A few weeks ago I travelled through East Africa to conduct workshops with national alcohol policy networks from Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and even the East African Alcohol Policy Alliance. Two slides I showed follow and a topic we discussed very deeply was this one:

4 Types of alcohol harm in the world

4 Types of alcohol harm in the world

Generally we see four types of alcohol harm in every society around the world where the global alcohol industry is operating to produce, distribute, market and sell alcohol. And most people are familiar with the fact that alcohol is harmful to a human’s health and well-being. Fewer people are aware of the social harm caused by alcohol use. And even few decision-makers take candidly into consideration that alcohol has an overall negative impact on the economy, the productivity and prosperity of a society. Much has to be said and written, explained and spread about those harms of alcohol.

But this blog entry deals with the least considered alcohol harm: Democratic harm.

Alcohol harms democracy in complex and several ways

Alcohol harms democracy in complex and several ways

Basically everywhere I go to either build capacity for being active citizens and advocators for a better world, better communities and living conditions; or to advocate myself for a life set free from alcohol harm, I will at one point address the tremendous negative impact of alcohol use on democracy.

Just yesterday I showed that slide to a huge group of sober scouts:

Many dimensions of alcohol's detrimental impact on democracy

Many dimensions of alcohol’s detrimental impact on democracy

Today, like every September 15, is International Day of Democracy, or short: Democracy Day. This year’s theme is no other than: “Strengthening Voices For Democracy”.

Democracy is one of the core values, one of the virtues that make the essence of IOGT International. We celebrate Democracy Day since 1851 and we celebrate democracy every single day.

Listening and learning, active participation, the merit of an argument, equality, diversity #DemocracyDay

Listening and learning, active participation, the merit of an argument, equality, diversity

And this heart-driven work for more than 160 years for democracy, for active citizenship and for empowering individuals to be able to say “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.” (William Ernest Henley)  has sharpened our view for how alcohol use and the operations of the global alcohol industry harm, undermine and subvert values of democracy, democratic institution and the power of citizens to steer the societies and communities they live in.

Alcohol use makes people passive, apathetic and withdrawn into the private instead of being active, creative, critically thinking in the public realm. This is a simple fact that people with hangovers easily agree with. It becomes even more true when considering alcohol addiction: the more alcohol takes the focus of a human’s life, the less is there effort to find meaning somewhere else.

This dimension of alcohol’s democratic harm is very destructive for communities because they loose out on a lot of experience, skills and know-how from formerly crucial community members. We can see this around the world but the impact is felt most severely in low- and middle income countries. To eradicate poverty and kick-start sustainable development active, creative, innovative citizens are essential.

And we remember the truth of this fact when we think back in Western history as well: in the beginning of the industrial revolution industrialists used to pay workers in alcohol. That would keep them apathetic and passive, instead of asking for better working conditions, better wages and a better society to live in. Our IOGT movement did a great job together with other people’s movements to turn this around.

In Africa during our workshops the participants told me that politicians still employ this approach in their countries today: people are often given alcohol for free to attend their political events and eventually cast their vote in favor – which attracts people to the events and also keeps them muted and passive, instead of critically thinking and questioning the politicians.

"lets get the tv and the radio to play our tune again its 'bout time we got some airplay of our version of events" #DemocracyDay

“lets get the tv and the radio
to play our tune again
its ’bout time we got some airplay of our version of events”

When we celebrate today Democracy Day under the theme “Strengthening Voices For Democracy” it is obviously crucial to address this dimension of alcohol’s democratic harm: fuelled escapism, passivity, dependency and loss of civic potential.

As you can see from the slides I share with you, there’s more democratic harm. I want to take a look for a moment at the role of the public space. An open, accessible and free public realm is essential for democracy. It is only in a public realm that allows diversity where voices for democracy can be articulated and can be heard. The alcohol industry, however, destroys this kind of public realm through the proliferation of alcohol marketing and the intoxication of all social events with alcohol.

It means that young people can hardly find social settings and cultural events in their leisure time and in public realms that are safe, free from alcohol, open to all and enabling. 67% of young Swedes use alcohol because there is nothing else to do – a huge burden on democracy and on strengthening voices for democracy.

The most obvious democratic harm in this is that not all humans, citizens are portrayed as equal. Everyone knows the myriad of unethical advertisements that depict women objectified and sexualized. Like that alcohol marketing contributes to a limitation of the public realm.

Looking at the issue more deeply, we can today see that alcohol marketing also undermines the media’s role as fourth power in a democratic society. Alcohol marketing money more and more buys the proper facts appear in articles about alcohol, and of course unwelcome evidence to be left outside the reporting. We can see this clearly in countries where heated debates about alcohol policy regulations are going on. In Lithuania in 2012, where a marketing ban was about to take effect, all of a sudden only the arguments, facts and opinions of Big Alcohol appeared in the media. A more recent example is the European media outlet EurActive. They run a a special dossier called “Fighting alcohol harm: the EU’s strategy under review”.

It looks like this, sponsored by AB-Inbev, the world’s largest brewer, and the Brewers of Europe.

