Category Archives: Alcohol

Alcohol and Food Advocacy: What’s the same? What’s different? An Interview with Michele Simon, Director of Research and Policy, Marin Institute

Michele Simon is a lawyer and policy advocate who recently became Research and Policy Director at the Marin Institute, a California-based organization that serves as a watchdog of the alcohol industry. (In April 2007, Corporations and Health Watch described Marin’s successful campaign to ban alcohol advertisements from the Bay Area Rapid Transit system.) Prior to joining the Institute, Simon had been active in food policy advocacy and is author of Appetite for Profit How the Food Industry Undermines Our Health and how to Fight Back. Earlier this year, Corporations and Health Watch founder Nicholas Freudenberg interviewed Michele Simon in San Francisco about her experiences as a public health advocate on food and alcohol. These are excerpts from that interview.

CHW: Michele, you just started your job at Marin Institute a few months ago. Tell me what you’re doing there and some of your plans for the future.

MS: My title is research and policy director and Marin’s mission is to be an alcohol industry watchdog. In the  past, Marin Institute has focused more on environmental strategies, mainly looking at locally-based policy solutions. In the last year, the strategic plan has been refocused to become more state and nationally focused with a specific emphasis on the alcohol industry.  My role is to provide our advocacy agenda with research support and look at the major trends and how they influence public policy.  We will then target certain policies to bring about changes that will counter industry’s negative influences. One major area that we are focusing on is marketing of alcohol so I’m developing activities that will support those goals.

CHW: And what made Marin shift from a local emphasis to more state and national policy work?

MS: I actually wasn’t involved in that decision but I can tell you that there is a serious lack of non-profit groups that have that focus on alcohol. Marin’s review of who’s doing what in the field showed that there was no major national player serving solely as a watchdog of the alcohol industry.

CHW: So tell me some of the things you are actually doing to carry out that.

MS: Well, right now I’m developing a series of industry profiles, looking at the major players.  For example, Anheuser-Busch sells half the beer in this country, and so we’re getting specific data about their sales, their board members, and their other operations.  Just getting an understanding of who the industry players are, how much money they make, how much money they spend on advertising, just really getting to know who they are is the first step in planning activities to change their practices.  I think we have to start there to know who we’re dealing with.  We’re also working to get a sense of how the industry operates in terms of brand ownership.  Most people think of products in terms of brands.  They notice there’s Budweiser, there’s Molson, there’s Coors and so on.  But really there are major industry players that own dozens and hundreds of brands. Also, in alcohol there has been a lot of consolidation going on. (See Box 1 on the next page for some of the products in the Anheuser Busch “Family”.)  In the past, there used to be clear separation between beer, wine, and distilled spirits.  Well, now you have, for example, Diageo, which owns products across all three of those categories.  I think that changes, for example, how we look at the wine industry.  We used to think wine, that’s not a problem, but when it’s owned by a major multinational company that can shift things. So, we’re trying to paint a picture of who the major industry players are, how powerful they are, and then next step would be to look at their activities, lobbying, advertising etc. That’s one of my first projects.  And we have collected that kind of information in the past but we are updating it to keep up with a changing industry.

CHW: And is the goal to be able to say well how do you get Anheuser Busch to do something different in terms of marketing?

MS: Well, I think for now the goal is to have at our fingertips certain key data that will come in handy for whatever our advocacy target is. For example, Anheuser-Busch’s latest marketing strategy is internet television, internet portal television. We know that Anheuser Busch is projecting to spend a hundred million dollars over the next few years on this.  So right now it just really making sure we have data at our fingertips so when we’re talking to media we have talking points that can be rather dramatic. It’s interesting to me to see that they’re spending far more money on television advertising than anything else.  So that gives us some ideas about what direction to take. If we’re considering going after outdoor alcohol advertising, we might think about is that really where our best use of resources is given that they have decided to spend so much more on television.

Anheuser Busch Beverage Products

Budweiser Family
Bud Light
Budweiser Select
Bud Dry
Bud Ice
Bud Ice Light

Busch Family
Busch Light
Busch Ice

Energy Drinks
180 Red with Goji
180 Orange Sugar-Free
180 Energy X-3
180 Blue-Low Calorie
180 Blue
180 Sport Drink
180 Energy

Natural Family
Natural Light
Natural Ice

Michelob Family
Michelob Light
Michelob ULTRA
Michelob ULTRA Amber
Michelob Honey Lager
Michelob AmberBock
Michelob Golden Draft
Michelob Golden Draft Light

Malt Liquors
Hurricane High Gravity
Hurricane Malt Liquor
Hurricane Ice
King Cobra

Import Family
Kirin Light
Kirin Ichiban
Grolsch Light Lager
Grolsch Blonde Lager
Grolsch Amber Ale
Harbin Lager

Seasonal Beers
Michelob ULTRA Fruit Infused
Beach Bum Bolnde Ale
Michelob Bavarian-Style Wheat

