In the Doghouse

In the Doghouse

Low-Alcohol Drinks: Emerging From a Cloud of Tobacco Smoke?

low abv beerBig Alcohol would like you to know that it’s your friend. It does this in many ways. With advertisements featuring funny skits and catchy phrases. With philanthropic pushes that spend more on marketing than they earn for their recipients. And with grand language about reducing the harm of drinking, often backed by nothing but hot air. Prominent among the ideas floating on that hot air is low-alcohol beverages as a reduced harm product. This forms one pillar of alcohol giant AB InBev’s “Global Smart Drinking Goals.” But growing evidence shows selling low-alcohol products is smarter marketing than it is public health.

A Cambridge, UK, research team is trying to bring that concept down to earth. In a new study in BMC Public Health, they reviewed marketing messages surrounding reduced-alcohol beverages. If AB InBev and cohort were determined to replace “normal” alcohol-by-volume (ABV) beverages with their low-alcohol equivalents, then the researchers should have seen language urging consumers to drink these “near beers” and under 9% ABV wines instead of their regular fare. But Big Alcohol is too smart for that.

Instead, these modified products were marketed as being appropriate for every occasion. Often the ad copy urged consumers to drink them during lunchtime, nights in, or while outdoors. In other words, low-ABV drinks were for occasions when normally people would drink no alcohol at all. The authors caution, “they may be being marketed to replace soft drinks rather than alcohol products of regular strength.” In fact, “none of the marketing messages … mentioned drinking less or reducing alcohol harms.”

Other messages centered around health. Reduced alcohol drinks were sold on the basis of lower calories, or greater nutrition, or suitability for athletic events. However, drinking can be a liability for athletes, and alcohol itself is a poison.

“We expect the industry to trot out empty words about health and reducing harm,” said Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, Research Manager of Alcohol Justice. “But the entire concept may be bunk.”

“If we’ve learned anything from tobacco,” he added, “it might actually make harms worse.”

Tobacco industry documents show a successful, decades-long effort to fool consumers into believing that light cigarettes were healthier. In fact, they were designed to be just as addictive as regular cigarettes—and ended up being just as dangerous. More dangerously, the introduction of a “reduced harm” product both assuaged the fears of early smokers and gave inveterate smokers reasons not to quit. While replacing every beer with its low-ABV equivalent will undoubtedly lead someone to drink less alcohol, there is little to no data that this will happen. In fact, a consumer accustomed to a certain level of buzz may just drink twice as many. A consumer accustomed to a certain buzz and convinced they can drink low-ABV products whenever could end up consuming more than they would otherwise. Ubiquitous alcoholic beverages, regardless of the ABV, also twist social norms to make it harder to abstain, and easier for a young adult to start.

These harms may be theoretical, but so are the benefits. AB InBev’s rationale behind low-ABV products derives entirely from a single Health Policy article hypothesizing that reduced-alcohol products could reduce harm. One reference, and that paper itself by warns that “only an independent assessment will be able to identify the effects on harmful drinking.” That is the kind of assessment that never has, and never will, come from Big Alcohol.

READ MORE about the deceptive marketing practices tying alcohol to health.

READ MORE about the shady money behind AB InBev’s Global Smart Drinking Goals.

Alcohol Research Awash in Industry Money

money changing hands to pay for corrupt alcohol researchEven the most careful research can be undone by bias, and history teaches that industry funding does not encourage the most careful research. From the Tobacco Institute to a half a century of sugar industry-fueled misdirection, financial might has repeatedly trumped scientific rigor in health research. Dr. Michael Siegel, Professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University School of Public Health, is quick to call out the same dynamics with Big Alcohol.

Most recently, he has shone light on the International Scientific Forum on Alcohol Research (ISFAR), an invitation-only group of alcohol researchers centered in part at Dr. Siegel’s own BU—and underwritten by the alcohol industry. Dr. Siegel first began looking into ISFAR when they critiqued a landmark meta-analysis that challenged the “j-curve” theory—namely, that people who drink “moderate” amounts of alcohol have better cardiovascular health outcomes than either overconsumers or abstainers. Needless to say, this factoid is a cornerstone of the industry’s campaign to legitimize and encourage daily consumption. Big Alcohol would feel obligated to reject anything undermining “health drinking” messages emphatically, and ISFAR rode into the breach. Conveniently, the organization’s published critique omitted any reference to industry funding for itself and its constituent members.

A growing body of scientific evidence shows that the source of funding can bias research, even when the researchers are ostensibly independent. For this reason, scientific transparency advocates push for disclosure of funding soures. With that in mind, Dr. Siegel revisited the ISFAR controversy to see if they had moved towards open disclosure of industry underwriting.

