In the Doghouse

In the Doghouse

I'd Like to Give the World a Drinking Problem

the old coca-cola slogan "coke adds life" edited to say "takes life"The realm of Big Alcohol just welcomed a friendly, red-and-white face. The Coca-Cola company, the second largest beverage company in the world, has been quietly rolling out a series of alcoholic beverages over the past three years, making it a sudden but formidable force in alcoholc sales. These new products—including alcoholic Simply "juice," alcoholic Topo Chico seltzer, and a spiked Fresca soda—all take cues from the worst trends in flavored malt beverage production. All three are cross-branded with familiar, non-alcoholic products. All three hide under the veneer of "healthy" alcohol. And all three are the kinds of flavor-masked products that frequently serve as the drink of choice for youth who still dislike the taste of alcohol.

The initial entry, back in 2020, was alcoholic Topo Chico. Nominally a seltzer produced in Monterrey, Mexico, the alcoholic version keeps the brand but takes the production back into the United States. Yet the branding remains: a New York Times article called out Coca-Cola's appeal to "perceived Mexicanness" in its promotion of the brand. While the dreary colonialism inherent in exoticizing an everyday Mexican brand is obvious, the potential to target Latinx communities may be even more threatening. Despite a history of drinking less than non-Latinx White U.S. residents, recent surges in alcohol use disorder are driven in part by a rapid increase in risky alcohol use in Latinx communities.

In the past year, Coca-Cola has branched out further. Fresca, a sugar-free soda often marketed as a "healthy" alternative to soda, is now being used to brand a cocktail-in-a-can. These kids of "ready to drink" cocktails combine often high ABV, strong flavor, and a packaging—a can—that suggests they should be consumed in one sitting. These are, for all intents and purposes, alcopops, and like alcopops, they draw more than their share of underage drinkers. And like Topo Chico, the Fresca brand is associated with health, and very specifically with being low-calorie. Unlike Topo Chico, however, Fresca has historically been targeted at women. So with alcoholic Fresca, Coca-Cola has managed to prime teen girls for both an alcohol use disorder and an eating disorder.

But why should the beverage behemoth stop with teens? Why not... juice? Among the many brands in its portfolio is Simply, a juice brand that is branded with the assertion that it is free of any additives besides juice. (This claim, while true, is deceptive, as very few juice brands currently on the market have anything other than juice, and prepackaged juice is, itself, a sugary beverage just like soda.) The same lemonade, then, that parents pour for their children will now be sold as a 24 oz. alcoholic tallboy. What a perfect procession to sear alcohol into developing minds: get them to recognize booze brands young, get them hooked when they're teens, and keep them drinking "healthy" "seltzers" when they start to worry about mortality.

The irony is, Coca-Cola faces little risk from brand dilution. Already, sugary beverages form the backbone of its $286 billion global empire. These beverages are complicit in a wide swath of health harms, including, according to Nature, "weight gain, ... type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers." Yet Coca-Cola has been nearly immune from regulation, going so far as to join with Anheuser-Busch InBev to threaten a budget-crippling ballot measure unless California blocked soda taxes. They have the economic strength and the political ruthlessness to push these new, alcoholic products into any hand they see. Based on the rapid expansion of their product lines, these are only the tip of an iceberg. If that spurs an anxious sensation of looming threat, well, Coca-Cola themselves have long urged customers to "Taste the Feeling."

READ MORE about the alcopop gateway to youth use.

READ MORE about the great "healthy drinking" hoax.


Dry January Makes Big Alcohol Pray for Rain

Tropical downpour CCBig Alcohol’s birds have come home to roost, and yet the industry is still determined to fry them up and sell them as sandwiches. Dry January, the social media-propagated health pledge* to steer clear of alcohol for the first month of the year, continues to grow, with 19% of American consumers participating in some way. While only half of those responding say their interest is to cut alcohol out entirely, this still threatens to be a substantial short-term hit to the industry bottom line.

So what can an industry do when the harms of its products are so self-evident that nearly a fifth of adults want to walk away from them entirely? Should it a) mock the entire effort; b) co-opt the entire effort; or c) flag-wave to make non-drinkers seem like enemies of America? Well, why not all three?