Specialty Beers Family
Ascent 54
Mule Kick Oatmeal Stout
Demon’s Hop Yard IPA
Burnin’ Helles
Ray Hill’s American
Rolling Rock
Bud Extra
Bare Knuckle Stout
ZiegenBock Amber

Speciality Malt Beverages

Spirits Family
Jekyll & Hyde

Specialty Organic Beers
Stone Mill Pale Ale
Wild Hop Lager

Nonalcoholic Brews
O’Doul’s Amber

Alliance Partner Products
Redhook Ale
Widmer Brothers

CHW: In other industries, –like tobacco, food and guns, for example  we have seen that the health impact of these products is often influenced by the relationship between the industry—the big corporations that produce the products and retailers—those who sell to the public.   I wonder how you think about that around alcohol .  What’s the connection between a company like Anheuser Busch and the retail distribution?

MS: What really counts is the capacity to distribute your product to every local market and bar. And the beer wholesalers have been extremely effective as a lobbying group. The National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA), founded in 1938, is a trade association for more than 2,750 beer distributors nationwide. For the most part, its activities are hidden from the public eye. So for a product like Budweiser, their power comes in their distribution.  I don’t think anyone in public health understands how this works. I don’t have the policy solution yet or the policy angle, but I do want to understand how the distribution system works. It was created after Prohibition, with rules for wholesalers and retailers and we need to understand how it works so we can develop strategies to reduce the harm from alcohol.

CHW: Can you describe the three alcohol control groups working at the national level? How does Marin distinguish itself from the two other groups?

MS: The Center for Science in the Public Interest has done great work on nutrition but they have only two people, maybe one and a half, working on alcohol issues.  That’s obviously, a limitation there. Lately they’ve been focusing on the role of the alcohol industry in college sports. (See Corporation and Health’s January 2007 interview with CSPI’s George Hacker on their alcohol projects.)  And the other major national group is the Center on Alcohol Marketing to Youth at Georgetown University.  CAMY has done important research on alcohol marketing to young people. We aim be an advocacy organization on policy issues that also go beyond marketing to youth.

CHW: In Marin’s work, who do you see as your key stake holders? Who are your consumers and who are the people you interact with in order to achieve your goals?

MS: People on the frontlines are absolutely our constituency. And the challenge for us is how to support ongoing community-based activities while also rallying their support for our state and national activities. Part of our challenge is still how can we help local groups clean up a neighborhood harmed by excess alcohol sales and then help them stay connected to community groups  and statewide coalitions. I think that our audience must be anyone who is working on alcohol related issues.  I think my role is to get people who are in the trenches to shift their current educational activities and get them to understand the importance of policy, and the importance of the alcohol industry in their world.

CHW: What about the professionals in alcohol related work—how do you interact with them?

MS: Professionals in the field are another really important constituency. I really hope to get them to apply a public health perspective to see the benefits of moving way upstream to fix the problems caused by the alcohol industry.  I’ve been to community meetings where it just breaks my heart to see people talking only about “Well, how can we deal with these problems with our corner liquor stores and bars and how can we change the licensing, etc.”. I think they’re not focused on the real causes of their problems. They are struggling to clean up the mess that is caused by industry spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year to get people to drink more and the problems caused by government policy.  I don’t know exactly  how best to bring these different levels of work together but I want to find a way… I understand that on a day to day level, the immediate problems are the reality and if I just go in and talk about the big picture stuff,  the community may not be getting the help they want. On the other hand, it kind of just spins your wheels working only at the community level. And while the national level works present a whole other set of challenges, I don’t think our focus on only is a solution.  I do understand it’s sometimes easier to work at the local level and to get something done, butt it’s also so possible just to get all that undone and you never really get at the root of the problem.

CHW: Let’s switch gears and talk about what you have learned from moving from doing food policy advocacy to alcohol. What’s the same? What’s different?

The alcohol industry seeks to blame the individual for drinking too much just like the food industry blames individuals for eating too much.