Not investigative but biased journalism

Not investigative but biased journalism

This is a trend now in 21st century democracies that topic section like public health are being sponsored. The pitfalls for democracy and for strengthening voices for democracy become obvious with this example of how the global alcohol industry is operating.

Another one can be seen in the development debate. The Guardian is a sad example:

Buying an image... #BigAlcohol

Buying an image… #BigAlcohol

Here the “Farming and food security hub” of The Guardian’s Global Professionals Network is sponsored by SAB Miller. It’s a sure thing that on this page there’ll hardly by investigative journalism about Big Alcohol’s climate and environmental footprint. I wrote a blog about this topic a few days ago.

Democracy is being harmed because the media’s independence and potential to report critically, objectively and balanced is being compromised. I think that Emelie Sandé put the problem in beautiful words and wonderful melody:

…cause we all matter too
if the truth has been forbidden
then we’re breaking all the rules
so come on, come on
come on, come on,
lets get the tv and the radio
to play our tune again
its ’bout time we got some airplay of our version of events…”

More important in democracy than the media are the parliament and the government, the legislative and the executive parts of the political system. They are subjected to aggressive lobbying of Big Alcohol and there are examples from all around the world. I only have space for a few of them.

Let’s start with Europe and the European Union, where the alcohol industry is both sitting inside the European Commission and the European Parliament. Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht is a clear example of conflict of interest:

Million Euro stake in alcohol industry (wine production and retail) #ConflictOfInterest

Million Euro stake in alcohol industry (wine production and retail) #ConflictOfInterest

He has a €1.000.000 stake in the production and retail of wine, and so it is obvious that he is not independent when it comes to leading free trade negotiations with the USA, concerning the TTIP (Trans-atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership).

Maybe that could be a reason why 93% of all European Commission meetings with stakeholders about the TTIP have been held with Big Business, including Big Alcohol.

Pro-business versus democracy

Pro-business versus democracy

Inside the European Parliament (see EP Beer Club) we know of many examples like this French (former) Member of the European Parliament (MEP):

Across the Atlantic Big Alcohol is also lobbying aggressively, as the material by Open Source Secrets shows:

Aggressive lobbying spending by #BigAlcohol

Aggressive lobbying spending by #BigAlcohol

We see the heavy spending of huge sums for aggressive lobbying in Washington. And we can also see the number reported clients, lobbyists employed and revolvers – all indicators for Big Alcohol’s efforts to disable democracy.

Another sad case comes from South Africa. This case actually exemplifies the point we discussed in all the workshops, as shown above in the slides: democratic harm to the transparent, accountable workings of democratic institutions our democracy are founded upon. Parliaments, governments, political parties and the media are all negatively affected to live up to their democratic functions.

This is an article in the business section of The Guardian, from March 2013. It tells about a huge donation by SAB Miller paid to the African National Congress (ANC) in South Africa: $635,000.

SAB Miller sells this to The Guardian as – read closely – contribution to the thriving democracy in South Africa.



Maybe you wouldn’t expect The Guardian to question this statement of  SAB Miller in terms of the different aspects of alcohol harm I addressed above. But you would expect that The Guardian would manage to mention that there is right now – and at that time of the year – a move within the ANC-led government to ban alcohol marketing in South Africa. SAB Miller has taken a clear stand against this policy to protect and promote public health, but the Health Minister is large parts of the government and South African civil society are poised to get this legislation done.

No word about that in The Guardian. This background puts the timely donation to the ANC in a different light. It smells of bribery and corruption – but it is for sure no virtuous giving to enhance democracy.

Alcohol harms democracy in many ways: it inhibits people’s capacities and potential to be active citizens and take charge of their communities and societies; it erodes the democratic mechanisms of our institutions; it disables civil society’s access to decision-making processes and democratic participation; it hijacks the public realm for commercial interests, not public interests. This is important to understand to be able to make more and better efforts to protect the rights of those voices of normal people, NGOs, and independent researchers to make democracy reality and vibrant.

For further reading:

More information on Big Alcohol operations disabling democracy

Policy Brief by Friends Of The Earth Europe: “AB InBev – a key voice in the EU alcohol debate. A briefing on the alcohol lobby in Brussels and the potential for conflicts of interest”

Some background

concerning United Nations International Day of Democracy:

Democracy is a universal value based on the freely expressed will of people to determine their own political, economic, social and cultural systems and their full participation in all aspects of their lives.

While democracies share common features, there is no single model of democracy. Activities carried out by the United Nations in support of efforts of Governments to promote and consolidate democracy are undertaken in accordance with the UN Charter, and only at the specific request of the Member States concerned.

The UN General Assembly, in resolutionA/62/7 (2007)  encouraged Governments to strengthen national programmes devoted to the promotion and consolidation of democracy, and also decided that 15 September of each year should be observed as the International Day of Democracy.

The subject of this year’s theme — Strengthening Voices for Democracy — aims to shine a spotlight on the importance of people’s voices, both expressed directly and through their elected representatives, in today’s political, economic, social, developmental, environmental and technological debates. The ability of people to raise their voices and decide how they are governed lies at the heart of democracy.

The Inter-Parliamentary Union is promoting the International Day of Democracy through its Member Parliaments in 162 countries around the world.

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