A. Mock

Pabst Blue Ribbon wasted no time in launching a campaign deriding Dry January. On January 3rd, they began a campaign by tweeting, “Not drinking this January? Try eating ---.”  (Alcohol Justice trusts its readership to intuit the omitted three-letter word.)

They also wasted no time in shuttering it when the response was split between PBR fans egging on the overamped belligerence, and normal Twitter users objecting to the tone and/or content. PBR management was quick to blame an “associate” and ostensibly distance themselves from the scandal, but not before the campaign had achieved trending status on the platform and generated plentiful news coverage.

We should emphasize the vagueness of PBR’s apology, which said simply that they were “handling the matter internally.” It is not clear that anyone faced reprimand, or that any third-party contracts terminated. In fact, it seems likely the “scandal” did what it was supposed to: raised public awareness of PBR as a brand.

The crude language and likely two-faced apology aside, the actual cruelty in this campaign comes through its effort to undercut people who are making efforts to change their drinking behavior. As much as we like to think recovery or cutting back is accomplished through sheer force of will, the one factor that ties every effective mode of behavior change together is community support. Having friends and peers recognize and support your efforts vastly improves your chances of success.

PBR recognized this. Behind their “edginess” was fear. They were desperate to make people considering engaging in Dry January feel like they were isolated, pathetic, and powerless. A chorus of macho, adolescent contempt from the echo chamber of social media could achieve just that. By leaning hard into a brief, well-publicized bout of schoolyard cruelty, they helped the company continue to gorge on its customers.

B. Co-Opt

As global alcohol brands saturate markets worldwide, bend legislators to their wills, and inundate every mass communications channel with images celebrating drinking, there comes a breaking point. Dry January is one of these breaking points, a wide-scale, mostly organic admission that most people feel like they are drinking more than they would like to. This puts Big Alcohol in a precarious position: how do you monetize a popular desire to not drink, while doing the utmost to keep customers drinking?

Heineken’s effort takes the form of “Try January.” This sweepstakes seeks to urge Dry January participants to sample Heineken NA, offering them a vacation package to Hawaii in exchange for acknowledging the brand. (No purchase necessary, by the way. We entered.)

This is largely less pernicious than PBR’s campaign. It acknowledges individuals’ agency in engaging in reducing or eliminating alcohol for a month. Yet it does so in an effort to make money from people seeking respite from the problems… the same company has caused. It even co-opts a catchy motto that originated from the public health community. The inherent cynicism in this attitude leaves a bad taste no cheap lager could wash away. But this campaign also contains more subtle undermining strategies.

In a broad sense, it seeks not just to enhance brand loyalty, but to create a confusion between Heineken NA and basic Heineken. The bottles are nearly identical, and the sense of customer good will from the contest will perpetuate after Dry January is over. (In fact, it is a good rule of thumb when dealing with alcohol companies that any contest, philanthropy, or giveaway has been planned with the assumption that it will generate more in profits than it costs in perks.)

But there is also the language of the contest itself. “Try January is here, and there's nothing dry about it,” the page declares. We here at Alcohol Justice could not figure out exactly what the “nothing dry about it” actually referred to. Was it the liquid from the bottle? The beaches in Hawaii? Was it somehow innuendo? The message was garbled, which seemed an improbable stumble for the marketing department of a multibillion dollar, global company.

Even more improbable when you bear in mind that Big Alcohol long ago successfully cracked the code for undermining public health messaging while seeming to promote it. Not only is Dry January co-opted as a marketing message, but the message tries to supplant it. It casts “dry” in a negative light, in stark contrast to the point of the Dry January campaign. Dry January is not an annual deep-dive into our potentials to feel better in our bodies—it’s a dorky, unfun trend. Think only of Try January, the generous, sunny celebration of a cheap, mass-market, usually alcoholic beverage brand.

We will still go to Hawaii if we win, though.

C. Flag-Wave

The New York Post’s clickbait editorial calling Dry January ‘pure evil’ is a bombastic appeal to drink in the name of… the economy. Aside from its contempt for “[t]emporary health nuts … turning beloved bars into wastelands at a moment in history in which there have never been more reasons to drink,” the evidence of financial impacts are tenuous at best. (For example, one Midtown bartender describes being devastated by the absence of formerly regular lunchtime customers. We cannot back this up with research data, but we suspect lunchtime bar patrons do not engage in Dry January.)

