Alcohol as a Liberation Issue

I have spent the past twenty-five years working to stop the way that the global alcohol industry works against liberation. My colleagues and I have tried to raise awareness of the nature of the industry. We have worked with global coalitions to take on1 alcohol as a public health issue and reduce the ability of the alcohol industry to promote and sell its products.

In Co-Counseling we require that anyone who teaches RC abstain from drinking alcohol, because of the many effects that alcohol has on health and the processing and re-evaluating of information. However, in talking with Co-Counselors I’ve found that they often share many of the misperceptions about alcohol that the general population holds. I am writing this article to try to broaden our understanding of alcohol’s role in the contemporary world.

Major effects on health

What the World Health Organization (WHO) calls “harmful use of alcohol” is the third leading cause of death and disability in the world and the leading cause of death and disability in middle-income countries.2 In all areas of the world except the eastern Mediterranean, alcohol is the leading cause of death and disability for young males between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four.3 While in much of the world women drink less than men, women disproportionately bear the consequences of men’s drinking—in the form of family violence, the impact on the family budget, and so on.4 

Alcohol use is related to more than sixty human diseases.5 The “health benefits” of alcohol receive more attention in the news media than alcohol’s harms, but whether these “benefits” exist is controversial. Much of the research on alcohol’s “health benefits” has been funded by the alcohol industry, and even if drinking does provide any health benefits, it also brings health risks. For instance, the risks of esophageal and female breast cancer increase with any amount of alcohol consumption, which helps to explain why WHO says there is no safe amount of alcohol for humans.

NOT AN INDIVIDUAL ISSUE

Most people think of drinking as an individual choice and an individual problem of addiction. But in fact, alcohol affects everyone, in many ways.

In the United States, approximately ninety-two percent of high-risk (binge) drinkers do not qualify for a diagnosis of addiction,6 yet because there are so many binge drinkers, they cause far more alcohol-related problems than the small percentage of the population that is addicted.

Besides addiction, people often associate alcohol with only one other negative consequence: driving while under the influence of alcohol. However, in the United States, this is responsible for only seventeen percent of all the annual alcohol-related deaths.7 

There is growing evidence that the quality of life and health of non-drinkers declines as the number of heavy drinkers in their family or circle of close friends increases.8 

But most importantly, drinking is not an individual issue because of the global alcohol industry. The annual sales of that industry are close to a trillion dollars.9 The transnational companies that produce alcohol are politically powerful and well connected, and their job is to sell alcohol. Lots of alcohol. They say they do not want people to abuse their product, but seventy-five percent of adult consumption and ninety percent of youth consumption in the United States is in the form of binge drinking.10 They fund front groups, particularly in low- and middle-income countries, that work to weaken national efforts to control and reduce sales of alcohol.11 

Understanding the negative impact of alcohol companies on national development, free trade debates, human capital development, and families and cultures all over the world is a first step toward understanding alcohol as a liberation issue.

ALCOHOL and oppression

Alcohol’s role in oppression has a long history. U.S. slave traders used rum to buy humans from Africa to put into slavery. Those who survived the transport to the “new world” were put to work producing sugars, some of which went to New England to produce rum. Then some of that rum went back to Africa to be traded for slaves.

In southern Africa, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, European mine owners used alcohol to convince people to leave their villages and come to the mines. A whole literature of correspondence shows how they tried to figure out the strength and quantity of alcohol that would keep the workers in the mines but not allow them to be so drunk that they could not work.12 

Prior to the arrival of the Europeans, Indigenous societies in the United States were among the few in the world that did not use alcohol. The Europeans provided alcohol to the Indigenous people and then used the behavior that resulted from that foreign intoxicant as an excuse to establish control over the Indigenous communities and “justify” the occupation and colonization of their lands.13 

After decades of colonizers’ paying vineyard workers in alcohol (a practice now illegal), parts of South Africa have the highest rates of alcohol-related birth defects in the world.14 

The British transported workers from southern India to work on plantations in the then-British colony of Malaya and paid them in alcohol, using the resulting alcohol dependence to keep them dependent on and mired in the plantation economy. Serious alcohol problems persist to this day in Indian communities in Malaysia.15 

Today’s global alcohol industry

Today the global alcohol industry uses all the tools of modern marketing to encourage alcohol consumption. Traditionally young women have drunk less than young men, but after decades of objectifying women in its marketing, the alcohol industry has been heavily targeting women, and young women in particular, as potential consumers.16 Almost twenty years after this kind of marketing began in England, that country is facing an epidemic of liver cirrhosis among women in their twenties17 —something previously unheard of; cirrhosis usually occurs much later in life.

