The Road to Respectability

(Another in a series about how the Distilled Spirits Council led the transition of the public's perception of the liquor industry.)

All through the 1980s, the alcohol industry as a whole, and the distilled spirits segment in particular, found itself under unrelenting attack on two fronts. Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which had been founded on September 5, 1980, by Candice Lightner, a mother in California after her daughter was killed by a drunk driver, was very effective in advocating for legislation to lower the breath-alcohol concentration (BAC) limit to 0.8% from 0.15%.  At the same time, the Center for Science in the Public Interest sponsored studies, published articles and gave testimony in Congress and state legislatures.

The attacks took a toll on every segment of the alcohol beverage industry, and especially on distilled spirits. They were successful in restraining sales, in obtaining lower BAC levels nationwide, and in getting the “Government Warning” printed on every alcohol beverage container.

In the midst of this battle in 1985 the Federal Government’s Dietary Guidelines for Americans adoption of  the concept of a “standard drink” – the idea that it really didn’t make any difference what you drank, the alcohol level in a 12 ounce beer, a 5 ounce glass of wine or a 1.5 ounce shot of spirits in a cocktail – was to play an important role in normalizing spirits.

The concept of a standard drink was bitterly opposed by the beer industry. The brewers, led by their trade association, the Beer Institute, had positioned beer as the beverage of moderation. California wineries, meanwhile, were portraying wine as food or a cultural artifact and not at all as an alcoholic beverage.  This positioning by the beer and wine industries  left spirits as the devil’s drink.

In 1991, Morley Safer, a long-time CBS News correspondent who was appearing on “60 Minutes,” a newsmagazine program, did a story that became a classic.  It opened with Safer at a bistro in Lyon, listing fatty menu items -- pig’s head pâté, black pudding, and other foods high in oil, butter, and animal fat -- and asking a cardiologist how it’s possible the French have lower levels of heart disease than Americans given their diet.

“The farmers have been eating this for years. They’ve been eating a very high-fat diet, it seems, and yet they don’t get heart disease,” the doctor told Safer. “We took the same diet and put it into an American, we would all be suffering from coronaries at an early age. There’s something about the French that seems to be protecting them, and we’re not sure what it is. We’re looking for it.”

That “something” Safer suggested just might be the red wine sitting on his table.  At least that was the theory – that red wine can flush fatty deposits, which cling to blood platlets on the artery wall, out of the body.

Red wine sales took off.  Soon thereafter, distilled spirits sales took off, too. To be sure, the story credited the French for eating more fresh food and less processed food than Americans. Alcohol marketers in the U.S. are prohibited from suggesting someone drink any alcohol  might have health benefits.   They didn’t have too: One of the most popular news programs in the U.S. did it for them.

At around the same time, Dr. Monica Guerevich joined DISCUS to serve as DISCUS’s science advisor.  She had earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from Washington University in St. Louis, followed by a postdoctoral in San Diego and another postdoctoral fellowship for five years at the National Institutes of Health clinical facility in Bethesda, Md. After a brief period in private practice, she joined DISCUS.

The Dietary Guidelines have never recommended consuming alcohol.  But DISCUS had to contend with repeated efforts to do away with the standard drink concept or to use the Dietary Guidelines to advocate against beverage alcohol. DISCUS was able to successfully get the language changed to a more neutral position in which the Dietary Guidelines simply caution against overconsumption and provide a comparison between the number of calories in a standard serving and between different types of alcohol beverages.

On the latter point, the 2020-2025 edition of the Dietary Guidelines notes that 12 fluid ounces of regular 5 percent alcohol by volume (ABV) beer contains about 150 calories; five fluid ounces of 12% ABV wine contains about 120 calories; and 1.5 fluid ounces of 40% ABV distilled spirits contains about 100 calories. That comparison plainly gives spirits an edge.  But the Guidelines also note that 7 ounces of 40% ABV rum and cola contains about 190 calories (Guidelines, 49)

Interestingly, while the U.S. Department of Agriculture of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services have funding to compile the Guidelines using an extensive group of scientific advisory panels, they don’t have the funds for a   major distribution effort. Nor do the state and local public health agencies that would be the natural partners in distributing the publication. So, a major part of Guerevuich’s job as DISCUS’s scientific advisor was to support other health groups in disseminating the guide, and to make sure the health groups,  journalists and others to make sure they understood the science behind the standard drink concept.

Another part of her role was to accompany Cressy to colleges where they would do presentations on responsible drinking and insure the standard drink message was communicated to both students and faculty and administrators.

All of this – the standard drink, the science advisor, the presentations to colleges, working with others to disseminate the Dietary Guidelines for Americans was pretty much a defensive operation. What Cressy needed was something as dramatic for the spirits industry as the French Paradox had been for red wine producers.

If distilled spirits were to be viewed as a normal part of American life, what Cressy needed was a bit of luck.   “Luck is when an opportunity comes along and  you’re prepared for it,“ Denzel Washington, the actor, producer and director, said.  Luck was about to burst over the distilled spirts industry like a July 4 fireworks show, and Cressy and the DISCUS team were prepared to seize the opportunity.

Thanks for reading.  If you spot any errors, please let me know. The Kane's Beverage Week will be along later.  Enjoy your weekend. – Joel

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