MS: For the most part, the talking points are the same. For example, the whole focus on the individual is identical. I’m talking about industries’ blame games and the personal responsibility message.  It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about tobacco, food or alcohol. The alcohol industry seeks to blame the individual for drinking too much just like the food industry blames individuals for eating too much.  I’m very amused by the “drink responsibly” tagline I see on every alcohol advertisement now shown. And some companies actually use that line as part of their marketing.  So that whole thing is very clearly the same.  But what’s different from what I expected is that I thought alcohol somehow would be more like tobacco than food. But food is so hard because everyone has his or her opinion, whereas tobacco is much clearer—people understand it’s harmful. What I’m finding is that alcohol has much more in common with food than with tobacco. In part, it is because of this whole grey area where, unlike tobacco, alcohol isn’t an on/off switch. You can drink a little and be fine, and then there’s the complicating factor, the alleged health benefits of alcohol. So similar to food there is a lot of grey area.  I don’t think alcohol is anywhere as stigmatized as tobacco is. Also, food is such a hot topic now that in a way alcohol is getting less concern. Like other health issues, alcohol has had its peak in terms of funding and attention by foundations and politicians.  Unfortunately, some of the major funders have now pulled out of alcohol. Working on alcohol has been more challenging than I expected.  I’ve been struck by how little advocacy there is given that it’s a pretty serious public health problem.  Of course there are challenges that are similar, getting people to wrap their heads around the problems, understanding the history of marketing and promoting alcohol. In terms of policy, at least people get that marketing to underage youth is a problem. When they understand that kids are being targeted by alcohol marketers, most say “Oh, yeah, that shouldn’t be happening.”   With food marketing, on the other hand,   it’s taken for granted that kids are going to be marketed to. It’s more acceptable — people just blame the parents. And with alcohol, people accept that government has a role in policy making – regulating retail sales, taxing alcohol and so on -these are accepted.  So some people might disagree about whether or how much to raise alcohol taxes but they understand it as a policy to reduce consumption, especially among young people. With food, we don’t yet accept a government policy role that helps to encourage health.

CHW: And what do you think about the potential for mobilizing people across the issues of food and alcohol? Do you think there is some common ground there?

MS: Well, first let me describe what I see as the problem in bringing these two efforts together.  Alcohol really suffers from this perception that the problem’s confined to a small subset of individuals, those who are alcoholics, and underage drinkers. I think the perception is that it’s not a general problem. Only half the population actually drinks alcohol so they may think it’s not a problem for them. Not realizing they could be hit by a drunk driver any minute. Food is more of an emotional issue for people.  They get angry about food, they have opinions about it.  If alcohol is not affecting them personally, than they don’t really think about it.

CHW: On a more practical level, do you see potential for bringing these two sectors together.  Is there common work that we could be doing around both food and alcohol?

In poor neighborhoods we have many corner liquor stores and very few healthy food options. Why is that? What can be done about it?

MS: I’ve started thinking and talking about it. One obvious connection is that in poor neighborhoods we have many corner liquor stores and very few healthy food options. Why is that? What can be done about it?  Then there’s land use and zoning — city planners thinking about how we can use zoning laws to make healthy choices in more accessible and unhealthy ones less so. Restricting access to alcohol has sometimes been a hard sell and if we can bring food and tobacco folks into this maybe we can get more traction.

CHW: And many have observed that it may be inefficient for public health advocates to take on one harmful product at a time.  What do you see as the potential for common policy goals?  Is there a social or policy agenda for protecting communities from corporate practices that damage health?

MS: My approach is not to look so much at the product we’re talking about but rather at industry tactics.  So whatever your health advocacy issue, whatever your tactics and strategy, industry strategies are pretty much identical: denial and obstruction of the scientific evidence, emphasis on individual responsibility. Working in food policy, I have found many people didn’t get that companies exist to make money. It’s their legal obligation as corporations to make money for their shareholders, even if it undermines health. Yet companies spin this unbelievably good public relations and advertising about their being responsible and caring, promoting good things, all this positive stuff.  So the first step in building any movement is educating people, helping them understand what’s going on. So when the alcohol ads say drink responsibly, do they really care about my 18 year old daughter not drinking until she’s 21?  No, they care about painting a picture of making it look like they care so policymakers stays off their back. I think it’s so incredible that many people still don’t understand that about corporate behavior.

CHW: What do you think advocates for healthier policies on tobacco, food, alcohol and guns, to name a few, need to be doing to make that point?

MS: Well, for starters I think too many people think that the tobacco industry is an isolated example, different from other types of industries. I have just been struck by how many groups working on food, from community groups to big groups like the American Heart Association, want to work with food companies, think they can engage food companies in protecting health.

What we need to do is paint the picture so they can get it.  So many people think that their well- intentioned but modest educational programs are going to make the differences against what one friend of mine calls the “marketing of diseases” by the tobacco, alcohol and food industries. If people don’t understand the nature of corporate motivation, then I don’t think we’re going to be able to make much progress in protecting health.

So our goal has to be to move alcohol, food and tobacco policy upstream.  While education is important and community interventions are important, alone, they’re not going to solve the problem.  We need to develop a new understanding of the causes of the health problems associated with food, alcohol and tobacco.

Spotlight on the Alcohol Industry: Anheuser-Busch Pulls “Spykes” Amid Criticism

Anheuser-Busch, the manufacturer of Spykes, a two-ounce flavored malt beverage, decided to pull the product from the market after receiving a written warning on May 10th from 27 state Attorneys General accusing the company of violating the Beer Institute Advertising and Marketing Code. According to the Attorneys General, Spykes the drink, as well as its promotions and advertising, appeared to be especially designed to attract youth, particularly young girls.

