We Need Democratic Control of the Alcohol Industry

Alcohol consumption has skyrocketed in recent decades, and so, too, have alcohol-related deaths. Putting the industry under public control could push back against the public health crisis — and show how to regulate other drugs.

A Heineken factory in Schiltigheim, eastern France, November 14, 2022. (Frederick Florin / AFP via Getty Images)

As pubs dried up, restaurants closed their doors, and people tried to avoid supermarkets due to COVID-19, Big Alcohol leapt online like never before. Soon, people were buying booze directly delivered to their door from producers in unprecedented quantities. “To the extent that the relaxed policy environment has boosted sales, alcohol producers and off-premise retailers are actually benefiting from the present crisis,” experts said at the time. In England, the combination of vastly increased direct-to-consumer deliveries, reduced addiction-treatment capacity, and despair amid lockdown has already been shown to have deadly results. In 2020, alcohol deaths rose 20 percent from 2019 — reaching almost 7,500 fatalities.

“Alcohol is only becoming more ubiquitous with every social crisis,” writes James Wilt in his new book Drinking Up the Revolution. Big Alcohol’s unquenchable profit-seeking shows no sign of letting up at a time of “skyrocketing consumption around the world” that already sees three million die grim deaths every year in a snowballing global crisis of alcohol-related harms. As worldwide consumption of alcohol soared 70 percent over the last three decades — far outpacing population growth — the industry continues to probe aggressively into untapped markets to increase sales. It is often the poorest who feel the brunt of it all, since alcohol deaths can be five times more likely in deprived areas.

“Multinational giants are quickly expanding their reach into the Global South despite extreme underdevelopment, with low labor costs and weak industry restrictions combining for potentially huge profit margins,” Wilt inveighs. “And as the industry demonstrated throughout COVID-19, social crises are ideal situations for further deregulation and increased profiteering, leveraging people’s declining material conditions and mental health to sell even greater volumes of alcohol.”

There is no suggestion that this “vampiric” trend will not continue. In fact, it will worsen — as is only logical for a commodity with many markets still to penetrate (plus the 43 percent of people around the world who are abstinent). But especially given “the coming catastrophes of climate change and social collapse” it’s no wonder people want to press the release valve from time to time. “Alcohol may actually be one of the surest investments in the coming decades due to the need for people to cope with trauma and chaos,” Wilt tells us.

Collective Malaise

In times of upheaval and stress, people turn to booze. But given the addictive and destructive character of what some intuitively call “poison,” it’s a fool’s game. Almost half of all deaths in Russia during the 1990s — as inequality exploded amid the capitalist carve-up of the former Soviet state — were owed to alcohol for fifteen- to fifty-four-year-olds. “The ghastly impacts of ‘shock therapy’ — mass privatization, unemployment, immiseration — undoubtedly led to greater alcohol use to cope with the misery,” writes Wilt. In the United States, a contemporary empire approaching terminal decline, over five hundred thousand people have died from opioid painkiller overdoses in the past two decades after an intense corporate advertising campaign that falsely suggested they were not addictive. Alcohol-related deaths increased by 35 percent from 2007 to 2017 and have taken big year-on-year jumps over the pandemic, to almost one hundred thousand in 2020.

Here, Wilt puts forward a radical solution to avert total breakdown and ease the collective malaise: regulate drugs and sell them through licensed providers, and curb Big Alcohol’s profit-seeking. “The only reason that alcohol feels so inevitable in terms of its consumption is because so few options are easily available,” he notes. “The point with all of this is not to eliminate alcohol but to provide genuine alternatives to its use, whether it’s low and non-alcoholic beverages, synthetic alcohol, or other psychoactive drugs . . . Public ownership and control will allow for many other pleasurable and lower-risk alternatives to be developed.”

But booze is not popular simply because of its growing availability, nor because of some alluring advertisements. Some two billion people around the world drink alcohol; its consumption is a cornerstone of many societies, mostly since it is a versatile anesthetic and a reliable conversation lubricator. Although it is ultimately a depressant, it is the only drug which induces the creation of reward-chemical dopamine and happiness-providing serotonin, while also blocking gamma-aminobutyric acid (the chemical which helps make you think). Unlike other drugs, it has rarely been outlawed. This goes a long way to explaining rates of usage: as a recent study suggests, it is because other consciousness-alterants are banned and maligned that rates of drinking are so high.

Wilt insists that, “People should be able to experience pleasure and relaxation in ways that don’t end up killing or seriously harming them.” Though heroin, cocaine, and crystal meth are more dangerous to consumers than alcohol, what seems to genuinely surprise the author is that the Left does not seem interested in confronting “capital’s ownership” of one of the most popular drugs on earth, nor in advocating, on any significant scale, moderate harm reduction measures. Obviously, politicians do not like to back unpopular policies. But fighting alcoholism has long been a concern of the workers’ movement, not just limited to all-out temperance. Employers in the nineteenth century enthusiastically supported their workers getting pissed at work since it would sensitize them to their oppression, make strikes less likely, and present another revenue stream for businesses.

Sobering Up

Drinking on the job is today almost universally discouraged, but with deaths and diseases caused by alcohol on the up, we might ask when public-health concerns will break free of a discussion centered only on a vague evocation of personal freedoms. “The escalating crisis of alcohol-related harms is primarily a product of monopoly capital flooding the world with greater volumes of alcoholic beverages, not some primordial lust for intoxication,” Wilt argues. “The privatized and monopolized nature of the global alcohol industry is a public health nightmare . . . It’s the worst imaginable iteration of a legalized and regulated drug: the mirror image of privatized and unregulated underground production of criminalized drugs, with alcohol also made solely for profit but at an enormously larger, coordinated, and state-supported scale.”

