No, Drinking Is Not the New Smoking
In 2009, British tech journalist Ian Betteridge devised a theory about headlines that’s now dubbed Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. It states that any headline ending in a question can be answered “no.” This isn’t as hard and fast as it initially appears, and its exceptions are fairly obvious. It is primarily applied to headlines designed to sensationalize a topic or to stoke fear, anger, or other reactionary emotions from the reader. This law seems relevant to bear in mind regarding a specific headline about alcohol’s future that’s typically built around a verbal framework that asks: “Is drinking the new smoking?”
It’s a headline seemingly typed with increased breathlessness with each passing year, with results that essentially reinforce Betteridge’s Law of Headlines. Its sentiment is also amplified by a growing throng of Gen Zers and other people who take to Twitter or open their WordPress accounts to bang out screeds that skip the headline trope entirely and make brazen proclamations about alcohol’s demise. Social media threads on this topic lean into bold claims with little context or veer into what could be construed as intolerance for imbibers. Longer blog posts point out the reasons behind the sentiment by utilizing the zeitgeist of current phrases like “being canceled” to show their disdain for drink. This becomes even more unabashed when such posts come from emerging non-alcoholic spirit brands, giving their arguments a Chewlies’ Gum rep vibe.
It’s easy for those who enjoy alcohol in its numerous forms to disagree with any argument attempting to equate imbibing with smoking. But it’s important to break down why these arguments don’t hold substantial weight in a greater context. Doing so can potentially inspire more holistic conversations about drinking — including its potential hazards.
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Any claim that equates drinking to smoking without providing or referencing supporting evidence should be summarily viewed as a slogan instead of an argument. Bringing in statistical data, however, demonstrates the rationale behind such claims and establishes the proper tenets for debate. Not surprisingly, the lion’s share of the stats used in these claims revolve around Gen Z, the generation increasingly positioning itself as the tastemakers of relevance across various sectors. It’s well documented in various surveys and reports that Gen Z doesn’t drink as much as prior generations. Even data that focuses on non-American Gen Z populations adds fuel to the domestic discussion.
At the same time, the oldest members of Gen Z are 26 years old. They’ve been legal drinkers for only five years and currently make up a small fraction of the legal alcohol consumption market. When looking at the economics of this larger group of legal adult imbibers, drinking’s death march toward becoming smoking 2.0 seems difficult to conceive. According to the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States’ (DISCUS)’ Annual Economic Briefing, U.S. spirits sales grew 7.5 percent between 2018 and 2022. The briefing also noted that spirits revenue increased 5.1 percent from 2021 to 2022. Furthermore, data provided by IWSR indicates that spirits enjoyed gains in volume purchased for a 25th consecutive year in 2022, while sparkling wine experienced gains in volume purchased for its 21st year.
While IWSR’s data shows general declines in wine, beer, and cider sales, it also showed gains in the premium-and-above sectors of each category. These figures dovetail with DISCUS data that indicates robust gains in the premium-and-above spirits segments. This consumer push toward premiumization suggests that consumers are more selective about what they’re purchasing. “For the modern consumer, it’s all about drinking better, not more,” says Chris Swonger, president and CEO of both DISCUS and the mindful drinking advocacy group Responsibility.org. “With the rise in premiumization occurring even under current economic conditions, it shows that the consumer is treating distilled spirits as an affordable luxury.”
The Cost of Drinking
Affordable luxury is not always affordable for Gen Z members, which makes sense. After all, most Gen Zers of legal drinking age are either in college or working entry-level roles that may not leave them with a lot of excess funds. They’re at the cheap beer and bottom-shelf-liquor brand stage in life. Yet unlike millennials, Gen Xers, and previous generations, many Gen Z members have a cost-effective alternative to frugal hooch: legal weed.
Joints of low-end marijuana tend to be cheaper than sixers of low-end beer and a value-priced bottle of booze. It makes sense for tight-budgeted Gen Zers to turn to toking rather than tippling for budgetary reasons, especially since the stigma surrounding pot isn’t as hefty now compared to prior generations. This trend has led some to extend the “alcohol is the new cigarettes” argument to note that smoking weed is the new drinking.
