcohol many times in the past. Breast Cancer Action coined the term “pinkwashing” to refer companies whose products are linked to breast cancer participating in breast cancer-related charities. Alcohol Justice has been using a similar term, COVIDwashing, in homage, when Big Alcohol uses lockdowns and COVID-19 awareness campaigns to market its products and make the companies look benevolent. But much like alcohol has a clear link to breast cancer risk, it may be linked to COVID mortality as well.

Physiologically, alcohol both impairs the immune system and causes inflammation. A weakened immune system makes individuals more likely to contract COVID-19 if exposed, while the fatal reactions to the virus mostly derive from excessive lung inflammation and congestion. Socially, alcohol inspires more reckless behavior, while bars and nightclubs, as enclosed spaces where people tend to congregate very close together, threaten to become loci for spread.

This is not to say there was no way ABI could ethically support COVID-19 awareness and prevention. The company could have donated the money it spent on advertising—including the money it spent on advertising its intention to donate—to groups fighting to save lives. At the very least, it could have not lied to the public’s face, and donated all of its ad time. But given the opportunity to do the right thing, ABI instead banked on the power of #COVIDwashing, letting the public’s gratitude overshadow the corporate cynicism. It is just the latest in a long line of ethical collapse by ABI, and yet another reason to Free Our Sports and get Bud out of the Super Bowl.

WATCH the Youth For Justice and Alcohol Justice crews take down Budweiser’s two-faced charity.
LISTEN to Prevention Action Alliance’s J.P. Dorval explain how kids can learn to read between the lines of Super Bowl ads.