#42 Where's Big Alcohol's class action suit?
A new Canadian guideline spotlights our cultural indifference to holding anyone but the sick accountable
This was meant to be a fun little chat with Ann Dowsett Johnston, (journalist, addiction expert, author of Drink, Canadian) about the new Canadian guidelines for drinking (which basically suggest “don’t”) but then she and I got into a really colorful discussion about a lot of fuckery: Why there’s no largely accepted concept of secondhand drinking, why people who drink to the point of addiction are irresponsible people who didn’t follow the guidance vs. victims who weren’t given informed consent and were marketed a carcinogenic neurotoxic addictive drug in ways that subvert all logic, and how that distinction contributes to blocking any forward movement in Big Alcohol having its Big Tobacco (or Big Pharma) moment; why there aren’t nutritional labels or warning labels on something that kills so many; why Big Alcohol pours so much money into those “Drink Responsibly” campaigns; and the like. The full conversation is here, transcript is below.
NOTE: I accidentally put this in the wrong format. To listen to this discussion on your podcast player, go here.
There’s been a lot of rhetoric this month about Dry January—so much eye-rolling and down-playing and fun-making, so much advocating on behalf of poor alcohol and the people that just want to have fun and now we have Damp January because it’s so extreme, it’s diet culture, it’s wellness propaganda. Then smack in the middle of that, one single country shifts its guidelines to reflect what science actually tells us about alcohol, and one industry CEO [The Portman Group] remarks “The substantial and increasing majority of UK adults drink responsibly within the chief medical officer’s guidance of 14 units a week, which remains a robust and effective guidance for those who choose to drink,” but fails to mention that it’s the sick ones that pay his salary, that 10% of drinkers make up 60% of sales, that 38% of his paycheck comes from the ones that don’t drink responsibly, that his industry would implode if every customer followed even those generous and dangerous guidelines, that the entire scheme only works if people drink their faces off and believe any bad outcome is their fault, is their genetics, is their poor self control.
It seems like a small thing, one change in a guideline, one country. But that it’s 2023 and that this little thing is our win is emblematic of the entire lack of progress or even interest of holding Big Alcohol accountable. Our cultural resistance to examining one of the largest frauds, one of the biggest mass murderers of our time, is enraging. Perhaps when people get upset about sober influencers or Dry January, we can just keep re-centering the discussion: People are dying, and they are so fucking rich from it, and nothing’s being done about it.
Disclaimer, reminder: this is not a peer-reviewed study; this is an op-ed.
Hey everyone, this is Holly Whitaker. And this is the occasional podcast offering from the recovery newsletter. So this week, I am in conversation with one of my friends. Ann Dowsett Johnston regarding the recent changes to Canadian drinking guidelines, if you're not familiar with that, the [alcohol] guidelines in Canada shifted from 10 drinks for woman per week, in order to remain in the low risk category, 15 for men—to across across all genders, two drinks max per week, to essentially be considered low risk drinking, no risk to your health, low risk for your health. So Ann and I decided to have this conversation, we didn't put a ton of planning into this, we had a short conversation ahead of time. So like I said, it's a little scrappy. But the reason I was really drawn to have this conversation, umm, I really don't like doing podcasts that much, umm but the reason I wanted to do this was because also within the last few weeks, there were two really interesting things that I've linked to; one I'm linking to today, one I linked to last week. Last week, I linked to an article about a legal action brought against social media companies in regards to their, um, essentially, like basically holding them accountable to the damage that they have inflicted upon kids, and, um, I know cursory information about this stuff, I don't know really much more beyond the headlines and like glancing through the article. But then there was also Thinx, which a class action suit was brought against Thinx, this period underwear company for including PFAS in their product which cause a whole bunch of issues. So I thought it was interesting because here you have pretty “swift” (and that's kind of in quotes) because, you know, bad stuff like this happens all the time and nothing's ever swift. But compared to Big Alcohol, it's a really swift response, really quick response. And everyone can agree, yes, if an organization is putting chemicals in their period underwear that are exposing you to hormonal, or chemicals that can cause serious issues, especially in regards to hormones and reproductive fertility issues, they should be held accountable. And then you have in Canada at the same time this new not legal action, not legislation, but essentially a change in guidelines, reducing the amount of [advised] consumption of a non carcinogenic toxic substance that has been proven to be tied to violent