However, it remains to be seen what may happen when Gen Z gets older and starts earning more money. While their interest in marijuana may hold steadfast, the data suggests that an interest in alcohol may grow with their income. This is particularly noteworthy when it comes to wine: According to 2021 data secured by the American Association of Wine Economists (AAWE), the percentage of people drinking top domestic wine brands like Apothic, Charles Shaw, and Kendall Jackson jumps dramatically from 3.8 percent in the 21–24 category to 17.2 percent in the 25–34 category. “Wine has an association with wealth, and that’s true at any age,” explains Karl Storchmann, AAWE’s director. Storchmann also notes the top domestic brands tend to be budget-friendly labels that can spark a lifelong interest in more expensive wines down the road as consumers’ finances allow. “A cheaper wine like Charles Shaw’s‘ ‘Two Buck Chuck’ — which is still a good wine — can teach young wine drinkers a lot,” he says. “They can be crucial [in] developing a deeper interest in the wine category.”
The Need to Problem Solve
There’s a larger issue that tends to get masked by the “drinking is the new smoking” argument. For all the proclamations concerning alcohol to be “over” among Gen Zers, there is still a lot of problem drinking going on within the generation.
That’s not to say positive progress isn’t being made. There is, and it’s encouraging from one point of view. For instance, a 2022 report from Responsibility.org indicates binge drinking among college students was at 43 percent in 1991 and 30 percent in 2021. This 13 percent drop is undoubtedly terrific news. Yet the data also comes with an unfortunate flip side — three out of every 10 college students still binge drink.
Gen Z’s problem drinking habits are even having a moment, thanks to the year’s rash of articles discussing the college phenomenon of Borgs (Blackout Rage Gallons). While those making the drink frame the homemade vodka, water, and electrolyte solution as a harm-reducing alternative to party punch, others feel this argument interferes with a bigger issue. “The logic behind BORGs just doesn’t add up,” explains Lauren “LP” Paylor O’Brien, CEO and creative lead of hospitality self-care organization Focus on Health. “It may solve the issue of harm reduction, but it doesn’t address the other issue of binge drinking. It almost feels like some of them might be making an excuse for the problem instead of addressing it.”
When the typical “drinking is the new smoking” argument goes beyond banging out the phrase on social media, the people behind the assessment usually make two accurate points.
First, while data on smoking’s health detriments is much more consistent than that of drinking, alcohol is bad for you and there are risks involved with overindulgence. “Alcohol is alcohol,” Swonger states. “There is no such thing as dietary guidelines in the category. Plus, we don’t run away from discussing the dangers of alcohol like alcohol abuse. We know that promoting moderation and balance is essential.”
The second agreeable point is that consumers are evolving. The growing popularity of low- and no-alcohol beverages and a greater commitment to wellness is impacting consumer habits toward alcohol consumption. Yet these changes are not producing an “all-or-nothing” attitude toward drinking. Survey data from a 2021 NielsenIQ poll revealed that 78 percent of consumers who purchased non-alcoholic beer, wine, and spirits also purchased alcoholic versions.
This last statistic pushes back on any sentiment that predicts alcohol will share the same fate as smoking in the future. But it does imply something more important. It points to a potential future of mindful drinking, where people balance the pleasures of imbibing with a heightened sense of control and awareness of alcohol’s effects. This is a future that organizations like Responsibility.org and Focus on Health work to promote (even though their efforts to highlight the dangers of alcohol may look counterintuitive to some, given their ties to the industry). “We’re not trying to bastardize the alcohol sector through our work,” Paylor O’Brien says. “But we are trying to shine a light on the not-so-fun side of the industry. It’s important. There needs to be a good balance between discussing the real risk of products with the enjoyment of products.”
If these efforts succeed and current consumer trends continue — particularly as Gen Z gets older and earns more income — a future where drinking is just as ostracized as smoking would be nearly impossible to conceive of. It could, however, give way to a different, vastly improved argument ripe for social media blurbs and blog think pieces: “Mindful drinking is the new drinking.” It may not roll off the tongue quite as easily, but it sure sounds a lot more accurate.
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