When most people think of social responsibility, particularly investors, they think of tobacco, alcohol, weapons, and gambling companies as among the major examples of what not to support. These are a given, but we are increasingly considering other industries as well: think too-big-to-fail banks, fast food and sugar purveyors, big pharma, and other types of industries. Still, when it comes to the tried-and-true, maybe we have somehow missed a step.
The health risks of tobacco use have been clearly drummed into the modern mind-set, to say the very least. That cat's been out of the bag for decades. However, alcohol hasn't suffered nearly the same reputational damage and vilification despite its own clear risks.
Alcohol may not be considered socially responsible in the investing sense, but its use is socially acceptable; very much so, in fact. Weddings, parties, holiday celebrations, networking mixers, and even just kicking back after a hard day at work are all generally accepted reasons for alcohol use.
That's exactly why some conversation about alcohol is important as people move on to new business baddies like the sugar and salt purveyors that negatively impact health. Alcohol's gotten a strangely free pass in this area.
Shutting down the party
Like almost any bad habit, moderation is key to risk reduction; hardly anything is 100% vice, and plenty of people sip their adult beverages responsibly. However, what about the elephants in the room?
According to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 18 million Americans have "an alcohol use disorder." That's when things get rough for people's health, families, jobs, and even the world around them. We're talking about everything from intense bingers to maintenance alcoholics that need the substance flowing into their systems constantly.
The Center for Disease Control lists out quite a list of enhanced risks of illnesses due to alcohol use; many of these overlap with tobacco-related health risks.
- Chronic disease: Heart disease, liver disease, digestive issues.
- Cancer: Breast, mouth, throat, liver, colon.
- Mental health issues: Depression, anxiety.
- The brain: Learning, memory problems.
If we're going to talk about health care costs, then alcohol should be just as significant as smoking and growing emphasis on healthy versus unhealthy diets.
Ruining tomorrow... today
Meanwhile, some other pretty awful things are often correlated with alcohol abuse; these are ugly and chilling -- and not as uncommon as one might think .
- Violence: Homicide, suicide, assault including domestic partner abuse.
- Poisoning: One can, indeed, binge on too much alcohol.
- Risky sexual behavior: Again, goes against saying, but also includes the risk of sexually transmitted diseases.
- Children: Higher miscarriage risk, stillbirth, and children afflicted with alcohol-related disorders.
- Injury: Burns, drownings, car accidents.
The National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's data shows that 60% of all burn injuries, drownings, and homicides can be associated with alcohol. In addition, its overconsumption can be connected with half of severe trauma injuries and sexual assaults, as well as 40% of fatal car accidents, suicides, and deadly falls.
Granted, alcohol companies haven't ignored the risks inherent in its own products; many of these risks are similar to those that plague tobacco companies. To completely ignore parallels in the vice area would be ridiculous for any industry -- that in itself would be a good reason for investors to sell.
So far, though, tobacco companies have had to adjust their businesses far more dramatically. For example, tobacco advertising is banned from television. On the other hand, alcohol companies have free rein to market their products related to everything from humor, to fun, to the possibility of transforming into the wittiest and most attractive person at the party.
Fortunately, alcohol companies do include cautionary information on their websites, as well as educational resources about the dangers of abuse, binge drinking, and other issues. They often contribute or sponsor organizations that fight the disease of addiction .
Still, it's a sticky area. When you think of volume and sales growth some of the best, most "loyal" customers for companies like Molson Coors (NYSE:TAP), Boston Beer (NYSE:SAM), Anheuser-Busch (NYSE:BUD), and Brown-Forman (NYSE:BF-B) are going to be some of their most addicted and most troubled ones. If enough people curbed their intake -- obviously an important part of many people getting well -- the industry would have a real problem to contend with. Like tobacco, a whole lot of quitters shrinks the market.
Everyone has reason to think about such impacts. In the investing sense, SRI is all about industries' impacts on others -- and more investors are embracing that philosophy. It's a mind-opening exercise to target stocks that give some of us the ability to sleep peacefully at night. Fortunately, these days there are many stocks that we can buy beyond tobacco, alcohol, and other companies' shares we may find unsavory.
Pondering what industries are socially responsible and socially acceptable is an idea whose time has come. Full awareness of the dangers inherent in certain industries' products in our own lives as well as the ramifications of those in our investment portfolios is a great first step. It's all about creating a healthier life, portfolio, and even help steer the world in more positive directions.
Check back at Fool.com for more of Alyce Lomax's columns on environmental, social, and governance issues.