Original cannabis journalism for Canadians

Public health experts fret over big alcohol's cannabis push

Multinational alcohol giant Diageo is reportedly looking to strike a deal with a major Canadian cannabis company. (Associated Press/Erik Schelzig)

Multinational alcohol giant Diageo is reportedly looking to strike a deal with a major Canadian cannabis company. (Associated Press/Erik Schelzig)

The cannabis world is buzzing with word that yet another major alcohol company wants to buy into Canada's legal cannabis industry.

Even if you've never heard of Diageo, you've probably sipped their products — famous alcohol brands like Guinness, Smirnoff, Johnnie Walker, Baileys, Crown Royal, Captain Morgan and Tanqueray all belong to the publicly-traded, U.K.-based company.

Now, BNN Bloomberg reports that Diageo is in talks with "at least three Canadian cannabis producers about a possible deal." Diageo's move follows a major deal between alcohol giant Constellation Brands and cannabis giant Canopy Growth, plus a product development tie-up between brewer Molson Coors and cannabis firm Hydropothecary.  Canadian cannabis stocks moved higher today as investors bet on a merger or buyout.

But the alcohol industry's entrance into cannabis is more than just a business story. Some public health experts are worried about what the growing relationship between big booze and corporate cannabis means for society as a whole.

"Absolutely we're concerned when corporate interests and the profit sector get overly interested in any product that can have negative consequences for the consuming public," said Ian Culbert, executive director of the Canadian Public Health Association.

"It's concerning because the motivation is for profit, not preserving peoples' health… These companies have extensive experience marketing these products, not always in the most ethical manner, and they have very deep pockets from their alcohol divisions to be able to pour into campaigns and marketing efforts to promote their specific products," he said.

On top of that, Culbert worries about the potential impact of alcohol industry's powerful government lobbyists on the regulation of cannabis in Canada.

"During the year when… (cannabis) edibles and consumables are going through regulation, I'm certainly concerned about how much influence they might be able to bring to bear on the federal government."

Thomas Babor, chair of the department of community medicine at the University of Connecticut's School of Medicine, expressed similar apprehensions.

"When you have a powerful industry with 100 years experience in bringing new products to market that are more attractive to smaller and smaller subpopulations, I think it's just going to contribute to the public health effects of chronic cannabis smoking," he said.

Right now, Canada's cannabis law prevents legal cannabis products from also containing alcohol, nicotine or caffeine. But Babor expects that alcohol companies involved in the cannabis space could lobby to change those rules.

"What is likely to happen is that, with commercialization in any form, there is likely to be strong pressure to continue the trend towards liberalization," he said.

"And what may be banned today may not be banned tomorrow."

The Canadian Public Health Association's Ian Culbert also feels the alcohol industry only pays "lip service" to proper public health messaging about safe consumption.

"When you compare what they put into marketing the product, increasing their market share, the messaging around safe consumption is an afterthought at best — in six-point font at the end of a thirty-second commercial," he said. "It's completely disproportionate to the actual cost of alcohol consumption on Canadian society."

"We have the opportunity, with the legalization and regulation of cannabis, to learn all the lessons and make sure we get ahead of this becoming a multibillion dollar cost to Canadian society every year."


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