Merging beer giants threaten global health, says public health scientists, AB InBev pledges positive impact

The merger of two of the world’s largest beer companies, AB InBev and SABMiller, will have far reaching consequences for public health in emerging markets like Africa. This was the opinion of scientists writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ).

Last week, AB InBev formalized its £71bn / $108bn offer of SABMiller, with the combined companies expected to control 30 percent of the world’s beer volumes.

With such sheer size, the authors of the article in BMJ fear the effect of the merger on public health in emerging markets.

They point to the growing epidemic of alcohol in low and middle income countries, while noting the combined company’s focus on Africa as a driver of growth.

According to the authors, SABMiller’s strengths are in Africa, which AB InBev sees as ‘hugely attractive market’. GDPs are rising and the middle class is growing.

“SABMiller, which originated in South Africa, is established industry leader in the region and so is well placed to exploit growth across sub-Saharan Africa,” said the editorial in BMJ, written by Jeff Collin, Professor of Global Health Policy, University of Edinburgh, with colleagues, Sarah E Hill and Katherine E Smith.

“The health implications of this forecast are disturbing: Market growth of this scale is predicated on exploiting Africa’s low per capita consumption of beer, targeting low income consumers to drive increased sales.

“The expansive trajectory echoes that of transnational tobacco companies with which the alcohol industry shares strategic similarities and has close corporate links as well as comparable health effects.”

The authors say that global health and development agencies have engaged with tobacco and alcohol industries in very different ways. They point that while tobacco industry is subject to tight regulations with voluntary measures deemed inadequate, the rules are more accommodating for the alcohol industry.

The authors say the deal must navigate competition concerns across its markets and calls on regulators to respond to health concerns.

“The proposed merger with AB InBev represents a major threat to global health, to which researchers, funders and regulators must respond more effectively.

“Although regulation underpins efforts to control transnational tobacco companies, the global alcohol industry continues to occupy an ambiguous space in which an indirect acknowledgement of serious health effects coexists with the prospect of partnerships and shared objectives.

“WHO’s emerging framework for engagement with non-state actors, for example, precludes partnership with the tobacco and arms industries but makes no specific reference to alcohol.”

AB InBev’s Response

In response to the publication in the BMJ, a spokesperson for the beer company, AB InBev, said the merger will increase the availability of a wide range of beers that includes low and no alcohol varieties.

“AB InBev is committed to promoting the responsible enjoyment of our products,” the spokesperson said.

“The combination with SABMiller would provide consumers around the world – including those on the African continent – with more choice and more opportunities to taste a wide range of beers, including lower and no alcohol versions.

“By pooling both companies’ resources, expertise and best practices – including our strong track records on responsible drinking partnerships and programs – we believe we can make an even greater and more positive impact on the community in which we live and work, and continue to drive a meaningful reduction in the harmful use of alcohol globally.”

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