crime, domestic abuse, child abuse, addiction, drunk driving accidents, a whole host of things, it kills 100,000 people a year in the United States alone, I don't know the figure for Canada. Alcohol kills 4 million people worldwide, per year. And yet, there's really no visible legal action holding Big Alcohol accountable for the horrors that it essentially presides over in selling a product without warning labels, without nutritional labels. And [that] there was so much pushback against just a simple change in guidelines really shows you what—it's just a really clear marked example of how backwards we think about alcohol. So Ann and I did this real quick podcast. Ann is somebody whose book I read after getting sober, Drink. It was, I mean, it was one of the best books [I read on the subject] it was just I couldn't believe that that book existed on and all the time I was trying to get sober without me knowing of it once I found it, and all of the statistical evidence all the research and poured into it her own personal narrative and story. She really was a pioneer in the space of drawing attention to the increasing levels of addiction especially within women. I think she even coined the phrase the “pinking of the industry”. And so Ann over the years has become a friend, a mentor, someone I deeply admire, someone who has made my own work possible, and I highly encourage you, if you haven't read Drink yet, to grab a copy, it still is extremely relevant. It's 10 years post production. Ann is also just an authority on this. And so this is a great conversation. I hope you enjoy it. And be well, thanks for being here.
Let’s get to it. So first, I can talk a bit about who you are to me, but it would be very flowery, I'd like you to kind of talk a little bit about what your, what your background is, in examining the alcohol industry and drinking patterns, and specifically your intimacy with Canadian drinking and Canadian guidelines around alcohol consumption.
In 2010, I began an obsessional investigation of the alcohol industry, and especially what it meant for women in the pinking of the market. And I did a 14 part series for Canada's largest newspaper, on women and alcohol. And during that series, I broke the news of the low risk drinking guidelines of 2011, which said that women could drink 10 measured drinks a week, and men could drink 15. That was startling at the time. I was at that point several years sober myself, and as the daughter of two alcoholics I was really obsessed, there's no other word with this subject matter. And so I moved from there into writing my book Drink: The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol, which came out in 2013, which really did focus on the pinking of the alcohol market. And what's fascinating is, just this recent week, we have seen the announcement of the new low risk drinking guidelines, very much informed by scientific evidence that say that it is only safe to have two measured drinks a week, and that would, that would be equal to five ounces of wine, for instance. And any more puts you at risk for cancers, cardiovascular disease, and more; violence, obviously. And this has really made the public respond in outrage. People are chatting, people are talking, which is interesting, they don't always talk about issues around alcohol; as you know, sometimes the subject isn't something people want to touch. And it is our favorite drug: 79% of Canadians 15 and over drink. So it's caused a lot of furor. It's made a lot of people angry. A lot of people shaking their head saying, “I don't believe it, and I'm, I can't even begin to say what this is going to do in my life.”
Ann so when you in 2010 2011, when you broke the new guidelines, what were they before 10 and 15…
We had not really attempted to quantify in any meaningful way. And it was internationally a very interesting subject. Alcohol research is very intense in Canada, we are home to some of the best alcohol researchers in the world, and there was a lot of attention. And what was interesting is that Canada brought the alcohol industry to the table and it took forever for those guidelines to come out because alcohol pushed back and pushed back and pushed back. What's really got people alarmed in the alcohol industry with the recent announcement of last week is there's a push for standardized labeling and warning labels. And that is really upsetting the alcohol industry.
It's just wild to me. I mean, yesterday or this week, there was a lawsuit that was settled with thanks underwear for having PFAS you know, and like, it seems like it is it's shocking to me in what we know and how we treat every single other drug right from you know, and especially even like the legal drugs that are normalized like tobacco and, like there was specifically I think last week, a lawsuit filed against social media companies for addicting kids to social media. There is; we're so archaic in this area, that it's even a question that we would have warning labels on our I think it's the second most deadliest drug and like not the second most deadliest, but it's the second leading cause of preventable death throughout the world, right? It kills millions of people a year. It's wild to me that this is in 2023 even a discussion. Why is that? Like, why is this? Why is it so hard to do anything to create accountability around alcohol industry?
