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Why ‘Drink Responsibly’ Messaging is Harmful and Manipulating Us All

Anyone who isn’t confused really doesn’t understand the situation.” - Edward R. Murrow

‘Responsible drinking’ campaigns were introduced by public health agencies and health-related NGOs in the 1970s in an effort to address hazardous drinking and its consequences. Shortly after that, the language and angle was swiftly co-opted by the alcohol industry and simultaneously abandoned as a public health effort. Under the guise of corporate social responsibility (CSR), ‘Drink Responsibly’ is now used ubiquitously and almost exclusively by the alcohol industry. 

At first glance, encouraging consumers of alcohol to ‘Drink Responsibly’ appears to be a message in service of the wellbeing of consumers; however, upon closer inspection, this strategically vague tagline goes well beyond fluffy and empty CSR tactics and lands squarely in the realm of harmful and manipulative, both to the individual and to our collective (mis)understanding of alcohol.  

Within this blog, I will demonstrate why the ‘Drink Responsibly’ narrative is deeply problematic, intentionally ambiguous and how it knowingly contributes to the confusion and misunderstanding when it comes to the risks and harms associated with alcohol and why we should be concerned about it.

Let’s discuss.

‘Drink Responsibly’ is Undefined

From an entirely pragmatic perspective, what does ‘Drink Responsibly’ mean exactly? For a tagline that is used as frequently as this one is (you can check the social media accounts of nearly any large alcohol company and see this tagline on display), you might expect that a clear definition of what it means would be offered however, that is very much not the case. With no definition provided, how do we know if we’re successfully doing it? Importantly, what does it mean that the alcohol industry has never bothered to provide clarification on a tagline that has ironically become synonymous with alcohol consumption? In the absence of a clear definition, what function does this phrase actually serve?  When it comes to this tagline, there are clearly more questions than answers.

When it comes to guidance and directives around alcohol consumption, the alcohol industry could easily default to their country’s suggested guidelines around consumption. In Canada for example, the low-risk drinking guidelines were updated in 2023 and now advise that to stay within the low-risk range, no more than 2 standard drinks per week should be consumed. This is a steep departure from the previous guidelines used in Canada. From a profit perspective, which is the biggest driving factor for the alcohol industry, it would be counterproductive to advise that consumers drink less which likely accounts for why this isn’t happening. 

‘Drink Responsibly’ Functions to Shift the Focus and Responsibility

One of the more problematic functions of this tagline is that it shifts the focus entirely away from alcohol as an addictive, psychoactive, neurotoxic substance onto the behaviors and actions of the individual, almost exclusively. By directing alcohol consumers to ‘Drink Responsibly’, the alcohol industry washes its hands of responsibility should an issue, such as addiction, arise. Instead of claiming responsibility for selling an addictive product, the alcohol industry can instead point the finger at folks who made “irresponsible choices”, which often looks like scapegoating heavy drinkers and those who struggle with substance use and addiction as outliers instead of also acknowledging that the negative effects of alcohol go beyond heavy drinkers and can impact us all. ‘Drink Responsibly’ infers judgment on those who develop addiction or substance use issues: at the very least, it's a suggestion of irresponsibility but even worse, one of poor judgment, moral character, and decision-making capacity.

Addiction is a complex issue and whether or not someone deals with addiction in their lives has to do with past traumas, early exposure to substances, genetics and brain chemistry, concurrent mental health issues, coping skills, access to care and more. The notion that substance use issues are rooted in choice, diminished will power or morals is both false and antiquated and the on-going use of the ‘Drink Responsibly’ narrative serves to regularly breathe life into these erroneous narratives.

What’s more, there is an underlying tone of gaslighting to the entire dynamic; alcohol companies sell a wildly addictive substance but rarely acknowledge its addictive nature. Consumers of said substance become addicted because that is how addictive substances function and consumers are in turn blamed for their choices and actions while the alcohol industry repudiates their role in this outcome. This is also largely made possible by normative alcohol culture, our general lack of understanding of the complexities of addiction and the deeply confusing information that exists in the world related to alcohol.

How Does One ‘Responsibly’ Consume a Cancer-Causing Poison?

Seems like an oxymoron, doesn’t it? We have mountains of evidence that points to the practically innumerable inherent risks and harms associated with alcohol consumption. Alcohol was classified as a Group 1 carcinogen in 1988 by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and we now know that alcohol is causally linked to at least 7 different types of cancer including mouth, throat, breast and liver. Both the World Health Organization and the World Heart Federation have clearly stated that there are no health benefits associated with alcohol and that the safest amount of alcohol for human consumption is none at all. 

These are the facts when it comes to alcohol. This is evidence-based, research-backed fact. 

Because the alcohol industry is most interested in profit, regardless of impact along the way, it is unlikely that alcohol companies, their marketing campaigns or their super slick SAPROs (social agents and public relations organizations) that front as education and awareness campaigns that largely contribute to the confusion, it is unlikely that we can expect to ever see the alcohol industry tell the truth about themselves. Which is why conversations like this one are vital.

A Note on Personal Responsibility

To be clear, I am not suggesting that we are not responsible for the choices that we make when it comes to alcohol; we all operate as autonomous beings who get to decide if, when and how much alcohol we wish to consume, to a point. But as I have mentioned, the factors that contribute to one’s propensity to develop a substance use issue typically happen long before any exposure to the substance and it is often not until we start using the addictive substance do we recognize that there might be an issue.

Beyond personal responsibility and the complexities of addiction, it is vitally important to acknowledge the larger context that we all exist within. The alcohol industry goes to extraordinary efforts to control the narrative and public perception of alcohol, which includes actions like:

  • spending billions a year on marketing campaigns

  • hiring lobbyists to influence public policy in their favor 

  • the creation of social aspects and public relations organizations (SAPROs) which are essentially organizations that are funded by the alcohol industry that present themselves under the guise of education and harm reduction but actually serve to further muddy the waters while failing to reduce harm in the process. You can see examples of SAPROs here and here

Because of these extensive efforts, the general public has a very skewed perception and understanding of the risks and harms inherent in alcohol use. Collectively, we also hold many outdated opinions about addiction that fail to adequately capture the complexities of lived experiences that contribute to one’s propensity for developing an addiction. In the face of confusing information about alcohol and a lack of understanding when it comes to addiction, it becomes a lot easier to embrace the tagline and narrative of responsible drinking. 

What I hope has become clear is that while the ‘Drink Responsibly’ tagline presents as a simple, straightforward catchphrase, in reality, it is anything but. This tagline is part of a larger, strategic effort by the alcohol industry to create confusion around alcohol’s inherent risks and harms while simultaneously shirking all responsibility for their role in manufacturing and selling harmful products. What’s worse, through the use of things like SAPROs, the alcohol industry positions themselves as in support of increased awareness and education when it comes to alcohol and alcohol consumption but through these channels, create further confusion and uncertainty by using vague language and failing to cite evidence or science despite their being copious amounts of it. These actions are taken intentionally and function to uphold confusion and keep people drinking. When in a state of confusion, it's more likely that individuals continue doing what they know (and what often reinforces what they want to continue doing) than seek out accurate information. We are being manipulated and lied to and we deserve better. 

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