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How (and Why) to Destroy Big Alcohol
Author James Wilt has a radical plan to make drinking less capitalist, less harmful, and more fun.
Something you realize when you read a lot of books about booze is that there are really only three books about booze. There are business histories like Bitter Brew and Last Call; cultural histories like A Short History of Drunkenness and Girly Drinks; and memoirs from industry pros and colorfully drunken amateurs alike. Also cocktail recipe books, but you don’t really read those. Or at least, I don’t. Whatever. My point is: as an independent journalist who’s been covering the drinks business—or “beverage alcohol,” in the jargon—for going on a dozen years now, I’ve read plenty of books about the hard stuff, and while some are truly terrific, they all more or less fit into one of those three categories. Drinking Up the Revolution: How to Smash Big Alcohol and Reclaim Working-Class Joy, on the other hand, does not.
Published earlier this year by Repeater, James Wilt’s sophomore effort is a radical, challenging, and persuasive broadside against the global booze business. In the book, Wilt meticulously lays out how highly consolidated multinational firms like Anheuser-Busch InBev, Heineken, and Diageo have systematically obfuscated alcohol’s public-health consequences with savvy spin, while flooding communities (particularly ones that are low-income, rural, and predominantly of color) all over the world (especially in the Global South) with product, and privatizing the resulting harm through the framework of individual choice. “Not only is it an ethical issue for multinationals to download this responsibility onto the end-user, thus absolving themselves; it also just doesn't work,” the author said.
I interviewed Wilt earlier this fall for my independent newsletter, Fingers, where I publish original coverage and commentary about drinking in America. We spoke about his research, his own relationship with alcohol, and his vision for a radical future in which booze is regulated and produced as a public good rather than a for-profit commodity—plus so much more. It’s the rare booze book that synthesizes the business and culture of drinking into an adversarial critique without veering into neo-prohibitionism, but I think Wilt pulls it off in Drinking Up the Revolution. “A lot of great, well-meaning public-health people underestimate the joyous qualities found within alcohol,” he told me, “which is why I argue for degrowing Big Alcohol, and regrowing community-owned and -controlled alternatives” where drinking is an option, but not the only option.
Speaking of options: there used to be three types of booze books, but Drinking Up the Revolution proves the existence of a fourth. It’s an unsparing and adversarial analysis of the industry’s many ills that still holds out hope for a future worth fighting for—and of course, drinking in, too.
Dave Infante, Fingers: Hey James, thanks for joining me. I’ve been telling everybody I know that they should go read your new book Drinking Up the Revolution: How To Smash Big Alcohol and Reclaim Working-Class Joy. I’m sure you’ve heard this question a lot, so you’re probably ready for it: do you drink, James?
James Wilt: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it. I don’t drink at the moment, no. I drank for many years, and I'm taking a break for now. Doesn't mean that I won't in the future. It's just kind of an extended sort of resetting, so to speak,
Good for you. Not disqualifying, and frankly probably clarifying for the subject matter that you’ve taken on in your book. Before we get into the text itself, I’d like to get a little bit of backstory for people who aren’t familiar with you and with your work. How did you come to write a book about the booze business?
I've been a freelance journalist for a long while now. I went through journalism school, tried to be a journalist for a couple of years. The state of the industry made that more difficult, as I'm sure you can relate.
Nope, I’m doing great.
Oh yeah, making the big bucks, eh? [Laughs.] So I ended up writing my first book on public transit, autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, ride-hailing, all that kind of thing. Then I went to grad school, and I’m still in grad school, but over the years, having drunk a lot, I became interested in various aspects of the industry, and I started to write about it. One turning point for me was this article that I wrote for the Globe and Mail on some documents that I got from alcohol lobby groups in Canada. They’d successfully shut down a pilot project in the Northern Territory of the Yukon, where officials had been trying to see what would happen if they labeled certain bottles with specific health warnings about cancer risks and things like that. So the industry shut that down, I got these documents, and I wrote an article about it. At that point, I started to think more about the actual industry side of alcohol, the behind-the-scenes things that we as drinkers might not always see.