In marketing to communities of people of the global majority, the alcohol industry cynically uses cultural symbols and liberation imagery. Many Latino/a communities in the United States look to the 5th of May (Cinco de Mayo) as an opportunity to celebrate pride in their heritage. Alcohol companies have turned it into “Drinko de Mayo” and use community festivals associated with it as another opportunity to sell their products.

In Malaysia, the alcohol industry promoted a forty-percent-alcohol product to mothers who had just delivered babies, claiming it included herbs traditionally given by Chinese healers to post-partum women.18 

In the United States, alcohol marketers are increasingly using the rap and hip-hop music communities as vehicles for promoting alcohol.19 They use internalized racism as a selling point, frequently pairing in their advertising light-skinned black women with darker-skinned black men to show “what a man can get” if he drinks their products.

Regarding young people, alcohol companies do all they can to get around20 minimum-drinking-age laws. The evidence that these laws save young people’s lives is legion. Even poorly enforced, they reduce youth alcohol consumption and deaths; and when enforced, they are even more effective.21 In the United States, alcohol companies spend at least four billion dollars a year on marketing,22 much of it more likely to be seen, heard, or read by young people than by adults,23 and numerous long-term research studies show that this marketing influences young people’s decisions to drink.24 Minimum-drinking-age laws are sometimes seen as part of young people’s oppression, but they also help protect young people from the manipulation of a giant industry that does not have their best interests at heart.

I could provide many more examples of the ways in which today’s global alcohol industry works against liberation.

THE ROLE OF CO-COUNSELORS

In this larger context of alcohol in the world and how it undercuts efforts for liberation, what should we Co-Counselors do? On the individual level, we need to look at, and discharge and make decisions about, our own drinking. I encourage all of us to think about whether we want to participate in the global alcohol industry.

Young people and young adults face more sophisticated alcohol promotion than has ever occurred. At the same time, in many countries alcohol products have become cheaper than alternative beverages—including water, milk, and juice. We all need to think about how to be allies to young people and put the individual decision to drink in a larger liberation context. In my Co-Counseling classes, I have had to take strong stands with young adults and work with them on their fears of being unpopular and “un-cool”25 if they don’t drink. This is an important task for all of us as we train new leaders.

We can also participate in social movements that seek to limit the power of the alcohol industry. Alcohol prices are low because alcohol taxes, at least in the United States, are flat taxes based on volume. They do not rise with inflation, so alcohol companies get what amounts to a tax cut every year, making their products cheaper compared to other beverages. Movements around the United States are trying to increase alcohol taxes and limit the advertising and promotion of alcohol. In the United Kingdom, similar movements are working to set minimum prices to combat the cheap alcohol being sold in bulk in supermarkets. This is, for instance, part of the overall liberation program of the Scottish National Party.

In an atmosphere of constant advertising and promotion of alcohol, it is easy to assume that everyone drinks. We Co-Counselors can “come out”26 as non-drinkers and explain the many reasons why we don’t drink. We can question and take action against the alcohol industry’s efforts to dominate nearly every sphere of human activity. Taking these kinds of stands offers an invitation to the humans around us to think freshly about a behavior that this industry wants us all to believe is normal and necessary for a good life. We know it is not.

Most importantly, we need to better understand how alcohol fits into the larger framework of today’s oppressive society. It is not only a significant health hazard; it also distracts people from doing something about a collapsing and inequitable society.

“Benjamin Rush”

USA

(Present Time 171, April 2013)


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Last modified: 2017-05-10 04:36:22-07