Well, two things number one, there are twice as many alcohol lobbyists on Capitol Hill in Washington as there are representatives. So there’s a powerful lobbying Canada's, a very powerful lobby in the United States. And so that's number one, follow the money. Number two is people say this: I pay my taxes, I raised my children, I go to work and what I do on Friday night is my business and right we we actually see alcohol as a food group. Wine is about food pairings. It isn't, it isn't seen as a drug. It is a drug. And you and I both know that. But it isn't seen as a drug. It is an addictive substance but isn't seen that way. And, and the alcohol industry, as you know, has been so successful to frame it as the poor, irresponsible alcoholic can't get their shit together. But, you know, if you are a responsible quote an “adult” you'll be just fine.
Now, which brings me to the next thing. So I pulled together a couple of different articles then I want to get back to Canada specifically. But one of the things that I thought was really interesting, not interesting, but one of the things that that kind of popped and made me furious was an article and it was in a trade magazine. So it was in The Spirits Business. And it quotes, and like when you know how to look for this stuff it's just so enraging. So it's in a trade publication, The Spirits Business that is dedicated to the alcohol industry. So it's not surprising to find this in here. But then you have this guy and his name is Matt Lambert, he’s the CEO of UK Alcohol Social Responsibility Body. So that sounds like a group that would be you know, for the people and trying to do its best to make sure that people are healthy and taken care of. He is the CEO of the Portman group, which I looked up and it is funded by let's see, Asahi, Aston Manor, Bacardi Limited, Brown-Forman, Budweiser, C&C Group PLC, Campari Group, Diageo, Edrington, Heineken, Jagermeister, Mark Anthony Brands Molson Coors, Pernod Ricard, SHS Drinks, Thatchers, and Treasury Wine Estates. And so in this article, this man who has dedicated his life to make sure that people are supported in their quest to a balanced approach to consuming a deadly drug. He says that "Canada's new drinking guidance is at odds with the vast majority of guidelines around the world that recognize that alcohol can be consumed in moderation and consumers can make their own choices based on this practical official advice." And so you, you have there this very similar, and I talked about this in my book, Allen Brandt's assertion [research] of engineering controversy, that was really really one of the things that kept the tobacco industry, you know, essentially able to operate and kill so many people for years because their engineered controversy was this idea that there wasn't enough evidence to prove that tobacco was causing cancer, was causing emphysema, was killing people. And that, that, that tagline that was constantly repeated to the public, “there's not enough evidence” gave consumers this false sense of security that was, it was a PR scheme, but it gave individuals this false sense of security because there were scientists behind it and because there were names like this Portman group, right, like this idea of this like body of really responsible and like helpful people that are here to help you make the best decisions about what you're putting in your body, continued to say, “we don't know. We don't know. We don't know.” [it’s bad/it can kill you/it causes cancer]. And that kept people smoking for years and years beyond when they started to prove how absolutely deadly cigarette smoking was. And in the same way, you have this idea of, of drinking responsibly, where you are constantly inundated with this belief that you are supposed to make a highly addictive drug just fit normally into your lifestyle without any sort of ill effect. And that like it's normal to drink in moderation and that it's normal to consume a drug, you know, without any like ill effect. And so it can you talk just a little bit about this and how this like, how strong, like when you see the like, drink responsibly, and you see like this, these ideas of like it really like is our choice like these really libertarian ideas of like we should be allowed to like drink as much as we want to, like, can you talk a little bit about how entrenched that is? And how you've seen that play out in your, you know, like decades long observation of people trying to make alcohol work?
Well, we've absorbed the untruth that a glass of red wine is good for your heart health. And that is not going away, that notion is not going away. And if one glass is good, maybe two is better. And it's sort of like vitamin D. And I just think we have not understood maybe until last week that it's a carcinogenic substance. And that…
you really think that just last week, that was when…
…I put it in my book in 2013 and the notion that we knew at that point that 15% of breast cancer cases were affected by alcohol consumption, and only 5% of women understood that. So there's an enormous gap. There's an enormous willfulness, willingness to believe that alcohol is part of a sophisticated glamorous, normal life, whatever normal means, and it is been, we've been wallpapered with this information, movies, television, you know all this. And I think it's gonna take a generation to unhook us from that myth. I really do. I'm sad to say that, because I think is a really lethal substance. But I think it's going to take a generation for us to turn around.