You’re pursuing a Ph.D. right now, right? In what discipline?
I'm doing my Ph.D. in geography, mostly looking at the history of the oil and gas businesses in Canada. Specifically, I'm looking at oil spills and how the industry has kind of conceived of cleaning up oil spills once they spill, which is not usually very successful. It's not exactly related to the other stuff I write on. But I find it interesting to interrogate different industries or different situations over a sustained period. So yeah, that's how this book came to be also.
So I recently finished Drinking Up the Revolution. I think it’s one of the most challenging, provocative, and compelling critiques of the beverage-alcohol industry that I've ever read. It connects the dots between massive multinational corporations exerting the power of global capital, and the beverages that many of us form community and culture around, and genuinely enjoy consuming. You get into the absolute savvy with which big alcohol producers exert pressure on the media, on the governments that have jurisdiction over the markets that they do business in, to get the returns that they're seeking and continue that accumulation that they so crave. Before we get into all those tactical assessments, what’s your moral assessment of alcohol as a product, and alcohol as an industry?
Obviously, alcohol has been produced, consumed, and enjoyed as a central part of many societies for thousands of years. We traditionally talk about and conceive of alcohol via its use value. It has obvious benefits. Yes, in terms of taste and aesthetics, but also in terms of relaxation and sociability and self-medication for people living in this horrendous world where mass death is happening constantly. So there's a use value aspect of alcohol. I think this is to be celebrated and assessed very seriously. Something that the public health crowd often doesn't engage with meaningfully is the fact that people use alcohol recognizing that it has certain consequences, and some of those consequences are desirable. All that is to say alcohol is a substance I don't think can really be talked about outside of its relations within social contexts.
My concern in the book is that for the most part, writing, talking, thinking about alcohol tends to only focus on the use values, which again, are great. I’m not going to knock those. The problem is that we don't really talk about the exchange values, and the profiteering that goes on behind the scenes in order to massively and constantly expand the access to the substance in a way that systematically downplays a lot of the health and the social risks that we learn more about every single day. My concern is less with alcohol as a substance, though we have to grapple with the specific characteristics of it. But at the same time, what really needs to be honed in on is the way that the industry has become incredibly hegemonic to the point where we don't really even think about alcohol’s ubiquity within society. That’s the result of a very concerted effort by industry flexing their political power and consolidating capital at a global level over the period of decades. A vast majority of the world’s beer and spirits specifically, less so wine, is now produced by a small handful of companies. The way that they can use that scale to dominate markets, to push their products so many different ways, that’s my concern. Alcohol has all these great use values, and there’s a potential to celebrate that in lower-risk ways, but it’s being undermined by the fact that it's being produced exclusively for profit.
I think a lot of good-faith, liberal-minded people would balk at the idea of consolidation and commercialization as de facto bad. I was hoping we could talk about some of those negative externalities, those harms that you found to be caused by the corporatized global alcohol trade. What are some of the major ones?
I’m always careful in talking about this because I don't want to come across as some sort of Nancy Reagan fear-mongering type, but alcohol is an incredibly potent substance on many levels. The World Health Organization estimates that 3 million people a year die from alcohol-related harms. A lot of those are traumatic injuries from car crashes, falls, and drownings, but there are also chronic diseases, cancers, alcohol-use disorders, dependencies, all these kinds of things. I'm just blazing through those because I don't want to spend too much time thinking about all the—
Yeah, skip the “boring” medical shit!
Right! [Laughing] But alcohol’s impact on the body is pretty comprehensive. Public health researchers talk about how, compared to other substances that target one or two major bodily systems, alcohol impacts many, many different facets. There's a lot of focus on the brain now, and what alcohol does to gray matter and its relationship to dementia, which is fascinating and concerning in itself.
