It's a funny thing, Jernigan remarked. After decades of marketing alcohol by objectifying and mistreating women, the adult beverage world has suddenly discovered female consumers. It's like Virginia Slims all over again. "There's no question that the alcohol industry is presenting their goods to women as though they're diet products," he said. "Because that's what sells."
Take Anheuser-Busch, which advertises its Select 55 beer directly on Weight Watchers' website. Pushing itself as "The Lightest Beer In the World," it assures dieters that they can "be good ... and still have a good time." Bacardi promotes itself with "diet cola" as the zero-carb drinking alternative, while Beam Inc.'s SkinnyGirl Cocktails advertise ready-to-serve, "low-cal flavors and options." The brand's creator (and the inspiration on the cartoon on the bottle), is the incredibly svelte reality star Bethenny Frankel.
But Jernigan believes that marketing alcohol as a "diet drink" skirts very close to making a spurious health claim, which would be illegal.
For historic reasons, the U.S. Department of Treasury's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, along with the Federal Trade Commission, control alcohol advertising and specifically restrict the use of health-related claims. Under the regulations though, only "misleading" or "deceptive" health statements are prohibited -- and it turns out that's a pretty low bar.
None of the ads above seem to qualify as "false." If a beer only has 55 calories, it may well fit into a Weight Watchers plan. And while most trainers don't tell you to grab a beer after your workout, there's nothing "untrue" about claiming that some biker, somewhere, may want one after a triathlon.
"You pretty much have a government asleep at the wheel," said Michele Simon, a public health lawyer, president of the consulting firm Eat Drink Politics, and author of the report, "Questionable Health Claims By Alcohol Companies." According to Simon, alcohol companies use free speech and the First Amendment to keep regulators at bay -- and continue a "charade of voluntary self-regulation," largely designed to convince policymakers they don't need to intervene, and that the alcohol industry can monitor itself.
For example, the Distilled Spirits Council, a national trade association representing America's major distillers, has a 14-page code of responsible practices for alcohol beverage advertising. The code bans marketing on college campuses other than at a licensed retail establishment, like say, a faculty club, where brands can advertise behind the bar.
According to Frank Coleman, the Distilled Sprits Council's senior vice president for public affairs, ads that mention calories and carbs don't even make a health claim to begin with. Offering a lighter version of an adult beverage product that already exists "is just a labeling issue."
Public health researchers and college health professionals aren't swayed by the labeling argument, though. They're increasingly concerned that diet alcohol ads encourage teens and college students to engage in the troubling behavior that more and more experts are actually calling drunkorexia -- in academic journals.
Not only does the alcohol industry stand by weight-conscious marketing, but non-alcoholic beverage companies are also moving into the diet alcohol game.
Kim Jage, sales and marketing director for the first Healthy Beverage Expo in Las Vegas this coming June, didn't anticipate vendors offering alcohol as a healthy beverage when organizers announced the show. But she said consumers should expect more "healthy" alcohol products in 2013 and 2014, with fewer calories and more "organic options," like a new product from Gizmo Beverages, which plans to launch a "100 percent percent natural, preservative-free, low-calorie pre-mixed cocktail" at the show. Gizmo isn't even part of the alcohol industry presently -- it's a tea brand. Nonetheless, Jage predicts the time has come for low-calorie alcohol sales to skyrocket. As it does, we would do well to consider the implications and consequences.