So Canada's new guidelines are what, what do they suggest?
They suggest that you can drink up to two glasses per week, measured glasses per week, and three to six, you're getting into trouble. And more than that, you're getting into a lot of trouble health wise.
And they're gender blind? That's not like men versus women? It's gender blind?
Exactly. Okay. So that's what makes it different. That's what makes it quite different from 2011. And quite different from saying you can have 10 or 15, depending on your gender. So this is landed like a bomb. Every person I know who I raise it with shakes her head. Enormous pushback, and yet, lots of chatter, lots of alarm. Lots of “Oh, my goodness.” Now it's landed in dry January, lots of people doing Dry January, as you know, it, we're now you know, two thirds into January, and people are falling off the wagon already. And it's difficult. The whole subject is difficult. It's a hot potato.
And this is okay, so this is like, it's so funny to me, because I think like when you, you know, like you and I have been, you know, for many years now, very aware of this. So it feels like it's just an obvious thing. I think that part of my shock in this that there is pushback, but like it to me, because I read about this every single day, it's not news to me. And it's kind of like a well duh. And also people ignore guidelines all the time, you know, so I guess why is this such a big like not why is this such a big deal? But like, Why do you think now like this is happening in Canada, and why do you think? Why do you think that this, why now?
I think this has been in the works for years. We have Jurgen Rehm, for instance of the WHO is based in Canada. Tim Stockwell, a whole number of really, really bright researchers who are known internationally who have been focused on the dangers of alcohol for a long time who are willing to stick their necks out and say, “no amount of alcohol is good for your health. Get rid of that heart myth.” You know, it's good for your heart. It's good for anything, just not not it possible to believe, I think that I think what's interesting is the uptake and concern publicly is representative…what's interesting because we're coming out of the pandemic, (or we're not), where I will speak to women, especially have been using alcohol as a decompression, tool they have been for decades. “Take my decompression tool away from me and tell me it's a carcinogen. And I am really, really sad.” That in a nutshell is what's happening. So you have the brain trust that's been in Canada for a long time dumping this amazing scientific news in the laps of the public and the public saying, yikes, I don't want to hear about it. And I can, as we would both make a parallel to tobacco.
Right. But the other thing that I find interesting, and I, you and I disagree on this, but I want to read a line from…like, part of the reason I think it's happening now, right, I think everything that you just said and right, everything that you just said [I agree with], for instance, that like it, there's enough scientific evidence, and it's just piling up, right. And for years now, it feels to me as somebody that watches for this stuff, almost every week now, something new is coming out, like the discussion is happening. And the you know, like the American Cancer Society, I think it's been a couple of years since hasn't been two years, three years since they made their recommendation that the only safe amount of alcohol is zero . It's been a few years since The Lancet published that study that the only amount of alcohol or safe consumption of alcohol is no alcohol . So this isn't the first time that this has been addressed. But it's the first time that there has been you know, a large scale change in a country and especially a country that drinks as much as Canada drinks. I think part of what allowed for this is also the fact that the drinks industry has been investing in to hedge its bets is non-alcoholic drinks. And so that you know, because I do believe you one of the things you and I talked about and maybe before I read this quote you can kind of say what you said to me the other day just about why do you think the drinks industry, why do you think that they didn't overpower this decision? Like what is it about Canada that allowed for this move to be made without the drinks industry basically pushing back against it?
The drinks industry…yeah, they're pushing back but, as a person who drinks non-alcoholic substances, I think a person in, I'm you know, in my 15th year of sobriety, I think it's really difficult, unlike in the states, to find good non-alcoholic product. So I'll give you an example. Tanqueray Zero, impossible to find in Canada's largest city. And, and so, if it's so vibrant, why is it so difficult to source? If Tanqueray is so passionate about finding me as a consumer, why at Christmas time and New Years could you not even find anything, and when I spoke to the supplier hadn't been available for months, so I find it not quite credible that it has to do with the large number of us beginning to buy non alcoholic substances. I just, I don't think it's enough, I think in Canada at least there is a very hearty alcohol consumer base.