Spykes was a two-ounce flavored malt beverage containing caffeine, ginger, guarana –and 12% alcohol. The product was available in such flavors as chocolate, mango, watermelon, and lime and was marketed as a flavor additive to beer. According to Anheuser Busch, Spykes was created for adults as a lower alcohol alternative to hard liquors. They pointed out that the market contains more than 50 products in this category in all colors and flavors, most of which are hard-liquor beverages that have a greater concentration of alcohol by volume than Spykes. However, according to one critic, Bruce Livingston, the Executive Director of The Marin Institute, “Spykes was a 12 percent alcohol depth charge – clearly designed to appeal to teenage girls in brightly colored 2 ounce containers that look like nail polish.” Richard L. Keller, MD, a coroner from Chicago added that “my concern is that they fit easily into a tuxedo jacket pocket, or purse for prom night ‘fun’.”

The Attorneys General pointed out that the product was marketed primarily on the Internet with no effective means of preventing underage visitors from entering the site. In addition, they noted that the product website included wallpapers, screensavers, instant messaging icons and ringtones that were highly attractive to teenagers. Finally, they stated that Spykes Internet ads offered “vivid” descriptions of the flavors available, but no mention that the product contained alcohol. They concluded that “The labeling for Spykes is inadequate and the content of its advertising is irresponsible, reflecting a basic disregard for consumer safety and welfare.”

In defense, Francine Katz, a spokesperson for Anheuser-Busch stated, “Those who criticize Spykes fundamentally misunderstand the behavior of many illegal underage drinkers. They drink for instant impact. The fact that Spykes are sold in two-ounce bottles and have a total alcohol content equivalent to only one-third of glass of wine makes it much less likely that illegal underage drinkers will choose Spykes as opposed to similarly-colored and similarly-flavored products that are 70 to 80 proof hard liquor.”

However, according to a statement from the Connecticut Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, “Spykes is double trouble – alcohol and caffeine combined in large doses to create a high energy rush with the illusion of alertness when drinkers are impaired. With Spykes marketing and promotion, Anheuser-Busch belies the fight against underage drinking and its own public pitch to ‘drink responsibly.’”

The May 10th letter was signed by Attorneys General from Alaska, Arizona, California, Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Oklahoma, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wyoming.

Alcohol Producer Voluntarily Adopts Stricter Rules in an Effort to Reduce Underage Drinking

While state attorneys general mount a high-profile campaign to curb under-age drinking, Beam Global Spirits and Wine, manufacturers of such brands as Jim Beam, Maker’s Mark bourbon and Canadian Club whiskey, announced earlier this month that they would voluntarily adopt stricter rules to keep messages away from young people.

Beam elaborated that it would purchase print and broadcast advertisements only in outlets where at least 75 percent of the audience is above the legal drinking age. This is a more stringent standard than the current, self-imposed industry standard of 70 percent.

However, the move may be largely symbolic. Beam Global Spirits and Wine does not produce beer or flavored malt liquors – the target of most of the objections to alcohol advertising. Critics argue that beer and flavored malt beverages – often referred to as alcopops – appeal to under-age drinkers, particularly young girls, while Beam’s products appeal to primarily an older, adult audience. According to George Hacker, Director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, “If Beam takes a good look at their target audience, they are not sacrificing a lot.” Mr. Hacker added that he would prefer to see Anheuser-Busch and Diageo, maker of Smirnoff-Ice, adopt the higher standard. “Their products are more deliberately targeted to young people.”

While Beam Global Spirits and Wine is volunteering to curb its advertising, it maintains that advertising does not contribute to under-age drinking. But Steven Rowe, the attorney general of Maine argued, “To say there’s no causal connection is to have your head in the sand. It’s to not recognize reality.” He told The New York Times that he and other attorneys general were “calling on industry members to follow Beam’s lead and join the effort to reduce under-age drinking.”

The Marin Institute Takes On Big Alcohol and Wins!

In September 2006, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit District (BART) board of directors voted to reverse their previous decision prohibiting alcohol advertising on BART buses and trains. Following this announcement, alcohol industry watchdog, The Marin Institute, took quick action and launched a campaign to get BART to reinstate the ban. The Marin Institute noted that while BART officials pointed to the increased revenues that would be associated with the alcohol ads, they neglected to mention that allowing such ads would further expose young people to alcohol industry marketing.

Two recent studies have noted that alcohol industry advertising has a strong effect on youth and contributes to underage drinking. In January of 2006, the American Medical Association’s Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine published a study by Snyder et al which found that the number of alcohol ads viewed was positively associated with the amount of alcohol consumed by youth. Each advertisement viewed raised the number of drinks consumed by 1%.