People will say, Okay, but this has been a problem for thousands of years since alcohol was invented. This is true. But I'd say that for the most part throughout history, though alcohol has been produced and consumed often in very high-risk ways, it has been quite localized. It’s been constrained by the amount that a household can produce—which is a fair bit, let's not understate it, but its ubiquity was far from the level of is at today.
“If you want people to drink in lower-risk ways, you have to structurally shift built environments, to shift opportunities for people to experience pleasure and joy in other ways. You have to actually give people other things to do and reshape the world that we live in.”
Today, under this production by global capital, it has become just so much more available and accessible in basically every arena that you can think of. As producers have continued to consolidate, we have mostly seen drinking rates increase. The way for alcohol companies to produce greater profits is to produce greater volumes of alcohol to be consumed. We’ve seen this throughout especially in the Global South, as the alcohol industry is continuing to push into new markets. Vietnam is the example I gave early on in the book: there's a long drinking culture in Vietnam, households producing rice wines, that kind of informal thing. But the formal count of alcohol consumption has skyrocketed in the last decade or so, as global capital has flooded the market with commercial alcohol. There are a whole bunch of massive companies that are fighting over Vietnam or any number of other Global South countries, because they see them as the most profitable spots to be investing for the future. The issue here isn't that alcohol has not been consumed in places before. It’s that, in order to generate far greater profits, and to stay competitive within this global marketplace of incredibly large multinationals, volume of alcohol really is their number one priority.
The reason that this matters is that we know that there are lower-risk drinking guidelines. The United Kingdom, for example, has pretty sophisticated low-risk drinking guidelines that say that 14 units over the course of a week is a low-risk amount. That works out about a beer a day at 355 milliliters and 5% alcohol by volume. And the U.K.’s standard units are very low compared to the US and Canada! The W.H.O.’s national inventory of drinking statistics show that these guidelines are like three or four times lower than what the average drinker in his respective country is actually using. In order to actually create a society or a country in which low-risk drinking is actually structurally incentivized, we have to take on the giant multinationals that not only produce, but distribute and retail alcohol as well, because they are structurally incentivized to promote higher-risk drinking.
And yet the companies themselves often emphasize moderation, right? Taglines like “Please drink responsibly,” and so on. You argue in your book that this is a way to individualize the choice to use alcohol and privatize the harms and costs related to its use. Can you unpack that idea a bit?
This discourse has been very carefully crafted by the industry. They will describe what they're doing as harm reduction, which is incredibly cynical, given the very radical roots of harm reduction is like a life-saving response to the HIV-AIDS crisis, and more recently, to crises stemming from criminalized drug use. They really try to individualize this problem through an “education” style that some researchers have described as “strategically ambiguous.” It gives you what is perceived as enough information to make a “healthy” decision, but leaves out a lot of important details. It’s incredibly ineffective, and it's very intentionally ineffective. So not only is it an ethical issue for multinationals to download this responsibility onto the end-user, thus absolving themselves; it also just doesn't work.
All of this is done within the broader framework of what the industry describes as “self-regulation.” It’s a concept advanced by “arm's-length” lobby organizations like The Portman Group and DrinkAware, which come up with industry codes of conduct that companies agree to abide by, or whatever. But once again, these are almost completely ineffective, and we know this from tons of research. The alternative to this would be actual government regulation. If you want people to drink in lower-risk ways, you have to structurally shift built environments, to shift opportunities for people to experience pleasure and joy in other ways. You have to actually give people other things to do and reshape the world that we live in. Libertarians of the world might describe that as a “nanny state,” but that’s an actual, structural public health response to a high-risk product. The industry has just successfully individualized alcohol to the point where that seems not only infeasible, but also not desirable, which I think really is a testament to their power.
How does the craft beverage movement fit within this framework? Small breweries and distilleries don’t produce nearly as much alcohol as Anheuser-Busch InBev or Diageo or Molson Coors, but they’re not something you can swat away as an aberration, either. So how do you reconcile the relatively recent emergence of the craft beverage industry in your analysis of the global booze business?