Wilt has skin in the game. In 2018, he wrote for Vice that only when he quit drinking did he realize how much it had cost him, and not only financially. Giving up wasn’t easy, either. “A series of withdrawal syndromes — including vivid nightmares, extreme fatigue, and mood swings” ensued, he said. But as the number of people with alcohol-use disorders around the world looks set to pass three hundred million, attitudes are changing. A Lancet study this year reported that young adults face only health risks and no benefits when drinking alcohol, and recommended they should stay totally sober. As the pendulum begins to shift, Big Alcohol may soon face the reckoning endured by Big Tobacco.

What might this begin to look like? Supermarkets could be prevented from using alcohol as a loss leader — sold at or below cost to lure customers into stores — or serving alcohol to customers as they shop. Alcohol could not be sold at gas stations, since it “obviously incentivizes drunk driving.” Efforts should also be made to “de-financialize” the alcohol industry somehow to limit “expansionary tendencies,” Wilt proffers. How could this happen? Well, democratic ownership of alcohol companies would be a start. Wilt also suggests a return to, and expansion of, the so-called Gothenburg system of the 1800s: in Sweden, community-run hotels owned by a semiprivate trust would regulate the sales of spirits on philanthropic principles — cutting the link between alcohol consumption and capital revenues.

Wilt proposes cannabis lounges similar to Amsterdam cafes and Barcelona social clubs as places for people to convene, providing more options than pubs and bars, and highlights that mushrooms, LSD, and ecstasy are all also far less risky than alcohol. Increased use of psychedelics could also have wider benefits, he suggests, citing studies indicating that hallucinogens may help people to cut back on heavy drinking — as the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous famously attested.

Beer Wars

Although hitherto illegal drugs are being unshackled around the world at various speeds, it still seems that the idea of aboveboard trippy hangouts across the West remains far out, even as magic mushroom stores pop up in Canada and parts of Central America embrace psychedelic tourism. Yet even as lawmakers sluggishly dial down the war on drugs, big capital has carte blanche to commercialize alcohol production.

Highlighting Vietnam and Venezuela, Wilt details the damage of the ongoing “Vietnam beer war” between Sabeco and Heineken, the two largest producers in the country. “We aim for the No. 1 position, not only in profit but also in volume,” the head of Heineken Vietnam told Reuters in 2019. In response to the threat to its dominance, Sabeco is “unleashing a flurry of high-profile sports sponsorships, new beer brands, organizing promotional events, and rebranding products like Saigon Gold in new bottles.”

The booze battle, which has been spilling out into underexploited markets in suburban and rural areas (where new beverages are being released amid a focus on increasing sales in the regions), is contributing to spiking drinking rates. Between 2010 and 2017 alone, alcohol consumption per adult capita per year rose 90 percent — from under five to the equivalent of almost nine liters of pure alcohol — Wilt notes. His research shows how the alcohol sector has a seemingly insatiable thirst for public health destruction through the expansion of one of the most reliably profitable industries on the planet. “Alcohol-related harms are exploding in prevalence.”

In parts of Venezuela, meanwhile, the commercialization of alcohol over the past half century has spawned an evolution from the traditional use of corn liquor at special communal events a couple of times a year to widespread access to all manner of booze. “In turn, this has led to an explosion in previously unknown alcohol-related harms — family violence, alcohol dependency, accidents and injuries — necessitating dramatic communal responses including local prohibitions and restrictions on use,” Wilt details.

Legalize Drugs, and Regulate Them Better Than Alcohol

The nature of the global capitalist system means few villages are safe from the lure of commercial alcohol amid a race for new markets. “The sole aim of monopoly capitalists is maximizing their profits through domination or destruction of smaller competitors,” the author asserts in this seething takedown of Big Alcohol.

He claims that as an industry, Big Alcohol has “degraded our taste buds through low quality standardization” via a dubious market monopolization process: the years between 1980 and 2017 saw the share of beer around the world produced by the biggest ten firms rise from a quarter to two-thirds. This more easily provides Big Alcohol the power to withdraw big investments in states in retaliation to public health policies, as Belgian-Brazilian multinational brewers AB InBev did recently in South Africa after attempting to sue the country on constitutional grounds.

Last year alone, market leader AB InBev spent about $5 billion on ads around the world, putting it in the top ten of global advertisers. “Deaths, diseases, injuries, disabilities, and trauma are the necessarily uncosted externalities of this constantly escalating surplus-value formation and shareholder returns,” Wilt notes grimly. Big Alcohol is dependent on problem drinking: a minority of heavy drinkers account for large volumes of alcohol consumption. In England, 30 percent of alcohol is sold to people drinking at harmful levels that are almost certain to be lowering drinkers’ life expectancy. “The profit-motivated alcohol industry structurally incentivizes higher-risk drinking,” Wilt said in a Guardian comment piece.

Alcohol brings a public health disaster, disproportionately impacting poorer people with less access to quality healthcare and good booze. To learn the lessons, the unfolding legalization of drugs must be guided by social justice — and not corporate interests, urges Wilt. Step one “necessitates wrestling the ownership and control of alcohol from domination by capital and producing it for the public good rather than private profits.” Step two: regulating drugs to ensure a safer supply, “eliminate erratic potencies,” and prevent state repression of people who use them. This would provide people the option between a spliff, a trip, and a few pints. I’ll drink to that.