In December of 2006, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a statement expressing serious concern about the effects of corporate marketing on youth. The AAP noted that youth view an estimated 40,000 advertisements per year and that exposure to advertising from the food, beverage, tobacco, and alcohol industries may significantly contribute to obesity, poor nutrition, alcohol, and tobacco use in young people. According to the AAP, youth spend an estimated $180 billion per year and influence an additional $200 billion of their parents’ spending per year. As a result, advertisers consider young people to be an important market and seek new and creative ways to reach them. With regard to alcohol, the AAP argued that with $5.7 billion spent per year on advertising and promotion, and an estimated 2,000 beer and wine commercials viewed annually, exposure to alcohol industry advertising “represents a significant risk factor” for youth. Referring to the fact that minority neighborhoods have five times the number of alcohol billboards as do white neighborhoods, the AAP further noted that youth of color may be particularly at risk.

Pointing to the risks for youth associated with alcohol industry marketing, on December 7, 2006 the Marin Institute and Bay Area community leaders came out to oppose BART’s decision. Because of the strength of their coalition and the size of their turnout, the BART board of directors reversed its decision to allow alcohol advertising on Bay Area buses and trains.

After their victory with BART, the Marin Institute continued to address outdoor alcohol advertising in San Francisco. In January of this year, the organization issued a report stating that CBS Outdoor, the nation’s largest outdoor advertiser and owner of outdoor advertising space in San Francisco, had blatantly disregarded voluntary alcohol advertising codes as well as its contract with the City’s Municipal Transportation Agency (MUNI) by placing alcohol advertisements near schools. The Marin Institute surveyed three of San Francisco’s school districts and found 15 alcohol ads on public transit shelters. Ads were also found near playgrounds and churches.

The Marin Institute stated in the report, “Extrapolating to the entire city (all 11 districts), we conservatively estimate that at least 55 ads are in direct violation of the CBS Outdoor and MTA contract. Furthermore, we conservatively estimate at least 81 violations of both contract and national standards city wide.”

The Marin Institute held a press conference calling on CBS Outdoor to immediately remove the ads and for the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Authority to enforce the terms of the contract. Shortly afterward, the offending ads were removed. In addition, MUNI pledged to disallow alcohol advertising in future contracts.

Between their successful BART and MUNI campaigns, the Marin Institute has managed to keep the Bay Area completely free of outdoor alcohol advertising on public transportation. Not only will their efforts significantly reduce the amount of such advertising youth are exposed to, but they demonstrate that community campaign pressure on public officials, advertisers, and corporations can lead to victories that protect public health.

Interview with George Hacker

George Hacker is the Director of the Alcohol Policies Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest and a leading advocate in efforts to change health-damaging practices of the alcohol industry. Corporations and Health Watch (CHW) interviewed Hacker in September 2006 to learn more about his work and the lessons he has learned. We were especially interested to learn more about CSPI’s work on Alcopops, sweetened alcohol beverages produced by the alcohol industry to attract young drinkers. The interview was conducted by CHW staffer Estelle Raboni and is excerpted here.

: What is your role at the Alcohol Policies Project and how did you become involved in
this issue?

HACKER: I am Director of the Alcohol Policies Project, and I have been on and off since 1982, for all but five years during that period. I became involved with the Alcohol Policies Project because I was looking for a job at that time, and this seemed to be an excellent opportunity to utilize my skills and interest in public health for a good cause with a good organization. It was also a political environment surrounding alcoholic beverages that was quite in its formative stages. There had been no real effort at the national level at that time to promote a range of prevention policy measures at the federal level that could affect per capita consumption and behavior related to alcohol. And so, for me, it was an interesting opportunity to work with a good organization on an issue which was very important, but also something that provided me with an opportunity to learn and also to create something new.

CHW: So how did you get involved in working on Alcopops?

HACKER: Well, the Alcopops issue came about in a number of ways. Number one, we’ve always been interested in the kinds of products that are put out into the marketplace in the alcoholic beverage market and the basic disregard that producers and government have for the nature of the product and their potential for harm to the public. So when the Alcopops phenomenon began in the late 1990s in Europe and in Australia, we were watching closely. And when they made the leap to the United States, we were eager to highlight the way in which this product was designed and later marketed for young tastes and as an entry level alcoholic beverage that targeted mainly underage people. So those two interests came together and, in addition, at around that time we were approached by a pollster who was interested in doing some work with us, and together we found a donor who was willing to support that effort.

CHW: What was your perception of the impact of the alcohol industry’s and the Alcopops’ impact on human, and particularly pre-adolescent girls’ health at the time?

HACKER: Based on what I had been reading in Europe and in Australia, where these products were being put on the market, I was convinced that by the very fact that they were sweet, packaged to look like soft drinks, and tasted like soft drinks, that they were designed specifically for young people, in particular young women. And so we were concerned that this was just another way for the alcoholic beverage industry to bring consumers not only into the alcoholic beverage market, but also eventually to their standard products. In fact, there were quite a few telling comments by executives in the alcoholic beverage industry that illustrate that that was one of the purposes of these beverages.

