In the Doghouse

Big Alcohol Is #COVIDwashing the Vaccine

The public health community often sections off its prevention efforts on two types of harm: communicable and non-communicable disease. Communicable diseases are contagious, e.g. bacteria and viruses. Noncommunicable diseases are the consequences of lifestyle harms, e.g. drug overdose and heart disease. CoVID-19 threatens to be the defining communicable disease crisis for half the world's population. Alcohol harm forms a long-standing, ever-increasing threat to every generation.

Leave it to Big Alcohol, then, to shove the latter on those trying to deal with the former.

As the COVID-19 vaccine gets widely distributed in the United States, global alcohol corporations are taking note and taking advantage. Annheuser-Busch InBev, fresh off a remarkably sleazy lie over donating all of its Super Bowl ad space to vaccine awareness, is now offering free beers to anyone providing proof of vaccination. That proof must be provided online along with full name, email address, and date of birth. This is not so Budweiser can verify vaccine status (legally, Budweiser can't do that regardless), it's so they can collect marketing information.

Faux craft brewer Sam Adams is doing the same in exchange for an Instagram bump. The state of New Jersey is doing the same, and while most people not from Philadelphia agree there is less harm derived from promoting New Jersey than from promoting alcohol, state sponsorship of drinking threatens to create more lasting concerns. All of these associations between drinking and COVID-19 vaccines create a three-fold problem.

First, they are #COVIDwashing. For the past year and change, the United States has been awash in alcohol companies trying to increase their profits amidst increases in binge drinking and psychological distress. State governments have been complicit in this, culminating in legislative disasters like California's current attempts to massively deregulate alcohol sales. And the worst companies (Annheuser-Busch, you're up again) have attempted to directly tie alcohol to public health.

Second, alcohol use has likely worsened the scope of the pandemic.  Alcohol suppresses the immune system, making heavier drinkers more likely to contract the virus and develop higher viral load. Densely packed bars and clubs have created the ideal spaces for person-to-person transmission, especially when intoxication makes it easier to neglect social distancing, masking, and other protective behaviors. On top of that, alcohol causes inflammation, and lung inflammation--specifically, suffocation as inflamed lungs fill with pus and fluid--is the primary driver of death from the disease.

But the worst aspect of this is the threat that alcohol may impair the development of immunity. Heavy drinking very clearly inhibits immune response, and having a strong initial immune response is fundamental lasting immunity. It is not clear that one free beer makes a difference, but following it up with two incontrovertibly puts a damper on immune function.

The pandemic still blazes worldwide, including in the United States. The vaccine shows promise to slow the tide of harm. The country still needs real leadership, however, to not help Big Alcohol--the merchants of a harm that every generation experiences, and which will never have a vaccine.