He found they had, in fact, worked harder to hide them. An ISFAR member was recently forced to correct an academic article for failing to disclose that he was a consultant for the beer industry. Multiple biographies for members either obscure or outright omit industry ties—Dr. Siegel notes a total of 10 members had possible conflicts of interest.

“You want to think that scientists are trying their hardest during difficult times,” said Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, Research Manager for Alcohol Justice. “The excuse is so often, ‘Well, if the industry didn’t fund alcohol research, who would?’ But when you see organizations taking pains to hide financial ties, it makes you realize how quickly that attitude turns into something darker.”

In his piece, Dr. Siegel notes the complicity of his own institution, and calls for ISFAR to be shuttered. “The time to end this scam operation is now,” Dr. Siegel writes. “Especially in a period in which the federal government has basically tossed scientific objectivity out the window.”

“Alcohol Justice is happy to join the choir calling for healthy skepticism,” said Benowitz-Fredericks. “We stand firmly behind Dr. Siegel as he shines a light on this dark corner of drug research.”

READ MORE about Big Alcohol’s deceptive claims of healthy drinking.

NIAAA Directors Stumping for Big Alcohol

NIAAA's Dr. Murray is the next best thing to Spuds MacKenzieImagine the glee the foxes would feel if the hens willingly walked into foxhouse. Less than 30 seconds into a social responsibility advertisement for alcohol giant AB InBev, we see Dr. Margaret Murray, Director of the Global Alcohol Research Program at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). She briefly extols the virtues of AB InBev's "Six Cities" project. Before her, AB InBev CEO Carlos Brito introduces the company's efforts; after her, Dr. Derek Yach, AB InBev Global Advisory Council Member, asserts how their efforts will be a great benefit to the company. Dr. Murray looks calm and comfortable sandwiched between them. Later in the video, Dr. George Koob, Director of NIAAA, appears, similarly comfortable.

They should not feel that way. They are either being duped in the way Big Tobacco and Big Sugar (not to mention Big Alcohol!) have duped thousands before them, or they are complicit in recklessly undermining the mission of their institute.

This appearance by Dr. Murray constitutes nothing less than an abandonment of duty by a public official, argues Dr. Michael Siegel, Professor of Community Health Sciences at Boston University, in an October 30, 2017, blog post. "They are actually promoting and endorsing a company product or service. By doing so, the NIAAA has participated in a marketing ploy of the company. Essentially, NIAAA is helping Anheuser-Busch to market beer ... ," he writes.

This appearance comes hot on the heels of a major, multi-million-dollar grant from Big Alcohol to the Foundation of the National Institutes of Health. This grant is meant to fund a study the impact of regular "moderate" alcohol use in populations around the world. (There are multiple problems with that study, starting with the meaninglessness of "moderate" drinking; a 10/26/17 Wired magazine provides an excellent roundup of the controversy). Yet the Dr. Murray isn't even addressing that study. She is giving a stamp of approval to an in-house AB InBev project piloting ostensible prevention campaigns meant to reduce "hazardous drinking" by 10% in selected target cities. By doing so, she drops even the veneer of representing the research community; she is simply making AB InBev seem like a reputable source of public health research.

It is not. It cannot be. We have fifty years of experience with the research arms of Big Tobacco contributing to tobacco harm denialism. Even when ostensibly acknowledged harm, Big Tobacco has focused on "reduced harm products," and contributed voluntary prevention messaging. It turned out that reduced harm products either didn't meaningfully reduce harm or else were disliked by consumers. Both helped them put an "evidence-based" polish on continuing to deal in deadly products. And when the tobacco companies attempted to preempt the Truth/Legacy Foundation's antismoking campaigns by running in-house prevention ads, those ads turned out—surprise, surprise—to encourage underage use.

Is it a coincidence, then, that the AB InBev video extols their investment in safer products and prevention messaging?

"Industry money in research distorts research," said Carson Benowitz-Fredericks, MSPH, Research Manager at Alcohol Justice. "Industry money in prevention makes prevention ineffective. Murray and Koob know this. NIAAA has to step back into a national leadership role, not just rubber-stamp Big Alcohol's research agenda."

Dr. Siegel sees NIAAA’s participation as more than just an error in judgment. "With the promotion of Anheuser-Busch's interests that NIAAA is providing, the company hardly needs its own marketing division," he writes. "It can simply call the director of NIAAA it's de facto Director of Marketing and Public Relations. The alcohol industry couldn't have a better friend in a higher place.”