CHW: Can you explain more about what you mean by standard products?

HACKER: For example, Smirnoff Ice is an Alcopop, or they call them “alternatives.” Yet it has the name Smirnoff on it, and it intended to highlight that name Smirnoff which also has a wide range of distilled products, namely vodka, in that brand. So, essentially, the Alcopop version is intended to make it easier for people to move up the chain to the original Smirnoff product. And we have a couple of great quotes from the Executive at Sky Vodka who considered Sky Blue’s advertising budget to provide a great benefit to Sky Vodka as well.

CHW: And so that was your initial perception of Alcopops and the alcohol industry?

HACKER: My initial perception in 2000 and 2001, which was based not only on my experience, but on anecdotal evidence and phone calls from people around the country, was that these products very much resembled soft drinks. And they resembled soft drinks both in their packaging and in their flavors and, in particular, their sweetness, and to some extent, the carbonation. So they were really alcoholic copies of beverages that were popular among young people and also common to their tastes. We also got calls from adults around the country saying that they would go out, not knowing that these were alcoholic beverages, and buy them for their teenage children mistakenly because they didn’t look very carefully.

We did a number of photographic comparisons in that we took these Alcopop bottles, and we put them out with bottles of non-alcoholic fruit drinks that were popular at the time. And I think those photographs demonstrated how similar the visual appeal of these products was: bright colors, fancy designs, all kinds of elements of the labels’ bright colors that made them attractive in a way that those fruit juices were attractive. And then later we also compared those bottles to their distilled spirit “parents”, to show how similar — the brand was essentially the same.

Sometimes the same logos were on the labels, and the Alcopops were just a smaller version of the liquor bottle.

CHW: Other than create brand loyalty in future customers through these gateway drinks, how do the actions of Alcopop manufacturers affect human health, particularly young girls and women’s health?

HACKER: Well, by creating gateway drinkers and future drinkers, the primary health impact or risk is that they will be creating people with addictions. Because drinking these kinds of sweet beverages allows consumers to begin drinking at a far earlier age because it meets those sort of teen, preteen taste buds. And the data show that the earlier young people start to drink, the more likely that they’ll go on to have alcohol problems and become alcohol dependent.

Now, we don’t know whether that’s a genetic or environmental effect necessarily, but still there are enough genetically high risk people for whom the ease of drinking could be a significant problem. The other impact is the high calorie nature of these products — they probably contribute to obesity among teenagers. Having said that, I don’t know of any real study that shows that. You know, these products make it much, much easier to drink. It’s more than just a gateway drug. It’s like a worm on a hook.

CHW: We’re also interested in the process of mobilizing communities around alcohol issues. The Alcohol Policies Project has also done some earlier work on Power Master, a new sub-brand of the malt liquor Colt 45 that was targeted at African-Americans. Can you tell me about that?

HACKER: Well, PowerMaster was a malt liquor that was designed essentially for the African American market. First of all it probably violated, at that time, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms standards relating to promoting the strength of a product, of a beer, given the name itself of “PowerMaster.” And the African American community took tremendous umbrage at the name which brought back all kinds of connotations of slavery, and the protest against that product was enormously successful, and it took three weeks to get that off the market.

CHW: Does CSPI generally tend to collaborate with communities in order to mobilize against these particular products?

HACKER: Oh, absolutely. Since 1982, we’ve been organizing both long standing and temporary coalitions on a variety of issues; and in addition to issue coalitions, we frequently organize petitions and letters that have multiple signatories that involve various constituencies.

Sometimes we focus just on the faith communities. Sometimes it’s a broad-based coalition that mirrors our Coalition for the Prevention of Alcohol Problems. Sometimes we go to the public health schools, or the Health Department Directors in States, and others like that, to get their support for various activities.

CHW: And so was your organization also part of the attempt to get PowerMaster out of those particular cities?

HACKER: Oh, absolutely. On PowerMaster, we were one of several organizations and, as I recall, for strategic reasons, we had African American organizations take the lead on that campaign, although we were pretty outspoken in the media. We also played a role of providing information and government contacts, and coordination, as well as involved in a number of conversations with people at different organizations who were interested in doing something about it. I think that campaign is an example of how targeted communities as well as the advocate organizations that work on these issues can come together rather rapidly to take on a challenge like that. And just that practice in organizing increases the likelihood that future opportunities don’t go unanswered.

CHW: With Alcopops you’re trying to fight against a product not necessarily directed at a particular race or ethnic group, but toward a particular age group, do you find it’s more difficult to organize against that?

HACKER: Well, you know, when we launched the Alcopops effort it was more a public education effort that was intended to boost interest among policy makers, both on the Hill, as well as in agencies like the Federal Trade Commission. It was also an effort to boost the attention of major organizations that had some interest in alcohol policy matters. And, from that perspective, it was relatively successful in that over the years, the American Medical Association has done a number of studies and releases on the Alcopops issue.

