Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Anheuser Busch "Smart Drinking" Initiative is a Complete Farce

Last December, Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) announced its commitment of more than $1 billion over ten years to promote "Smart Drinking," whose major purported purpose is to "reduce the harmful use of alcohol" by reducing "binge drinking, underage drinking and drink-driving." The company claims that this represents "Doing Right, While Doing Well." A major goal is to reduce the "harmful use of alcohol" by at least 10% in six cities within 10 years.

The Rest of the Story

The truth is that this initiative is essential a huge scam designed to promote alcohol use, to divert attention away from the alcohol industry's culpability in the damage caused by alcohol, and to also divert attention away from much more effective public health programs and policies to reduce alcohol-related morbidity and mortality.

Promoting Alcohol Use

This campaign was carefully crafted to avoid any focus on the many, substantial adverse health effects of alcohol use, including liver disease, esophageal cancer, oral cancer, breast cancer, liver cancer, gastric ulcers, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, pancreatitis, suppression of the immune system, and adverse effects on the brain, including depression. These effects can occur even in persons who do not engage in binge drinking, underage drinking, or drink-driving. In epidemiological studies, increased risk for most of these effects occurs at levels of drinking just 2 drinks per day (for women). On an individual level, some of these effects can occur at much lower levels of alcohol use.

By focusing only on the "harmful" use of alcohol, the campaign diverts attention away from the substantial burden of disease caused by heavy drinking. The alcohol companies, including AB InBev, are not interested in telling you about the harmful effects related to the "responsible" drinking of their products. They love telling you about the hazards associated with "harmful" drinking because that implies that responsible drinking is perfectly safe. Adverse effects of alcohol only occur to those who abuse it is the message that AB InBev is spending $1 billion to send around the globe.

In essence, the goal is to actually promote alcohol use by ignoring and obscuring the devastating effects that "responsible" drinking has on the population. In fact, AB InBev admits as such. They state: "We also know that it is not in the long-term interests of our company for consumers to misuse our beers. We would rather that consumers enjoy our products responsibly on a more frequent basis than misuse them on any occasion."

Indeed. The company's goal is to promote alcohol use, not to discourage it. They admit that they want people to drink more frequently. The only thing that needs to be avoided is irresponsible drinking, meaning don't binge drink and don't drink and then drive. But keep in mind that someone who consumes 2-3 drinks a day is, by definition, not binge drinking. And if they don't drink and drive, then they are a "responsible" drinker. Nevertheless, we know that such a person is at increased risk for cancer and many other diseases.

The rest of the story is that this is a brilliant, yet deceptive campaign to promote alcohol use under the guise of "doing well." The campaign is able to - at the same time - promote more frequent drinking while hiding behind a pretense of being a responsible corporate citizen.

Thus, the "Smart Choices" initiative must be viewed as a marketing program. In fact, it's a brilliant marketing program. But let's not confuse this marketing program with being a public health initiative.

Diverting Attention Away from the Alcohol Industry's Culpability

Corporate sponsorship of health-related initiatives is a well-recognized marketing tactic used by the tobacco and alcohol industries. The purpose of sponsorship - such as the "Smart Choices" initiative - is to improve the company's public image, divert attention away from the industry's role in promoting the consumption of its potentially hazardous products, and to develop brand capital, all of which help to increase sales and improve the bottom line.

The "Smart Choices" campaign is brilliant because it puts the focus on individual choices, rather than on the decisions that AB InBev has made, such as: (1) deciding to heavily promote alcohol to underage youth by advertising in media with high youth audiences; (2) deciding to promote heavy use of alcohol by portraying positive images of heavy alcohol use in its advertising and marketing; and (3) deciding to undermine public health efforts to reduce alcohol use by opposing advertising restrictions, excise taxes, and essentially any and all public policies that would reduce alcohol use.

Spending $1 billion on the "Smart Choices" initiative is a very smart choice for AB InBev, because as a marketing initiative, it will work wonders and help take the focus off of its culpability, which will protect it from detrimental (to its profits) public health policies throughout the world.

Diverting Attention from More Effective Public Health Programs that Would Reduce Alcohol Use

We know from a multitude of research that the most effective strategies for reducing alcohol-related morbidity and mortality are increasing alcohol taxes, restricting advertising that targets underage youth, and conducting aggressive alcohol counter-advertising campaigns that expose the marketing tactics being used by alcohol companies to recruit underage drinkers, promote heavy drinking, and hide from consumers the myriad of adverse health effects associated with heavy "responsible" drinking. Of course, the "Smart Choices" initiative avoids doing any of these. If AB InBev were sincerely interested in reducing the adverse consequences of alcohol use, it would take the $1 billion and give it to public health officials for use in an alcohol counter-advertising campaign. At best, the "social norms" campaign that AB InBev will run will have a marginal effect.

Moreover, the "social norms" that it advances will not be social norms related to the adverse health effects of alcohol. Instead, the campaign is intended to make drinking a norm (albeit not involving actual binge drinking or drinking and driving). The campaign does not, for example, encourage people with a family history of alcohol dependence to avoid alcohol. Everyone is instructed to drink, albeit to drink in a "responsible" manner (which is a manner that could very well increase your risk of disease and death).

A Brilliant, But Deceptive Farce

AB InBev's "Smart Drinking" initiative is a brilliant one. Its brilliance rivals the fraudulent campaigns that the tobacco industry used to run. And we know how sincere the tobacco companies were in their supposed desire to reduce tobacco consumption. Here, the initiative is also fraudulent because its underlying purpose is far different than what is being presented to the public. The only difference between the strategies of the tobacco and alcohol industries is that Big Tobacco didn't have the ability to promote "smart smoking" because there is no such thing. The alcohol industry has the advantage of producing a product that causes a large amount of damage from acute over-consumption. Thus, AB InBev can accomplish the dual purposes of promoting drinking and discouraging "harmful" drinking at the same time. Sadly, a large proportion of that "smart drinking" is going to result in disease and death.

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