Here, I speculate on visions for the future of alcohol – what it will mean, how people may drink differently in the future, and also how alcohol abuse may manifest itself differently in the future. In deciding where to start talking about the future of alcohol, alcohol use and abuse, I thought “why not just search on Google?” The first two “hits” from my search amaze me in ways that I never expected! First is a glossy “white paper” (which is a misleading phrase that referring to an “industry report”) from a marketing consulting firm named FutureBrand (www.futurebrand.com/the-future-of-alcohol). I enjoyed skimming this report, and it definitely wasn’t “white.” It is a slick, colorful brochure with terrific photos, art, and buzzwords. What amazed me was how little of the brochure actually mentions alcohol. In fact, I kept asking myself as I scanned through the glossy photos: “is this report really about alcohol, because it keeps veering off to completely-different topics having nothing to do with alcohol?” The report kept using buzzwords like “the wellness era,” “conscious consumption,” “the democratization of smartphones,” and “a revolutionary at-home clothing care system.” Are you confused yet? That’s even before they mention the new brand where each bottle you purchase allegedly) leads to social change. The brand name is UneSpirit (where une is the French article word for “an” or “one”). What is remarkable about this forecast is that the word alcohol (or beer/wine/cocktail) only appear seven times in the 46-page report, an average of once every 7 pages. In contrast, the words “health,” “healthy” or “wellness” appears ten times! My take-away is that this management consultant, FutureBrand, is preaching to their clients (alcohol producers) that alcohol is not something that people drink. No, just like people’s smartphone, alcohol is who they are and how they live their lives. This connection is reinforced by frequent references to millennials, to this generation’s preference for spending money on experiences rather than on goods, and on the ultimate value of sharing one’s behavior on social media.
While this is my interpretation and take-away from this report, the fact that alcohol is actually one of the least frequently-used words in it, contrast to other terms like experience (12 times), it suggests that the future of alcohol is all about showing others who you are! A companion article I read about the future of alcohol seemed, at first, to support this notion that consumers can choose their own personalized drink to fit their image: blogger, Olga Kovaleva, writes “brands will facilitate consumers’ quest for being the most optimised versions of themselves.” Yet, in the rest of that sentence and the next, she identifies a positive twist – the optimization of one’s self through beverages can include non-alcoholic version of one’s favorite drinks.” Moreover, “Brands … [will] offer wider ranges of non-alcoholic options tapping into this healthy hedonism trend.. In several London based restaurants and bars, bartenders collaborate with scientists to find a way to remove the alcohol from popular drinks (e.g. Campari, Aperol, and gin) while retaining the flavour. This approached proved to be especially popular with drivers and pregnant women.” (www.scenariomagazine.com/the-future-of-alcohol-gradual-disappearance-or-new-role/).
The second “hit” I found was even more startling than the above – a prediction from scientist David Nutt of Imperial College, London, that in 30 years, people will no longer drink alcohol, but instead, they will imbibe “alcosynth” – a synthetic version of alcohol with (supposedly) all the “gain” but none of the “pain” (no hangovers, no liver disease) (www.thrillist.com/news/future-of-alcohol-according-to-scientist; see also www.theguardian.com/science/2019/mar/26/an-innocent-drink-could-alcosynth-provide-all-the-joy-of-booze-without-the-dangers ). Did I mention that Dr. Nutt (his real name) not only predicts that alcosynth will replace alcohol, but also he is the scientist who invented it? As outlandish at it sounds, there are many online articles about this futuristic ingredient, including its alleged health benefits.
If I have learned anything from this course, it’s that the problems resulting from alcohol consumption and the glorification of drinking in our culture cause many forms of harm that are diverse and pervasive. Perhaps alcohol has different outcomes for different people (men, women, rich, poor, young, old, etc.); however, even for those who are not psychologically dependent on alcohol, there are many forms of harm nevertheless. In addition to obvious medical problems such as liver disease, certain cancers, drunk driving and other accidents, there is also financial harm. One cultural anecdote that I like (which I learned from my husband who lived two years in Japan) is that, in Japan, the women/wives control the family budget and they dole out a small allowance to their husband. While this is surprising in a nation where women lack equality with men in other areas, the reason they are permitted control of the family purse strings is that the men might drink away their salary in late nights of after-work drinking (which is part of being a good “salaryman.”). Women must take control of the finances, leaving the husband with okozukai – which translates to “pocket money” (www.japan-talk.com/jt/new/okozukai and www.bbc.com/news/business-19674306). This indicates financial harm that can befall families, in addition to other health, safety, and accident problems.
The range of harms from alcohol are diverse and widespread. I anticipate that they will continue to be so – but perhaps not in ways that we can imagine today. Just as a decade ago, nobody would have known about “drunk texting,” so will the future behaviors related to heavy drinking and alcohol dependency be different from today. One area for possible hope is replacement of alcohol by marijuana. In Olga Kovaleva’s blog, she considers different possible alternatives of marijuana serving as a replacement for alcohol, based on the declining alcohol sales in some states, and yet mentions the opposite possibility of these two substances serving as economic “complements” – meaning they go together, with more of one enhancing the benefit of the other. Further searches I performed to determine if traffic deaths have decreased in states that legal marijuana (which would be likely if alcohol and marijuana were substitutes, and if marijuana had no impairment on driving) found more studies that show no increase in traffic deaths from legal marijuana (which is a good thing), but also no evidence of decreased traffic fatalities. The link included here is to the simplest summary of the research; however, academic articles that I located and skimmed also reported the same results: no increase, but also no decline in such deaths (newfrontierdata.com/cannabis-insights/data-shows-fatal-traffic-accidents-do-not-increase-after-cannabis-legalisation/).
One other aspect of the future to consider is the following: even if the drinking habits of people do not change substantially in the future, we already know the long-term health consequences for those who drink heavily today. the NIAAA’s data inform us that many will have increased risks of cancers – breast cancer (as we read elsewhere, including in Drink), but also head/neck, throat, liver and colo-rectal cancers (www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/causes-prevention/risk/alcohol/alcohol-fact-sheet). Moreover, as we have explored in this course, women in developed countries drink much more heavily now, due to effective marketing specifically to them, combined with the belief that drinking makes women emancipated. This falsehood reminds me of Amy Schumer comedy routines – a comic who I mostly like and laugh along with – but she certainly over-does the role of the party girl turns into a sloppy drunk and makes bad choices about who she goes home from the bar or party with.
We know that heavy drinking among men and women today leads to a much increased probability of various cancers (listed above), as well as hypertension and diabetes. These are not signs of emancipation for women! Just as we have learned, based on the backlash to the tobacco industry that there is nothing macho about heavy smokers having a stoma in their neck to breathe through, there is nothing sexy or emancipated about women (or men) developing any of the cancers or other diseases discussed above.