The Pacific Institute on Research and Evaluation has launched a fairly aggressive litigation strategy related to the classification of those beverages as one effort to slow them down.

And there have also been numerous efforts in the states and among state alcohol beverage regulators and some Attorneys General to tighten the regulation of Alcopops. At the Federal level, the interest that we generated led to an appropriations measure that directed the Federal Trade Commission to investigate these products. Not that that investigation really changed much, or came out as we had hoped; but it generated a great deal of activity and interest. And, in fact, it helped coin the term “Alcopops” in this country, which we think is an important frame for that kind of a beverage, rather than “alternatives.”

CHW: But despite some of those strategies, Alcopops are still on the market.

HACKER: They are, but their sales have come down dramatically since 2002 or 2003. And not only have their sales come down, but the number of products in the market place has diminished markedly. Many of the products just disappeared. And I’m not sure if our efforts are responsible, or if it’s just been such a cutthroat competition in that area for a beverage that was always marginal.

CHW: Given the different kinds of strategies that have been used to limit the attractiveness of Alcopops to the market, what strategy or strategies do you think would ultimately be successful in restricting Alcopops’ marketing to youth?

HACKER: Well, I think as has been sought in other countries, raising the taxes on Alcopops would be very effective. In fact, we have tried that — it’s the basis of the PIRE litigation effort.

Because many Alcopops have a significant amount of alcohol that derives from flavoring agents that are distilled spirits rather than from a malt beverage, we’ve been arguing that they ought to be taxed as spirits. Classifying Alcopops as distilled spirits would increase the tax on those products fairly dramatically. So far, though, the regulatory structure has gone the other way — to liberalize the rules for Alcopops. It used to be that if a half a percent or more of the alcohol came from a liquor source, it would have to be taxed as liquor. Now you have to have half of the alcohol from a spirit source to require that it be taxed as a distilled spirit.

CHW: How does the alcohol industry promote Alcopops?

HACKER: At the time we did our first poll, there was no television advertising at all. It was just some print advertising around. What we found in that first poll was that the products were dramatically more popular and more likely to be used by underage persons than by adults so we demonstrated their attractiveness and that many young people said that they had consumed them.

And those findings are now regularly corroborated by the Monitoring The Future Study, which has begun to ask high school students about Alcopops (they call them malt beverages or alternatives) and the Center of Alcohol Marketing Youth also issued some corroborating data that showed that young people were being targeted, or at least they were being exposed to a higher percentage of ads for Alcopops than were adults on a per capita basis. So we were showing what these products looked like, and they looked like soft drinks and they tasted like soft drinks and, indeed, young people seemed to like them. That’s what we were trying to demonstrate the first time when we sent that information to the regulators.

CHW: But despite that, you just mentioned that they’ve actually relaxed some of the regulations on how Alcopops are classified and taxed. So what would be the cause of something like that?

HACKER: I think we made a substantial case that these products seem to be very popular among young kids, and later on we showed that kids have the opportunity and, in fact, they seem to be more exposed to the advertising for these products than adults; that the products themselves seem to be favored by folks who don’t like the taste of alcohol; that people in the industry themselves acknowledge that these are “entry level” drinks; that they bring people to their main brands; and that they are basically “starter suds,” as we call them. We demonstrated all that, I think, but the Federal Trade Commission apparently wasn’t convinced or they just didn’t want to do anything about it.

And then, No. 2, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, which is now called the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau got involved. That’s where the battles among the industries occur. For example, one of the major Alcopop producers, Diageo, which makes Smirnoff Ice and its progeny, does battle there with the beer industry. There was a tremendous political battle going on during the evolution of those Alcopop rules, and I think the Alcohol and Tobacco Bureau just reached a political decision. It was a compromise decision that changed the previous rule to allow these products to have some level of distilled spirits, alcohol, in them.

CHW: One of the strategies I’ve heard is to require alcohol manufacturers to list calorie and ingredient content in Alcopops. Is the thinking behind that that young girls who are the main target of Alcopops would be dissuaded from drinking the beverage once they knew what the calorie content was?

HACKER: That’s one of them. Did you see our advertisements that we ran in several college newspapers? It shows a sort of an androgynous expanding waistline, but it was probably supposed to be female with handle bars and a person pinching the large handle bars. And that was an effort to do two or three things. Number one, we placed those ads, as I recall, at many schools, five or six of the schools that had been named “party schools” in the Princeton Review.

That was about the time when this issue of ingredients and alcohol beverage labeling started to come up again. And we wanted to tie it to that so if you read the copy in that ad, it talks about the fact that people are being confused, or at least they’re not aware of the fact that these products have a ton of calories — sometimes two or three times as much as beer. And as a result young women consuming more calories than they might desire. And so it was an attempt, to open people’s eyes to the fattening nature of these products as one means of decreasing the demand for them, but it was also an effort to strengthen support for labeling requirements that would provide that kind of information for consumers, because it’s currently not required. As you may or may not know, CSPI has been petitioning Federal agencies to require ingredient, calorie, and some other labeling of alcoholic beverages since 1972.