When I drank, I would personally drink craft beer. There are good reasons for people to enjoy locally produced “craft” beers: they taste good, they're experimental, they’re locally owned, all these sorts of things. But as for how it fits in, there are a couple of things going on. For one, craft breweries have been systematically picked off Big Alcohol over the last decade or so. ABI acquiring Goose Island is the famous example, but there have been many others. If that's not happening, Big Alcohol has been very successful at essentially letting craft breweries experiment to come up with legitimate brewing innovations, then basically just copying them and pushing those replicas out through their own networks. In contrast to the sort of libertarian fantasy that craft beer will erode the market share and really undercut Big Alcohol, it's been absorbed quite neatly. There's definitely been conflict, but it hasn't fundamentally challenged the political economy of the industry. The other thing that's been going on is that a lot of the largest craft breweries in the country, though they’re still independently owned, are now gigantic. I'm not gonna call them Big Alcohol, but they are large capital players within their own right.
You’re talking about firms like Yuengling, Boston Beer Company, Sierra Nevada… New Belgium and Bell’s are now owned by a subsidiary of Japan’s Kirin, but prior to that they were top-10 craft breweries on their own, too.
Right. They've got their own massive influence within that sphere. A lot of people who are in legitimately local, independent craft brewing scenes, look at this with some level of contempt because it’s not representative of the craft brewing scene as a whole. But in terms of volume and prominence, this is what we have to talk about when we're talking about the craft brewing industry. The way that craft brewing has been used to pursue tax codes and tax breaks is quite instructive, too. Studies of the tax benefits from the Craft Beverage Modernization and Tax Reform Act show that like 90% of its benefits accrued to the largest players. [Note: This ranges by category: ~67% spirits, 69% beer, 92% wine, per a 2022 Treasury analysis.] I don’t know what happens in the U.S., but what happens with small-business rhetoric in Canada is that it can be used as convenient cover for larger capital to really assert dominance through back channels. So that's something to be cautious of when considering craft beverage as well.
That doesn't require the small businesses themselves to be complicit, either. Right? To my eye, for the most part, craft breweries are inadvertently providing air cover for corporate actors that control more of the media messaging and have closer intimacy with policymakers.
No, no, for sure. Exactly. One more example: in Ontario, there's this ongoing push to deregulate alcohol sales, including in corner stores. Industry advocates’ response to criticism on this is Oh, we’re going to help get craft beers in the corner stores. It’s this wedge, as a way to open up the marketplace to Big Alcohol in years to come. In that way, craft beverage can be used as a sort of cudgel. That doesn’t necessarily fault the legitimately local and independent craft brewers, who have major distribution issues because distribution is basically dominated by those major players. They have to do what they need to do in order to sell their products. But in the big picture it is serving that function, which has to be interrogated.
Let’s talk about supply vs. demand. I think it’s fair to assume that the reason people drink is because they like to drink. I like alcohol, I enjoy it. You’ve enjoyed it. And we’re told the market is going to deliver the best goods for the best price. The market will decide in the case of alcohol and price.
We have to think more critically about the sheer ubiquity of alcohol. The fact that it is procurable anywhere… I mean, online delivery, takeouts from bars and restaurants, all these things are for the most part new, but they’re already becoming normalized and situated within society as just another way to access this good that everyone wants. It speaks to the craftiness of the industry itself. My vision of alcohol retail speaks to the broader politics of the book, which may be controversial. But I think it really has to come down to owning, controlling, and retailing, alcohol as a public good, as opposed to something that is primarily motivated by private profit. There are a lot of places where the state owns retailers—though I think the state of Washington rescinded their control somewhat recently, so it’s not like this isn't a live political issue. But the fact is that state-run stores continue to function in a very effective way. Public health research supports this: state-owned or publicly-owned retailers can more directly control the pricing, the density, and the hours, especially in rural and remote areas, which is important for equity and access to alcohol. They can provide good unionized work, which should be a priority for anyone on the left or in progressive circles. In general, by eliminating or moderating the profit motive, you can try to reduce the amount that alcohol is pushed without the actual costs of health and society being factored in.
