Two years ago, I explained why I think Anheuser-Busch InBev's Smart Drinking Goals program is a complete farce. Last year, I criticized the NIAAA for endorsing the alcohol industry's Smart Drinking Goals program. Today, I will show how Anheuser-Busch itself has proven that its Smart Drinking Goals program is a huge hoax, designed solely as a public relations ploy and devoid of any sincere intent to reduce alcohol consumption.
For brief background, senior employees of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and
Alcoholism (NIAAA) appeared in an Anheuser-Busch InBev promotional
video that was designed primarily to serve the company's public relations
interests. The video was brought to light in an article by Miriam Shuchman at Wired.
In the video,
Anheuser-Busch InBev boasts to the public about its "Smart Drinking
Goals" program, which is purportedly designed to reduce "hazardous"
drinking. Several Anheuser-Busch executives-- including its CEO, Chief
"Health" Officer, and Chief Legal and Financial Officer--appear in the
video, boasting about how wonderful this program is and implying how
great a company Anheuser-Busch is for funding this program and how much
it cares about the public's health.
But the Anheuser-Busch executives aren't the only ones who appear in this promotional, public relations video.
Shockingly, this Anheuser-Busch PR effort (i.e., public relations
effort) is also endorsed and promoted by senior officials of the
Executive Branch of the United States government. And even worse, those
senior officials are the Director and the Director of Global Alcohol
Research of the NIAAA!
The Director of Global Alcohol Research at NIAAA provides a glowing
endorsement of the program, describing it as "wonderful" (see 0:27-0:34
in the video). The Director of NIAAA also endorses the program,
asserting that it will "go far in moving the field forward" (see
However, the true purpose of the video is revealed at 3:42, when an
Anheuser-Busch Global Advisory Council reveals the company's aspiration:
"We're no longer a neighborhood's beer or a country's beer. We're in
fact a corporation representing the world."
The video is clearly marketing Budweiser and other beers produced by
Anheuser-Busch. As the company acknowledges, they are running this
international program because they don't just want to be a
neighborhood's beer or a country's beer; they want to be the world's
The Rest of the Story
According to a Mother Jones article published last Friday, in 2005, Russia took a major public health step by banning the sale of alcohol in sports stadiums. When Russia bid to host this year's soccer World Cup, FIFA insisted that the country repeal its ban on alcohol consumption in stadiums as a condition of hosting the World Cup. Russia complied by creating an exemption from the law. However, earlier this year the city of Rostov (home to one of the stadiums being used for World Cup competition) passed its own law that prohibited the sale of alcohol at Rostov Arena (it did this by declaring the stadium a place of "mass gathering," thus removing the exemption from the national ban.
The city of Rostov thus exercised its right as a sovereign local government to protect the health and safety of its citizens by preventing alcohol sales at Rostov Arena, which could fuel violence, especially in the setting of international soccer competition. The policy was evidence-based, as there have been numerous episodes of violence fueled by the sale of alcohol at such matches.
Rather than respecting the autonomy of the Rostov government, Anheuser-Busch InBev threatened to sue Rostov city authorities. There is obviously no legitimate legal grounds for such a lawsuit. Rostov certainly has the legal authority to enact reasonable measures to protect the health, safety, and security of the public. Nevertheless, Anheuser-Busch InBev threatened the lawsuit in order to try to intimidate Rostov. It worked. The city backed down.
These actions of Anheuser-Busch InBev are not those of a company that has any interest in protecting the public's health. They are the actions of a bully corporation that puts the sale and consumption of its products above the public health, public safety, and even the autonomy of local government bodies.
In light of this action, the Smart Drinking Goals program cannot be taken seriously. It is purely a public relations ploy. While I don't blame the company for designing this clever marketing scheme because it's job is to sell alcohol, I do blame the NIAAA for endorsing the scheme, and I also blame the universities that have agreed to participate in the scheme by serving as partners.
Specifically, I denounce the Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and investigators at both institutions for accepting what appears to be more than $1 million to partner with Anheuser-Busch and help serve as implementation planning and technical assistance sites for the Smart Drinking Goals program.
By doing this, Ohio State and USC are participating in a marketing ploy of the company. Essentially, Ohio State and USC are helping Anheuser-Busch to market beer and achieve its goal of
becoming the world's beer. These universities are acting as essentially a marketing branch for Anheuser-Busch. With the
promotion of Anheuser-Busch's interests that Ohio State and USC are providing, the
company hardly needs its own marketing division. It can simply call Ohio State and USC its de facto Marketing and Public
It appears that Anheuser-Busch InBev's implementation partnerships are with the College of Social Work at the Ohio State University and School of Social Work at USC. The grant appears to be primarily with Ohio State University; however, since the principal investigator recently moved from Ohio State to USC, both institutions are now involved. The co-principal investigator of the project, who is at Ohio State, reports Anheuser-Busch funding in the amount of $946,517. The amount of funding to the principal investigator, who is at USC, is not clear.
I can see how researchers can be easily deceived by the clever scheme of this leading international alcohol corporation. Offers of money, especially for academic researchers like me, can easily distort our judgment. As the tobacco industry has proven, researchers and universities can essentially be bought out. The tobacco industry used this strategy to its great advantage.
But in some ways, this is worse than universities accepting tobacco money for research. Here, the universities are accepting money to actually be a part of the implementation of this alcohol company initiative. By doing so, they become co-conspirators. This is why I refer to them as participating in this public relations ploy.
If Anheuser-Busch InBev was sincere about wanting people to reduce their alcohol consumption, it would not bully city authorities like those in Rostov and essentially force them to allow the sale of alcohol at mass public events where there is a legitimate concern for public safety. It would not disrespect the autonomy of a local government to implement its own public health and safety laws.
The rest of the story is that this is not a company that public health (and social work) researchers and institutions should be collaborating with. Believe me, Anheuser-Busch is successful enough in its marketing and public relations on its own. It doesn't need help from respected academic institutions that are supposed to be in the business of saving lives and improving health, not marketing a dangerous product.
What business does a school of social work have partnering with a company that insists upon destroying the autonomy of communities and forcing them to serve alcohol at an event for which the sale of alcohol creates a substantial safety and security risk? Is this the type of company that Ohio State's and USC's social work schools want to be teaming up with?
Just as the NIAAA renounced its funding by the alcohol companies for research after the issue was brought to public attention, I hope that Ohio State and USC will also cancel their funding from Anheuser-Busch InBev and avoid the negative publicity that is sure to follow from any continued association with an industry that is preying upon communities and their leaders in order to force them to sell beer in a situation that creates a great risk of violence to their citizens.
UPDATE (June 18, 2018 - 7:50 am): I have been informed by the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social
Work that the School and its research team that had been involved in the
Smart Drinking Goals project terminated its involvement with the
project in April 2018 and that they are no longer associated in any way
with the project.
The USC team had prepared toolkits summarizing the best current
scientific thinking regarding environmental strategies for alcohol
prevention. Although the team's involvement was apparently slated to
last at least through 2018, they terminated their involvement in April
and have completely disassociated themselves from the Smart Drinking
I applaud USC and this research team for dissociating from the project.