CHW: Why do you think it’s taken this long to have it considered?

HACKER: Well, I think that there are powerful interests that are not particularly interested in providing all that information to consumers. And those interests are usually the alcoholic beverage industry. But having said that, there are three producer industries, all of whom have some slightly different interests when it comes to labeling issues, so they’re fighting it out amongst themselves as well. But also the Alcohol and Tobacco Bureau is in the Department of the Treasury, and I don’t think there’s a great interest in alcohol over at the Treasury, especially in this Administration.

CHW: Is the alcohol beverage industry a powerful lobby?

HACKER: Of course. I mean because it’s a multilayered and multilevel lobby. The producers groups, the distributor groups, the retail groups. Then you have hoteliers, and advertisers, can makers — you know, it’s a tremendous lobby plus wine is produced in California, which has the largest Congressional delegation in Congress. As just an example, wine is produced in 49 states so that there’s a political element in each State. The National Beer Wholesalers is one of three or four top PACS in the United States Congress today, and they have a lot of family and other owned businesses around the country that interact regularly with their members of Congress and other politicians and also provide a lot on money independent of the national group. And you have these big corporations like Anheuser Busch and Diageo and SABMiller, Coors — they exert a lot of influence. The other thing that I think is important to remember, part of the mission of the Alcohol, Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau is to ensure an orderly and legal system for the production and distribution of alcoholic beverages. And so to some extent, that agency is very used to dealing with the industry as their clients, and they serve, to some extent they service that industry as much as regulate it.

CHW: Do you think that representatives of the alcohol industry feel any pressure in scaling back their marketing attempts as a result of the Project’s work?

HACKER: I think that they have changed their behavior as a result not only of our Project’s work but of the work that our Project has spawned over the last twenty years. The fact is that our Project has led to these broad coalitions, has I think stimulated interest in other organizations to do similar work. It has led groups like, M.A.D.D., Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America, Join Together, the American Medical Association and others to focus on some of these issues. And so, together, we have the capacity to bring these kinds of issues to the public’s attention as well as to the attention of policy makers. Now there are some policy makers now who have articulated an interest in strengthening the regulation of alcohol advertising, for example. I think the industry has been forced to change its practices. The way they’ve done that is they’ve, number one, changed their advertising codes and made them more transparent, they have increased the number of their supposed responsibility messages. Actually, many producers have now added a tiny little line in their ads, something like “Drink responsibly.” We don’t think that’s going very far. But on the other hand, I don’t think they would have done many of the things that they’ve done, as well as they’ve been forced to create a tremendous amount of public relations/public education materials and activities in order to buttress their public standing. So they’re all now engaged in a whole lot of face-saving public relations and supposed responsibility endeavors. But a lot of that is, I think, is just called “CYA.” [Cover Your Ass].

Another result of our and our colleagues’ activities, is that they’ve massively expanded their political contributions and their influence on Congress and state legislatures. But, having said all that, I think that the Alcopops advocacy work gave the industry some headaches because no one in their right mind would believe that those products are not youth-oriented. Yet, those products are still out there. They’re available, because of the way they’re regulated at the State level, in the same places that beer is available making them very available to young people. They’re broadly distributed and not, sort of, holed up in liquor stores which are more restricted, and there are fewer of them than convenience stores for example. It’s somewhat hard to say how successful we’ve been. I think that we’ve been more successful since l982, as I’ve said, in getting the industry to change its behavior. Not that its behavior is so stellar today.

CHW: And finally is there anything else that you’d like to add?

HACKER: Well, let me put the Alcopops into a little perspective. The Alcopops fit in with two issues that we were working on. One of them was sole focus on alcohol and young people given how important that connection is in terms of public health and safety, and also how important that is in the context of the alcoholic beverage market. And we think that the alcohol industry’s Achilles heel is that they rely so heavily on recruiting young people, just as the tobacco people did, in order to create a marketplace for the future. And with regard to younger people, the young people are perhaps the heaviest drinkers around. So they consume a substantial amount of the alcohol and they’re a valuable market in themselves. But then, there were other issues that have been boiling since the mid to late 90s that started to get hot in the early 2000s, and that relates specifically to the advent of distilled spirits advertising on television and radio. And part of the Alcopops effort, particularly when we started focusing on the liquor brand names, was focused on undercutting Diageo’s efforts to get liquor on TV because we were demonstrating how many young people were in the audience and how great their access was to TV, how little they were supervised, and that the proposal that Diageo made at that time to air the ads only after nine o’clock on certain shows was totally inadequate and clearly ignored the large number of young people in the audience. So we were looking at trying to get that message out to poison the waters for the distilled spirits advertising as well.