Culture: Is Alcohol the New Tobacco?
For most of my adult life, moderate social drinking has been viewed as part of a healthy lifestyle. Indeed, for more than three decades, daily moderate booze intake in America has been defined as two glasses for a man and one for a woman. That may soon change. This summer, George F. Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, told the Daily Mail that Americans could soon be warned to limit their drinking to only two drinks… per week.
It’s emblematic of a dramatic shift currently taking place in our culture. I came of legal drinking age in the early 1990s, not long after “60 Minutes” told America that drinking red wine was healthy. In that legendary segment on the “French paradox,” Morley Safer asked: “Why is it that the French, who eat as much—or more—fat than we do, suffer fewer heart attacks?” The answer to the riddle, he continued, raising a full glass of red wine, “may lie in this inviting glass.” He later spoke with a French researcher, who claimed wine consumption could cut the risk of heart attack by as much as 50 percent.
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Though later research would undercut the premise of the French paradox, the segment had a profound effect on mainstream attitudes toward drinking in the United States. Boomers who’d previously never considered consuming wine began buying Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel by the case. By 1994, wine consumption in the United States soared. Per capita consumption would continue to increase annually for the next 22 years.
The problem? An increasingly tall pile of evidence suggests alcohol is not, in fact, a health beverage. Canada has already changed its official health guidelines to recommend only two drinks per week, and Koob is apparently watching our northern neighbor’s experiment closely.
“If there’s health benefits, I think people will start to re-evaluate where we’re at,” he told the Daily Mail. “I mean, [suggested daily intake is] not going to go up, I’m pretty sure. If [guidelines] go in any direction, it would be toward Canada.” The USDA will revisit its alcohol consumption guidelines in 2025.
Since at least the late 2010s, we’ve seen plenty of research studies that question how healthy it was to drink even “moderate” amounts of alcoholic beverages. In January 2018, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services deleted the dietary guidelines that said moderate drinking could lower the risk of heart disease. A few months later, the National Institutes of Health halted a major study meant to prove, once and for all, that moderate alcohol consumption had health benefits—after the New York Times reported that much of the $100 million budget came from five of the world’s largest alcoholic beverage manufacturers.
In September 2018, a bombshell study and commentary published in the Lancet asserted that “no level of alcohol consumption improves health” and cited alcohol as a leading risk factor in worldwide deaths. “These results,” wrote the study’s authors, “suggest that alcohol control policies might need to be revised worldwide, refocusing on efforts to lower overall population-level consumption.” Another study in the Lancet in 2021 said that 4 percent of global cancer cases in 2020 could be attributed to alcohol.
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Over in Europe, according to trade magazine Meiningers, the World Health Organization is changing the way it talks about alcoholic beverages. In 2022, the WHO proposed European action to regulate alcohol advertising and labelling, as well as where alcoholic beverages can be sold. That document, “Turning down the alcohol flow,” makes it clear that the WHO wants to treat alcohol like tobacco: “Just as with tobacco, a global and comprehensive approach is required to remove alcohol marketing, as far as possible, from all contexts.”
In January of this year, the WHO published a news release entitled “No level of alcohol consumption is safe for our health.” In that release, Dr. Carina Ferreira-Borges, a top WHO official, said: “We cannot talk about a so-called safe level of alcohol use. It doesn’t matter how much you drink—the risk to the drinker’s health starts from the first drop of any alcoholic beverage.” In May, WHO announced that Ireland, in 2026, would be the first country in the world to introduce health labeling on alcohol products, with prominent warnings about the links between alcohol, liver disease and cancer. “I look forward to other countries following our example,” said Irish Health Minister Stephen Donnelly.
None of this is new. Industry observers, like me, have been talking about the growing neo-prohibition movement for a while now. If it’s surprising to people in the industry, then it’s only because the industry’s head has been in the sand.
What the drinks industry seems to have trouble grasping is that the neo-prohibition side is seizing the narrative. Over the past decade, there has been a serious push to “de-normalize” the drinking of alcoholic beverages.
Meiningers spoke with Ana Isabel Alves, executive director of the Portuguese Association for Wine and Spirits, who explained that, for years, alcohol health warnings focused on drunk driving, minors or pregnant women. “We are used to seeing news about alcohol beverages and the WHO in the press,” Alves said. “But the narratives have changed.” The new story, Alves said, is “about making alcoholic beverages less socially acceptable, like with tobacco.”
Anyone paying attention knows that this new narrative has been happening for at least a decade. A large number of Americans have already reconsidered their relationship to alcohol. Sober Curious, Cali Sober and the rise of legal cannabis, Dry January, dubious wellness claims about “clean,” “additive-free” or “hangover-free” wine and the rise of non-alcoholic adaptogenics are firmly established in the culture.
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Many in the drinks industry figure this all might be a fleeting reaction brought on by the pandemic, but it’s starting to look more and more like a lasting shift. Some have attempted to attack and discredit the questionable science behind studies like those in The Lancet. But clearly, that tactic isn’t working. On behalf of its $14 billon wine industry, the Italian government is working to block the Irish law from taking effect in 2026. But more and more, there’s a creeping sense that any resistance is like swimming against a cultural tide.
There seems to be even rougher waves on the horizon, especially with the growing popularity of weight-loss drugs such as Ozempic and Wegovy. We’ve been hearing anecdotally about Ozempic reducing people’s desire to drink. A few weeks ago, the Washington Post reported that studies found those taking weight-loss drugs consumed 62 percent less alcohol. More than one in five said they had stopped drinking booze altogether.
I don’t know what the answer is for the drinks industry. But I’m fairly certain that “60 Minutes” isn’t save them this time around by “re-normalizing” drinking for Americans.
You can follow Jason Wilson on Wine Enthusiast and click here to subscribe to his Everyday Drinking newsletter, where you’ll receive regular dispatches on food, travel and culture through the lens of wine and spirits.
Last Updated: October 2, 2023
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