No capitalist industry can operate without some sort of latent demand. That’s just part of the deal. But part of scrutinizing the supply side is thinking through the product innovations that have honed in on people's legitimate concerns about some of the health impacts of alcohol. Notice how nutritional information isn't mandated at all on most alcoholic beverages, but it is disclosed very willingly by hard seltzer companies that those beverages have low sugar, low carbs, and under 100 calories.
Sure, these are supply responses to consumer demand. You don’t lose that customer—you offer them another product.
Right, you integrate the concerns into new products, and then you just ratchet that up. This is how the industry morphs and how it shapes us. It’s not that it just creates a beverage, and then it automatically gets taken up. There's a lot of reflexivity and a lot of interaction between drinkers and the products themselves. Like the memes around White Claw, for example. That’s a very reflexive thing, but it does not challenge the political economy of Big Alcohol. The industry is very adept at pivoting and integrating.
Absolutely. Let's talk about supply and demand in the context of something near and dear to my heart, which is the malt liquor industry segment of the marketplace here in the US in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. I've reported on it before, and it seems like there are contemporary lessons to be learned from how that all went down. There’s a benign version of that story that's really framed as Well, malt liquor just organically found a market of people who liked it. Nothing sinister about that! That is not the story I wound up writing about malt liquor, and it’s not the one you wound up writing in the book. Tease out the flaws in that demand-side narrative, as you see them.
Sure, so in that part of the book, I was looking at the racialization of the “problem drinker.” One aspect of this is the way harms like fetal alcohol syndrome (FASD) are pathologized and racialized. Another aspect is the geographic and white-supremacist underpinnings of alcohol, and specifically liquor store concentration in neighborhoods, which is where this plays out. There’s a through-line. Black drinkers were pathologized as just having an innate desire for malt liquor. The way it was marketed, the way that retail was specifically contained in Black neighborhoods where it wasn't mixed with other options, was very pronounced. The alcohol landscapes in the U.S. and Canada are deeply racialized and connected to the way that land-use planning has played out in terms of white flight, and also just the concentration of racialization and poverty within certain neighborhoods.
“The world sucks for most people. The alienation, the exploitation, and everything else is just so devastating, especially during this pandemic. So I think it's necessary to come up with alternatives, which is why I argue for degrowing Big Alcohol, and regrowing community-owned-and-controlled alternatives.”
When you say this is the result of white supremacy, can you expand on that linkage a bit more? I think even well-meaning audiences sometimes glaze over when people blame everything on white supremacy and capitalism. I know you’re not just throwing out buzzwords.
That’s totally true. This has to do with zoning laws, and organized abandonment, and the way marketing was very specifically targeted. There was a review of 10,000 zip codes across the U.S. that argued the mismatches between alcohol demand and the supply of liquor stores within urban neighborhoods constituted an “environmental injustice” for minorities and low-income persons. This is not just the result of insatiable demand. The supply has been really targeted and restricted to certain areas. This is not to eliminate the agency of drinkers in these situations. They’re still participating in these systems. But these systems are rooted in structures of racism.
One more thing I’ll say on this. There have been a lot of studies on the whiteness of craft breweries as an industry, but also like the geographies of craft beer. There’s contestation about whether craft beer leads or follows gentrification. But there's no doubt at all that it plays some role in gentrification.
To me, whether a craft brewery leads or follows gentrification is sort of a distinction without a difference. The displacement occurs either way.
Absolutely. And craft beer, from production all the way down to consumption, is overwhelmingly white and male. It’s almost unequivocal, especially if you look at like ownership and the head brewer positions. That’s another angle to think about regarding the ways that alcohol has been racialized. Then of course, there’s policing and incarceration, and the way that that’s targeted to public drinking and intoxication in highly racialized ways, too.
You write about a radical politics of destroying the global alcohol trade, but how can those politics give us a shot at more joy? A lot of people might perceive your argument on its face as prohibitionist, but I don’t think that’s the one you’re making.