Yeah, I mean, I agree there's still a hearty alcohol consumer base. But I do think as a counterpoint, and after reading you know, market projections for the non-alcoholic drinks industry, and also just like you know, the decriminalization and legalization of cannabis, the increasing amount of like cannabis, you know, potentially infused drinks. Like I knew a couple of different founders years ago that started their NA drinks with the idea that eventually when, when pot became legal, they would throw cannabis in it. And so I think like the the numbers are there, there is an actual investment and a growing segment of industry and a growing number of people that are not drinking alcohol, so I don't know if I fully agree even though I think it's really interesting what you just said just from your lived experience that you can't find it. But I want to read this quote from an article that was written, that was published in Slate, that was written by Ian Lecklitner. So he says: “Whether you’re drinking alcohol or NA drinks, that money often goes into the same pockets, too. Alcohol giant Diageo, owner of Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, and Guinness, owns a majority share in Seedlip. Anheuser-Busch, which has a hand in pretty much every beer you can think of, has been shifting their efforts and investments toward NA beers year after year. If I were being extra pessimistic—and maybe even a bit conspiratorial—I’d suggest that NA drink manufacturers are hoping that people find themselves in an endless cycle of drinking alcohol, drinking NA drinks, falling off the wagon, and doing it all over again. At the very least, it seems that they want people to stay close to the culture of drinking. This sort of scheme has been done before by the tobacco industry: Altria, the parent company of Marlboro, invested billions into Juul, presumably hoping to cash in on addictions of their own making.” So in that space, one of the things that occurred to me in this is knowing that the foothold that Big Alcohol has on these kinds of policy changes and the leverage that they have, and knowing that this was able to pass within Canada, part of me thought about this quote, and this idea that perhaps it's a win win for them. I mean, you know, tobacco industry still makes quite a bit of money, even though we're on the other side of this with with tobacco. So, thoughts about that?
Well, it's an interesting concept, I still think the numbers are probably too small. Yeah. And, you know, without getting into, you know, naming names, there are very few non alcohol products that are appetizing. Yeah agreed. And that it is a mug's game. So if it's going to be successful, God bless them, but I don't see it. I just don't see it.
Well, the interesting thing there is that Juul has to has nicotine in it, right. And so it still is highly addictive. Whereas these, like, the reason that mocktails don't seem interesting to me, is because they don't get you fucked up. It's just not it to me, it's not an interesting proposition. And when I was earlier in sobriety, it was too close to…it made me feel too much like I was replicating the culture that I was trying to break away from, and so I don't quite consume them for for that reason, specifically.
So the last question I have is, What do you think? Where do you, where do we go from here? Like, do you think this will actually change? You know, like, I just read this morning, I think that rehab visits or recovery, like I had some I can't remember because I didn't pay enough attention to it. But I think it was in the United States. Rehab, women in rehab is up 10% Since the pandemic, some some number like that, basically 10% increase in folks that are actively seeking help for alcohol. I wonder what you think this, what impact you think this will have just on like, the public consumption of alcohol, but also just generally the, you know, do you see the warning label thing coming to pass? Like, do you think we'll actually have a bottle of wine with a nutritional ingredient list? Like, what do you think happens next?
You asked about the alcohol industry, and that's where I think they'll shut it down. I don't think there will be warning labels, I think there would be there's evidence they work, but because they were in the Yukon a year and a half ago and Canada in the alcohol industry shut them down. And there was early evidence that they had a big effect. So I don't think that will happen. I think that given the way women have been drinking, I am not surprised that rehab applications/entrances gone up. I'm not surprised at all. And I know as a psychotherapist, my practice is full of women trying to address their alcohol issues and dealing with that issue. So I believe, I believe there's a consciousness that has been raised. And I think it's going to be a struggle.
Yeah. Why are we…why do you think there has not been a class action lawsuit brought against Big Alcohol at this point, the same way we did with tobacco which brought it down. The same we did with Big Pharma, which didn't bring it down but absolutely cost [them] and was effective. Why do you think there's not activism around this? Why do you think there's not a push to hold the alcohol industry, which is, you know, like, responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths within United States millions of deaths worldwide, and horrible deaths, why are they not getting their asses sued? What is it that?
