Sorta-sober is kinda cool now, didn’t’cha know? That storyline picked up steam this Spring, following the slew of stories we featured in our April issue, which recall also questioned the statistical significance of this “new sobriety” trend. Yet that was the title of an extensive piece published by The New York Times in mid-June, reviewing the growing resources available to folks cutting back or eliminating alcohol entirely. Plenty more glowing coverage appeared this month, admiring both health-and-wellness adjacent alcohol beverage products and growing non-alc options.
But more often this month, writers threw cold water on the trend. “Alcohol brands have set their blurry sights on the slippery concept of wellness,” Eater headlined, followed less than a week later by the NY Post’s blunt take: “Don’t believe the hype - experts say wellness beers, wine are BS.” Whatever producers add to these concoctions, it’s still alcohol, dietitians and medical professionals repeated to the papers covering these topics. With examples of wellness-aligned ingredient additions across expensive new beer, wine and spirits brands, a similar but separate Post piece points out that TTB bars marketers from making health claims. But “that doesn’t stop other brands from using potentially flimsy nutritional science to market their supplement-packed hooch.”
Other writers questioned their own role in selling this health-aligned storyline. The beer-focused columnist for The Takeout asks that question specifically, citing both the Post’s takedown as well as the new Journalist’s Resource, a tool from Harvard providing tips for journalists covering tough topics. Its advice on covering alcohol encourages writers to 1) “consider mentioning the associated risks, too,” 2) put scientific “findings in context” 3) “avoid stereotypes” and “the term ‘alcoholic,’” and more.
But recent skepticism wasn’t reserved for purported healthy forms of alcohol intake. A growing number of folks question the idea of ‘wellness’ in general. The entrance of alcohol beverage makers “highlights one of the biggest issues of the wellness industry - namely, that it’s meaningless at best and a scam at worst.” Uh-oh. Don’t tell that to the Global Wellness Institute, which last fall touted that the “global wellness economy” grew 12.8% to $4.2 trillion between 2015 and 2017. While 20% of that is from the combo of “preventive & personalized medicine and public health” and “traditional & complementary medicine,” the rest ranges from over a trillion dollars in “personal care, beauty & aging,” to over $100 billion in the fast-growing “spa economy” and near $50 billion in “workplace wellness.”
The above NY Times piece offers little skepticism across its near 3000 words. But it does introduce the key role women play in both leading and following this movement, hanging today’s “sober curious” on a branch of feminism that has roots in Prohibition: connecting the dots between #MeToo’s concern with drunken sexual predation and Carrie Nation. A week earlier, the Times published a tougher takedown with an op-ed titled “Smash the Wellness Industry.” A self-described “thin white woman” and novelist argued that “the wellness industry is the diet industry,” which simply works to uphold a damaging “patriarchal beauty standard.” Even more problematic, “wellness is a largely white, privileged enterprise catering to largely white, privileged, already thin and able-bodied women, promoting exercise only they have the time to do and Tuscan kale only they have the resources to buy,” she writes. Makes ya wanna grab that $15 12-pack of hard seltzer or $40 bottle of non-alcoholic gin, doesn’t it?
So, at the very same time the alcohol beverage industry, driven by an Instagramming, “virtue-signaling” culture that’s obsessed with “wellness,” finally figured out how to play to those folks, a growing number of others align the whole concept with money-grubbing misogyny. Oof. Meanwhile, money floods towards cannabis and especially CBD, while charges mount that it’s simply 21st Century snake oil. But can any of it move the needle in post-fact 2019? Or will a fractured populace, full of paid influencers and science-deniers, just splinter further in its attitudes toward alcohol and its interactions with health?