I appreciate the opportunity to speak on this, because I think a lot of great, well-meaning public-health people underestimate the joyous qualities found within alcohol. The first half of the book’s “manifesto” does talk about degrowing Big Alcohol: reducing the density, increasing pricing, doing all these things are very contested, but ultimately evidence-based ways of like driving down industry revenues and profits as well as consumption and harm. But I don't want to end it there, because I think that's where a lot of public health people end it, and then they get confused why people—
Why everybody fucking hates their ideas?
Exactly! [Laughs] Like, to reiterate, the world sucks for most people. The alienation, the exploitation, and everything else is just so devastating, especially during this pandemic. So I think it's necessary to come up with alternatives, which is why I argue for degrowing Big Alcohol, and regrowing community-owned and -controlled alternatives. Those would include non-alcohol-centric public spaces, like public parks, and all-age venues and late-night places for people to go where alcohol is present but not necessarily the only thing that you have to use.
For sure. Look at Muslim-majority countries where alcohol isn’t used extensively. There are hundreds of millions of people throughout the world who like lots of fun things that don't revolve around alcohol. Thinking about that is worthwhile! Creating legitimate intoxicating alternatives to alcohol is really worthwhile as well. We've seen this big surge in non-alcoholic versions of alcoholic beverages. There's a lot of merit to that, and I think that that should be publicly owned and scaled up. But at the same time, it’s somewhat patronizing to just swap out an alcoholic for a non-alcoholic drink as though someone’s not gonna notice the difference. Like, there's a reason that people drink. So if you really want people to not experience the harms of alcohol, you gotta give them something that feels like the experience of drinking alcohol. There’s really interesting R&D work going into synthetic alcohol. But it's not something that I bank on; I think the better alternative is legalizing and regulating criminalized drugs. Things like cannabis, psychedelics, and other drugs people already use and derive pleasure from… we’ve already seen the case being made for substitutions. I think there’s a lot of merit to giving people who have used alcohol in high-risk ways the option to use cannabis, or use LSD, or use mushrooms, instead. That confronts head-on the fact that people want to experience alternative consciousness and experience pleasure.
The really important part about that is, that if we're going to legalize and regulate other drugs, we have to learn from the experience of the alcohol industry. And we have to have a publicly owned and controlled industry in order to maximize the opportunities and the use values while minimizing the potential harms that come from it. I’m not saying that LSD, or mushrooms, or whatever drug we're talking about, is more harmful than alcohol. Alcohol is for a lot of reasons especially detrimental. But we’ve already seen some of the same concentration happening in Canada’s cannabis industry, where a few companies are consolidating power, which has all sorts of impacts on workers and the rest. We also need structural harm reduction in ways that the alcohol industry is definitely not talking about, like universal healthcare. That’s absolutely imperative. Primary healthcare for alcohol disorders needs to be improved, too: people need access to medication-assisted treatment, non-abstinence-based peer support groups, and other resources that don’t require you to give up alcohol for life in order to be able to talk about these sorts of things.
And at an infrastructural level, the highest rates of harm that occur from alcohol are often associated with people who don't have housing, or who are forced to drink and drive because there is no good public transit in their area. If we want to address drunk driving, which is one of the biggest causes of alcohol-related harm, provide free and high-quality transit! Transit that runs throughout the night, that gives people an opportunity to hop on a train or a bus and get home safely. These are structural things that actually will improve safety for people.
And the final thing is understanding this issue in a global context and really committing to solidarity and reparations for like colonized and oppressed countries throughout the world. For a lot of very poor countries, especially in sub-Saharan Africa, alcohol is one of the few industries and one of the few tax bases that they can rely on. When a government is essentially dependent on the alcohol industry, it creates all sorts of very intense structural harms. As drinking rates begin to stagnate, especially among the younger people in North America or Europe against the wishes of the industry, there is a lot of migration of industry to other countries in the Global South. This is going to continue to escalate.
Right on, thanks for your time, James.
Of course, thanks for having me.