Big Alcohol Agenda: Attack Public Health Policy; Take Credit for Health Improvements

August 24, 2014

Big Alcohol trade groups recently amped up their full-court press against evidence-based alcohol policies yet again, slamming scientific research by alcohol policy experts while claiming credit for public health improvements those same policies engender.

Trade groups including the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States (DISCUS), the Beer Institute (BI), and the American Beverage Association (ABA) spend millions on lobbying to influence regulators and policymakers to allow ineffective policies such as industry self-regulation of advertising, and reject evidence-based policies that prevent excessive consumption and resulting harm, including increasing alcohol taxes and restricting alcohol availability. These groups associate their alcohol brands with improvements in public health data, while sponsoring ineffective, branded information/education campaigns, front groups, and responsible drinking messages that serve as promotion and public relations for their members. But while their branding and promotion paints them as good corporate citizens, their communications within the industry paint a different picture of their real agenda and tactics.

Trade group lobbying efforts give the alcohol industry enormous influence over policy and regulation. In a recent interview with an industry newsletter, new Beer Institute President Jim McGreevy boasted of his chumminess with Capitol Hill and the 35 meetings he had with politicians in the previous month. Politics has been his game for his entire career: he went from making political connections as a government policy aide, to Senior Vice President of Government Affairs at the ABA, where he fostered those connections to promote the ABA alcohol agenda. Another interview in an ABA member newsletter clearly spells out the agenda, portraying alcohol producers as victims of public health research and government agencies such as the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), and crediting the ABA for legislative victories that indicate its unequivocal opposition to tougher drunk driving legislation and alcohol tax increases.

Though his efforts are now focused on the beer industry, McGreevy's tactics remain the same: maintain an high-pressure, preemptive battle to control alcohol policy and employ aggressive public relations to control public messaging about alcohol and health. In the interview, McGreevy detailed his strategy of rallying the entire beer industry around specific policy goals so that policy makers hear the message loud and clear: Don't mess with Big Beer. McGreevy then outlined immediate BI policy goals, which include exerting influence to revamp U.S. dietary guidelines in the beer industry's favor and fighting any attempt to increase beer taxes.

At the same time they lobby hard to defeat policies that reduce alcohol-related harm, industry trade groups credit their alcohol producer members for changes in national drinking data, as well as leadership in public health. Recently the Beer Institute and DISCUS both publicly congratulated themselves for a decrease in underage binge drinking. These groups and their associates are also not above launching attacks on respected alcohol researchers when findings point to products made by alcohol producers.

Alcohol trade group efforts pay off: they allow the industry to effectively bully the government into undertaxing alcohol; design an advertising self-regulation scheme that allows overexposure of alcohol promotion to children; and absolve themselves of their products' role in the annual $223.5 billion in economic harm and 88,000 deaths due to alcohol in the U.S.; making grievous harm statistics seem like a personal problem, rather than the public health crisis they are.