The article borders on parody, but the arguments of Big Alcohol’s useful idiots are seemingly parody-proof—a week before the Post, The Onion ran a satirical cartoon that used essentially the same arguments. InsideHook’s food and drink critic posted a simple and effective evisceration of the Post piece, saving us some typing.

But the Post, in its buffoonery, amplifies a legitimate concern facing the United States. For two years, the country has staked the economic security of the working class on alcohol sales. Massive deregulation swept through every state, short term expansions of the spaces where alcohol consumption is encouraged and the methods by which it can be provided, all in the names of the economic security of the service industry. Now many, if not most states, are trying to make these deregulations permanent.

It is no surprise, then, that for many—even those who have enjoyed the expanded bar footprints and to-go cocktails—this has created a lasting fatigue around the product. The whole organic nature of the Dry January movement reflects its participants’ intuitively understanding that constant alcohol consumption wears on the body and mind.

So congratulations to all those participating in Dry January. You have cut through a 500 billion dollar industry’s efforts to sneer at you, misdirect you, and cast you as the villain. Hopefully you feel a little better this month than you would have. Let’s do it again soon.

* Although Dry January started as an organized campaign by the United Kingdom-based nonprofit Alcohol Change, backed with apps and community building, it has grown internationally and a large number of those who don’t drink for the month, especially in the United States, both learn about it and commit to it via their own friend groups.

WATCH a video on the day-by-day benefits of cutting out booze.
READ MORE about California’s efforts to deregulate the alcohol industry.

Big Alcohol Is #COVIDwashing the Vaccine

The public health community often sections off its prevention efforts on two types of harm: communicable and non-communicable disease. Communicable diseases are contagious, e.g. bacteria and viruses. Noncommunicable diseases are the consequences of lifestyle harms, e.g. drug overdose and heart disease. CoVID-19 threatens to be the defining communicable disease crisis for half the world's population. Alcohol harm forms a long-standing, ever-increasing threat to every generation.

Leave it to Big Alcohol, then, to shove the latter on those trying to deal with the former.

As the COVID-19 vaccine gets widely distributed in the United States, global alcohol corporations are taking note and taking advantage. Annheuser-Busch InBev, fresh off a remarkably sleazy lie over donating all of its Super Bowl ad space to vaccine awareness, is now offering free beers to anyone providing proof of vaccination. That proof must be provided online along with full name, email address, and date of birth. This is not so Budweiser can verify vaccine status (legally, Budweiser can't do that regardless), it's so they can collect marketing information.

Faux craft brewer Sam Adams is doing the same in exchange for an Instagram bump. The state of New Jersey is doing the same, and while most people not from Philadelphia agree there is less harm derived from promoting New Jersey than from promoting alcohol, state sponsorship of drinking threatens to create more lasting concerns. All of these associations between drinking and COVID-19 vaccines create a three-fold problem.

First, they are #COVIDwashing. For the past year and change, the United States has been awash in alcohol companies trying to increase their profits amidst increases in binge drinking and psychological distress. State governments have been complicit in this, culminating in legislative disasters like California's current attempts to massively deregulate alcohol sales. And the worst companies (Annheuser-Busch, you're up again) have attempted to directly tie alcohol to public health.

Second, alcohol use has likely worsened the scope of the pandemic.  Alcohol suppresses the immune system, making heavier drinkers more likely to contract the virus and develop higher viral load. Densely packed bars and clubs have created the ideal spaces for person-to-person transmission, especially when intoxication makes it easier to neglect social distancing, masking, and other protective behaviors. On top of that, alcohol causes inflammation, and lung inflammation--specifically, suffocation as inflamed lungs fill with pus and fluid--is the primary driver of death from the disease.

But the worst aspect of this is the threat that alcohol may impair the development of immunity. Heavy drinking very clearly inhibits immune response, and having a strong initial immune response is fundamental lasting immunity. It is not clear that one free beer makes a difference, but following it up with two incontrovertibly puts a damper on immune function.

The pandemic still blazes worldwide, including in the United States. The vaccine shows promise to slow the tide of harm. The country still needs real leadership, however, to not help Big Alcohol--the merchants of a harm that every generation experiences, and which will never have a vaccine.