Striking Back At "Alcophobes"

Guy Smith, Executive Vice President of Diageo Corporate Relations, created quite a stir recently at the Responsible Retailing Conference by accusing "alcophobes" of bogus scientific studies designed to demonize beverage alcohol. He discusses why the industry is pushing back.

Mix: You recently made quite an impression at the Responsible Retailing Forum – care to share the details?

Guy Smith: The point I was trying to make in the speech is that the whole industry – beer, wine, sprits, retailers, wholesalers, suppliers, consumers, law enforcement, government agencies, parents – have been working together for at least a decade and rowing their boats in the same direction with some very significant positive results in underage drinking and driving; deaths in traffic fatalities are down, underage access is down, not as much progress in college binge drinking but some progress there. The message is that these efforts are working - more needs to be done but clearly progress is being made. The danger that I cited is a group of individuals and some organizations that I labeled as alcophobes using advocacy science, defined as deciding the result and then seeking data to support the conclusion to which they’ve already come to rather than the genuine scientific approach to seek truth and facts. I cite several examples. This is dangerous to the success that everyone has had in making this progress. It distracts people and governments and creative energy and it is solely designed in my view to harm the alcohol industry, most particularly everyone who works in the alcohol industry, ranging from the CEO of a large company down to a waitress in a bar or a bartender who are demonized by this type of activity. I think it's wrong and not productive – I think it’s the rare bartender or waiter or clerk in a store who would sell to an underage kid or teenager.

Guy Smith, Executive Vice President, Diageo Corporate Relations

Mix: Any industry initiatives that stand out?

Smith: I cite a number of initiatives that are noteworthy: InBev-A-B has a program they run on college campuses using social norms, Bacardi has a safe rides program that is very successful, we [Diageo] have a screening and intervention program that has been very effective in getting people who have a problem with alcohol have an emergency room intervention, meaning a conversation about the implications of the abuse of alcohol. There are many programs by the industry and law enforcement supporting better education. We support the Century Council’s very effective programs that encourage parents to have a conversation with their children about the effects of alcohol. Miller Coors has a program called “Respect 21” about underage drinking. The list goes on and on, but the point is everyone is rowing their own boat in the same direction except for these outliers who feel they have to make up science and make up facts.

Mix: Can you cite an example of the sorts of claims you’re referring to?

Smith: I mentioned four examples that make the point. One is that the industry created flavored malt beverages in order to lure kindergartners to drink vodka when they get older. It’s absurd on the face of it and the Federal Trade Commission has done three investigations over the last several years and each time has found the industry has comported itself exactly the way it should have. There’s another, a Center for Disease Control report that said a 20 percent hike in the price of a six pack caused gonorrhea rates to go down nine percent, completely ignoring that this happened during a period of huge education programs around AIDS and other safe sex programs. It’s like doing a study on the sinking of the Titanic and finding a correlation between drinking on the upper deck and the sinking and totally ignoring the iceberg. But as silly as it is, things like this continue.

Mix: What has the response been?

Smith: Someone in the audience said it was “terrible that you’re name-calling, calling people alcophobes.” I said, “Tell you what, you stop using the term ‘alcopops’ and I’ll stop using the term alcophobes.” This person looked across the room at me with a straight face and said, “I didn’t think that was pejorative. I said “You’re making my point - if you don’t think that’s pejorative, and it's okay for you to call my product ‘alcopops’ when it clearly refers to underage consumption – it demeans waiters and waitresses and truck drivers and other people who work in our industry every day and do it honestly, and were not going to stand for it.” As you can imagine there was some animated conversation after that.

Mix: What about other aspects of the prevention community?

Smith: I never identified beyond the four examples who was an alcophobe but what we found was a lot of people in the prevention community distinct from the anti-alcohol community, there was a lot of discussion about how this has been going on for a long time and it needs to stop. If we all are going to continue to achieve what we're achieving we have to find a way not to demean each other. Some people saw it as a declaration of war, but I didn’t; some said “We’ve been having these conversations and this kind of rocks the boat,” and my response was “We’re not going to have people call us a bad name and demean us and think we’re going to sit there and take it and smile.” Lots of positive feedback from the people in our industry, as you can imagine.

Mix: Is there anything about this debate and its effects you think servers need to be aware of?

Smith: Most servers have had some kind of training, whether TIPS or some training by employers about how to be watchful to see if someone has had enough or is underage, and these things we need to continue to do to underpin the success in the industry to keep people from being harmed from over-consumption. I’d also point out that advertising doesn’t cause anybody to drink; if it did, why is it that 20 percent of the US population doesn’t drink? What advertising does is to get somebody who drinks to think about another brand. But when one of these organizations says these beer companies are luring little kids into drink, we know that’s not true and I challenge anybody to find me an example that makes any sense that demonstrates that. Every study that has ever been done, every real study, shows the reason kids drink is because of their family and friends. And where do they get it? From their own refrigerator or friends in 65 percent of the cases, and those are federal numbers not industry numbers.