At the Bottom of the Bottle
By Hazel Buckingham
It seemed to begin as a humorous coping mechanism in the early days of the murmurs of COVID-19 in New Zealand. Snapchats of people with baskets of wine and beer “stocking up on the essentials” before lockdown and memes circulating about ‘entertaining’ home-schooling methods teaching children fractions with a wine glass. Then came the determination by the government that alcohol was an ‘essential service’ via supermarkets and Trusts, and an amendment to that decision later on that saw online sales and delivery also classified as necessities. Zoom happy hours are now the new norm, and drinking during work hours is increasing too, with many Kiwis noticing that the five weeks of lockdown may have been the start of new drinking habits that are pretty damn difficult to shake.
There’s been reports and research released all over the show regarding alcohol sales and drinking habits during this time and it’s hard to get an accurate picture of what is really going on.Some suggest alcohol spending has dramatically increased – the New Zealand Alcohol Beverages Council reported some liquor stores saw a 1800% spike in their daily sales prior to lockdown. Others claim we are actually decreasing our drinking habits, for example research by Nielsen and our Health Promotion Agency suggests 34% of New Zealanders are drinking less than usual. Regardless, it’s clear that alcohol is a hot topic surrounding COVID-19. While some suggest the crisis has simply highlighted our already unhealthy Kiwi drinking culture, I think it goes a bit deeper than that...
Tobacco was deemed an essential product, despite the decades of evidence stacked against it regarding people’s wellbeing. Where do we draw the line between demonising an addiction and normalising one?
When you start trawling through media coverage of the alcohol debate, some key players pop up. The NZ Alcohol and Beverages Council (NZABC) referenced above is one of them, as is The Tomorrow Project who is running a ‘responsible drinking campaign’ called Cheers. Cheers touts that “#drinknormal is the new normal” and is encouraging Kiwis that their new normal drinking guidelines should be the same as the old ones. If these messages seem a bit suss, that’s because they are. Both of the groups are industry funded, with NZABC admitting that they are in fact an alcohol lobby group. The thought leaders that appear to be not only contributing,but leading the debate regarding alcohol access and sales during this pandemic have their own deeply rooted interests.
Okay, but we’re smart consumers, we can do our research and choose what information to consume, right? Yes, absolutely, but The New Zealand Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) has noted that under Level 4 our advertising landscape has changed dramatically, and they have reported an increase in alcohol advertising and promotion. While there is a Code for Advertising and Promotion of Alcohol that requires alcohol marketing to meet a higher standard of social responsibility than other products, this ‘requirement’ is self-regulated by the industry, and in the messy world of social media and user-generated content, is often forgotten. Who gets held to account for those memes suggesting wine o’clock is 9’oclock, or the livestreams of musicians or comedians that are ‘hosted’ by alcohol companies?
It’s no longer a case that advertising is something that plays in a designated break in your TV schedule. Advertisers are smart,and they team up with public relations experts, marketers and psychologists to get even smarter. Chances are you’ve read, liked, shared or laughed at content funded by a company and put there to increase brand credibility, engagement or visibility, without you even knowing it. The ASA has been clear that advertisers need to make sure their material protects people from harm, and specifically states it must not “Feature, imply, condone or encourage irresponsible or immoderate drinking.” I can’t help but wonder how this is regulated in the Facebook groups such as ‘Quarantine Beer Chugs’ which has
more than 330,000 members who connect online to ‘chug’ as many beers as possible,or the “see a shotgun do a shotgun” trend circulating on Snapchat where you down a drink as fast as possible and challenge others to beat your time, uploading videos of it as proof.
Another requirement is to make sure advertisers do not “depict alcohol as a necessity or that it is required for relaxation or that it has any therapeutic benefit.” This one is puzzling. While the New Zealand government (and many others around the world) deems alcohol to be an essential service, advertisers cannot depict it as one. What of the alcohol company that ran a social media ad resembling an official COVID-19 alert stating “Stay home, drink wine, save lives” or the sharing of those memes by various alcohol companies' social media pages suggesting wine and beer to be necessities? Alcohol availability and consumption is a moral issue and is touted by lobbyists as a “personal choice.” Sure, but I wonder how much of a personal choice is it really when we are being infiltrated by marketing messages from alcohol companies in ways that we aren’t even aware of,in an industry-regulated advertising environment, which has no specific guidelines for social media and user generated content. If we jump across the ditch to Australia we can see even dirtier tactics, with one beer company going so far as to give a three month supply of beer to anyone who adopts or fosters a dog from a particular shelter during lockdown. We need to be careful, conscious and aware. The journey to alcoholism is a slippery but quiet one. As one drinker put it, “I don’t feel like I’m becoming an alcoholic,” and that’s the thing, you don’t. Particularly when it is normalised around you in the media, on social media, in Zoom sessions, and deemed essential by the government. It’s a curious moral provocation to ask – why was cannabis not classified as essential, considering the risks and consequences the halt in the supply chain for this products may cause/is causing?
For example, public health experts have suggested we might see cannabis users experimenting with different, more harmful drugs due to not being able to access their usual. In a similar vein, tobacco was deemed an essential product, despite the decades of evidence stacked against it regarding people’s wellbeing. Where do we draw the line between demonising an addiction and normalising one?
Let’s be careful that the alcohol industry doesn’t use COVID-19 as a time to execute
some very effective lobbying and secure its place as New Zealand’s drug of choice. It is a group one carcinogen (in the same group as asbestos) that kills 15 people a week in New Zealand, after all....