Is Big Alcohol Taking a Hit From Legal Weed?
The legal weed market appears to be impacting booze’s bottom line.
Consumer trend data compiled by OutCo and Monocle Research finds that many California twenty-somethings, post-legalization, are switching from beer to pot. Marketers surveyed 2,000 cannabis consumers in seven major California cities. One-third of millennial respondents said that they are choosing cannabis over beer. One out of five acknowledged substituting weed for wine, and 14 percent admitted consuming herb rather than hard alcohol.
Older respondents, including baby boomers, also reported making the switch from booze to pot. According to the survey, 20 percent of Gen Xers and eight percent of boomers similarly acknowledged substituting pot in place of alcohol.
The findings provide further credence to a December 2016 report from the Cowan & Company research firm which determined that beer sales by major distributors – including Anheuser-Busch and MillerCoors – have “collectively underperformed” over the past two years in Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. In Denver, arguably the epicenter for the marijuana retail sales market, beer sales have fallen nearly seven percent, analysists concluded.
A March 2017 research report by the Cannabiz Consumer Group similarly indicates that cannabis is cutting in on beer’s popularity. Researchers reported that 27 percent drinkers surveyed said that they had either substituted cannabis for beer, or that they would do so in the future if retail weed sales become legal. The company estimated that beer sales could decline by as much as $2 billion if cannabis was legal nationwide.
Questions concerning whether cannabis typically acts as a substitute or as a complement to alcohol remain ongoing. But a 2014 literature review published in the journal Alcohol and Alcoholism indicates that the weight of the available evidence supports the former theory – particularly among young adults. Authors concluded: “While more research and improved study designs are needed to better identify the extent and impact of cannabis substitution on those affected by AUD (alcohol use disorder), cannabis does appear to be a potential substitute for alcohol. Perhaps more importantly, cannabis is both safer and potentially less addictive than benzodiazepines and other pharmaceuticals that have been evaluated as substitutes for alcohol.”
Survey data from states where medical cannabis has long been legally available frequently report declines in alcohol consumption. For instance, a 2011 patient survey from California reported that those qualified to access medicinal cannabis used alcohol at rates that were “significantly lower” than those of the general public. More recently, a study published this year in the Journal of Psychopharmacology reported that over 40 percent of state-registered medical marijuana patients acknowledged reducing their alcohol intake after initiating cannabis therapy.
Polling data finds that most Americans, and those between the ages 18 to 40 in particular, now believe that cannabis is far less harmful to health than alcohol. Their belief is supported by the relevant science. For example, alcohol possesses a dependence liability that is nearly twice that of cannabis, is a far greater contributor to traffic accidents, and is capable of causing organ failure and even death by overdose. According to a 2011 study comparing the physical, psychological, and social impact of the two substances: “A direct comparison of alcohol and cannabis showed that alcohol was considered to be more than twice as harmful as cannabis to [individual] users, and five times more harmful as cannabis to others (society). … As there are few areas of harm that each drug can produce where cannabis scores more [dangerous to health] than alcohol, we suggest that even if there were no legal impediment to cannabis use, it would be unlikely to be more harmful than alcohol.”
The fact that the legal marijuana market may pose potential challenges for the alcohol beverage industry is hardly going unnoticed. The topic was front and center at the 2016 Beer Industry Summit, according to reports from attendees. And last year, industry players contributed funds against voter-initiated legalization measures in Arizona and Massachusetts. (The Massachusetts initiative passed while the Arizona measure was defeated.)
Yet, given the ubiquitous role alcohol plays in American culture, it is hard to imagine a scenario where the emerging legal marijuana market presents a serious threat to Big Booze any time soon. After all, while federal lawmakers have endorsed Congressional resolutions “commending” US beer sales, they simultaneously refuse to amend federal law to even permit marijuana businesses to have relationships with banks or take standard payroll deductions. In short, as long as booze remains king on Capitol Hill, the cannabis industry will continue be engaged in an uphill battle for both respectability and market share.