Yeah, I think that's a bingo question. I think that is around the corner. Because I think the more we see that alcohol is not a benign substance, and there's more understanding and appreciation there of, we will be seeing I mean, there was a phenomenal study out of Australia a few years ago where Robin Rooms looked at the harms to others, and trying to mimic the harms to others of tobacco—secondhand smoke—didn't get traction but, but, but it's a foundational study because it looks at the harm that it causes whole families.
You don't need a scientific study to know about secondhand drinking. I mean…
No you do not.
…you have the statistics already; you have the statistics of violent crime, of sexual assault, of domestic abuse, of I mean, it's it's like, of car accidents, and drunk driving. I mean, it's…it's wild to me, wild that these terms “Big Alcohol”, “secondhand drinking” are not commonly used the same way that we use them with tobacco. Anyway.
I agree with you.
I hope more people; like I, this made me so…preparing for this interview and just doing some light reading on it…made me so furious all over again. And I really hope more and more people. My guess, my opinion on why there hasn't been a class action lawsuit is because I think that there are no cigaretteaholics but there are alcoholics. And I think that there's a large class of individuals that are typically seen as the problems and the one who couldn't control it and one ones that don't have any right to be mad because they did it to themselves. Whereas you can see with something like OxyContin that there was a very, very clear like, like that there were innocent victims. There were people that were targeted. There were people that were on pain medicine that, you know, ended up you know, without their consent, addicted to extremely addictive substances. And I think that there is still this large “it's my fault. It's me, I did it. I'm the one.” And and like, which is only pushed further by the idea of I mean, there's a reason why seventeen different alcohol manufacturers pour money into Portman Group to push a message that they are really, really interested in drinking responsibly, because that in of itself is what inoculates the industry and keeps it from being sued and essentially, having any liability or culpability to all of the destruction that lines you know, its pockets, turns it into gold. Turns our discretion into gold. Yeah. So anyway, um, anything, any parting words or I think well,
I just will say in parting I think you're absolutely bang on. I've always said that the fact we put it down our own gullet is exactly why people point fingers. Say it's not me, and, and the party goes on.
And it goes on. For fun. Oh, all right. Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate your time and your expertise and being like such a pioneer in this space.
I appreciate you Holly.
My favorite thing looking up the Portman Group was finding this guy all mad about the Portman Group being called an alcohol lobbying group or PR arm. No, it’s not to benefit the alcohol industry AT ALL! It’s just billion dollar organizations giving their time and good will to try and limit the consumption of alcohol and effectively hurt their bottom line to promote low consumption. It’s from their hearts! Lols. Reminder, the biggest alcohol profits come from those that do not drink responsibly or within guidelines—the largest sector of their business is those that over consume, here’s a study on the UK specifically that estimates if heavy drinkers consumed within guidelines the industry would lose about 38% of its profits; here’s an old paper showing that 60% of sales comes from 10% of drinkers. The slogan “drink responsibly” means “it’s your fault not ours” and this is why they invest so heavily in websites and organizations dedicated to “responsible drinking”.
On a slightly different theme but in response to Ann's concern that it will take another generation for the culture around alcohol to change; I am happy to report that after a few attempts at drinking, my 16 year old (it's legal for her to purchase and consume alcohol in Germany) has not only decided that alcohol is not for her but she and another non-alcohol consuming friend are making their middle school finals presentation on the dangers of alcohol consumption and the brainwashing tactics used by media to glamorize it. I have given them QLAW and Drink to begin their research. Your collective works have freed two generations of women from addiction in this little family already. Thank you.
Thank you for this conversation. As a restaurant owner in Canada our manager has been moving heavily to create an interesting non-alcoholic beverage list and it's been wildly popular for some time. Personally I've been on the alcohol free road for a few months now. I was doing extensive research on google about tools for sobriety and how to maneuver through social situations and restaurant culture. What struck me right in the face was that I was on social media and I started getting ads (influencer ads who are no doubt sponsored by some alcohol brand) stating why they were sober and why they have decided to start drinking again. My jaw dropped. They made it sound so rational. An almost eye roll of why you would even consider an alcohol free life and come join the glamorous life of drinking (responsibly they added). It certainly didn't sway me to pick up a drink but it does concern me for those who may be influenced by it. What sickens me is that I never received those ads until I started researching how to live sober in a drinking world. Social media is a dangerous world - particularly when paired with Big Alcohol.