New Oregon Health Authority Anti-Drinking Ad Irks Legislative Wine Caucus, Alcohol Industry

Some lawmakers think the ad targets wine while going easy on beer and completely ignoring spirits, a cash cow for the state.

A still from the "Rethink the Drink" public service advertising campaign. (Oregon Health Authority)

Viewers who watched football games over the holidays probably saw an ad called “Why,” which is part of an Oregon Health Authority campaign called “Rethink the Drink” aimed at discouraging excessive consumption of alcohol.

In the 60-second spot, a father first grabs a case of beer (not on his shopping list) and then a bottle of wine (also not on the list).

“Why can’t I drink wine?” his young daughter asks.

“Because it’s not good for you,” her father says.

“Is it good for you?” she asks.

“Well, not really,” he replies.

“Then why do you drink it?”

(Watch the one-minute ad below.)

The ad has generated a flurry of criticism, in the form of letters to Gov. Tina Kotek newly obtained by WW.

First to take issue: two Oregon wine groups, the Oregon Wine Council and the Oregon Winegrowers Association. In a Dec. 20 letter to Kotek, the groups expressed support for educating the public on the risks of excessive consumption but took issue with the OHA’s messaging.

“The state should be focusing its public health messages on getting help to those who need it, not on vilifying an Oregonian at the grocery store purchasing a bottle of locally grown wine,” the groups said in a joint letter.

Next, the Oregon Beverage Alliance, which represents the state’s brewers, winemakers, cider makers, distillers and the hospitality industry, shared its concerns.

“We are disturbed to see the Oregon Health Authority’s Rethink the Drink ad campaign pivot from educating Oregonians about responsible, moderate consumption by legal drinking age adults to a neo-prohibitionist agenda,” the group wrote to Kotek on Dec. 21.

Then came Oregon’s legislative wine caucus, which in a Dec. 27 letter to Kotek, expressed “extreme disappointment” that the commercial targeted wine while sparing beer and hard liquor. The bipartisan caucus includes about 30 lawmakers, but the letter came from its four co-chairs, state Reps. Lucetta Elmer (R-McMinnville) and David Gomberg (D-Otis), and Sens. David Brock Smith (R-Port Orford) and Mark Meek (D-Gladstone).

“The ‘Why’ ad features a father putting a bottle of wine back on the shelf at the grocery store after being asked by his young child why he is buying the wine and whether it is healthy,” the lawmakers wrote. “At the same time, he has chosen to purchase a case of beer. Why target our premium Oregon-produced wines while encouraging beer purchases and ignoring distilled spirits? We see this as a direct and inappropriate attack on Oregon’s homegrown wine industry.”

The lawmakers pointed out that the Oregon Wine Board spends about the same amount of public money promoting the industry as the OHA’s ad campaign spends on convincing people not to drink.

“The Rethink the Drink ‘Why’ ad is not only offensive to Oregon wine, but it also represents a multitude of hypocrisies. We spend $777,000 to promote the sale of wine through the Oregon Wine Board, while at the same time spending $805,000 through OHA discouraging it,” the lawmakers wrote.

“It also is not lost on any of us that the ad directly targets wine as opposed to spirits which are a much larger income generator for the state. Arguably, premium wines are not a major contributor to our abuse and addiction problems.”

One person who is cheering the ads: Mike Marshall, a founder of the advocacy group Oregon Recovers. Marshall’s group wants to reduce alcohol consumption and increase state-funded treatment. Oregon Recovers often points to a stat the OHA features in its messaging: that alcohol kills far more Oregonians annually than overdoses from all other drugs combined.

He has long criticized the state’s conflicted role in serving as both the public health authority and the monopolistic seller of hard liquor in Oregon.

“Oregon’s premium wines are, in fact, toxic, addictive and carcinogenic. Wine has a higher alcohol content than beer, hence it is more harmful, and any level of alcohol consumption is harmful to the human body,” Marshall says.

“OHA should be applauded by every policymaker in the state for developing a nationally recognized consumer education campaign that helps Oregonians make informed decisions about their alcohol use. The question is not: why are we spending money promoting healthy consumption of wine? The question is why are we spending $770,000 annually on promoting the consumption of a so-called premium but toxic, addictive, carcinogenic glass of pinot?”

Updated at 11:35 am on Jan. 5:

OHA spokesman Jonathan Modie says the agency’s communications about alcohol are not intended to favor one drink over another.

“We address all types of alcohol—beer, wine and spirits—in the whole suite of ads for Rethink the Drink to communicate with people in Oregon about the health harms of excessive drinking,” Modie said in an email.

Modie also explained how OHA is labeling the ads, which lawmakers questioned in their letter.

“All our ads to reduce the harms from excessive alcohol use are labeled under the brand Rethink the Drink,” Modie said. “Using a brand to support a specific health marketing campaign is a common practice in public health. It includes a unique logo that people could easily identify as being part of the campaign, which allows the audience that is interested in a specific topic to connect with that set of marketing materials.”

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