The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit

It has been with us for centuries, as long as man has been fermenting vegetable matter to produce alcohol, and it is a plague on the human race. Virtually every one of us has friends, relatives or close associates with the disease, or battle the addiction ourselves; although accurate figures don’t exist, estimates of the prevalence of alcohol addiction in the U.S. range between 5 and 12%. Whatever the real figure is, it is a lot, and the disease causes a wide range of problems. For example, close to 50% of all automobile fatalities involve alcohol. Yet the public remains shockingly ignorant about alcoholism, to the detriment and convenience of alcoholics, and the devastation of their families

The ignorance is also profitable to some corporations that are not even officially in the beverage business. The ethics question is, do those corporations knowingly and intentionally encourage and facilitate that ignorance? If so, they have a lot to answer for, and so do government consumer agencies and the media. This ignorance kills.

The corporations in question are those that manufacture mouthwash, specifically mouthwash containing ethyl alcohol. Most Americans don’t know or suspect that mouthwash containing alcohol is a primary tool of the alcoholic’s craft, which is deception. Keeping the progressive disease, a debilitating addiction with genetic roots, hidden from fellow workers and family is a full time occupation, and popular mouthwashes like Listerine, a Johnson and Johnson product, are a godsend.  Original formula Listerine is 26.9 percent alcohol, making it approximately 54 proof , though other flavors contain less. This means it is more potent than beer or wine, and comparable to some varieties of hard liquor.

But, you may ask, aren’t Listerine and similar mouthwashes poison? I always thought so, because I read the labels, a typical example of which reads:

“Do not swallow. In case of accidental ingestion, seek professional assistance or contact a Poison Control Center immediately.”

This is effective, all right: effective at putting those who live and work around alcoholics off the scent—literally. The breath of an alcoholic who is drinking mouthwash will smell “minty fresh,”  and in the morning, when liquor on the breath is a warning sign even the most trusting associate will notice with alarm, this is wonderful subterfuge. It just never occurs to a non-alcoholic that drinking Listerine or other mouthwashes is a possibility, because the bottle suggests it is poison.

It isn’t, and alcoholics know it isn’t. Drinking  mouthwash is openly discussed and joked about at AA meetings, which are, for good reasons, confidential. Occasionally an endorsement of mouthwash drinking appears on the web. Here’s a typical example, from a British website:

“Been drinking Listerine on the streets for ages now, gets you mashed good and proper. Best bit, it’s cheap and makes you smell great. With 4 different colours and flavours,  you just can’t get bored with it. Nothing beats going down the park on a Friday night with a bottle of Listerine and getting mashed with your mates. It even comes with that cap which doubles as a shot-glass. My favourite though is Listerine on the rocks you can’t beat that, add an umbrella and your south of the border.”

If you are surprised that anyone could actually drink the mouthwash “for ages” and still be active on the internet, it means one thing: you’re probably not an alcoholic.

There are other benefits of mouthwash for the secret drinker besides the convenient shot glass and the variety of flavors—and, of course, the misleading warning:

  • The bottles come in small sizes that can be stored in purses and pockets.
  • Mouthwash with alcohol  continues to be sold at supermarkets and convenience stores, 24 hours a day, after sales of liquor are prohibited. “Watch the mouthwash aisles on a Saturday night some time,” an alcoholic friend suggested. She was right.  There was a run on the shelves, and the purchasers looked like the cast of “Barfly.”
  • Most people find the taste of mouthwashes so strong and medicinal that they can’t imagine anyone wanting to drink them. Of course, they aren’t thinking like alcoholic, who do not drink for taste.
  • Mouthwash is relatively cheap, and
  • If you are under age, you can still buy a jumbo bottle of Listerine without raising a store clerk’s eyebrow.

As I  stated at the beginning, the consequences of the mouthwash deception are devastating. Alcoholism is a progressive disease that destroys families, businesses and lives, and recovery is difficult, intermittent, and never-ending. Families of alcoholics have to be vigilant for a recovering family member to have a fighting chance of surviving the illness. The existence of a secret back-door to intoxication, aided and abetted by a false warning that assists secret drinking by deluding non-drinkers, undoubtedly impedes the recovery of thousands and perhaps millions of desperately sick individuals. For many alcoholics, the alternative to recovery is death.

Do mouthwash manufacturers know this? I do not know, but I wonder: how could they not? They see the sales figures, and presumably they know the market; selling mouthwash is, after all, their business.  Figures don’t exist, but it seems reasonable to assume that sales to drunks hiding their addiction must account for a significant percentage of profits, meaning that assisting alcoholics in sabotaging their recoveries and fooling their co-workers and families is worth millions of dollars. Would millions of dollars a year in sales motivate a corporation to keep the public in the dark about a widespread and destructive use of its product? Even if families are torn apart, businesses destroyed, and people killed as a result? We know it could, because we have seen other corporations do worse. We can’t know, at this point, if that is what is going on.

If it isn’t, however, then the naivete of mouthwash manufacturers is mind-boggling. They know that their mouthwashes are not poison, but place misleading labels on their products which only convince the consumers who would never dream of drinking mouthwash anyway. Meanwhile, it lets those who do drink it operate in secrecy. Is it possible that this practice, which has been going on for decades, is accidental and innocent? Are there no alcoholics in the families of Pfizer executives and the other companies?

They are not the only entities I wonder about, either. I find it difficult to believe that supermarket chains and convenience stores don’t know that when they sell Listerine to red-faced, homeless people on  Saturday nights, they are supplying binges. The media’s failure to inform the public about this phenomenon is also inexplicable. Journalists are not strangers to problem drinking. Why hasn’t this story been in the New York Times? On “60 Minutes”? Where is Dr. Oz? We see alcoholism portrayed in television dramas frequently now, a good thing. Have you ever seen a character drink mouthwash? If it has happened, I missed it, and I watch more TV than is good for me.

This has to stop.

What needs to be done, and what manufacturers and the media have an ethical obligation to do:

1. Manufacturers should begin public service campaigns aimed, not at alcoholics, but at their families and friends, warning them that Listerine and similar mouthwashes are alcoholic beverage substitutes for those who abuse alcohol or have alcohol addiction, and that if they have a recovering alcoholic loved one, friend or worker, they need to be aware of the meaning of that mouthwash bottle the alcoholic is carrying around, and the minty-fresh morning breath.

2. Local television news, cable news, and talk shows should produce features and news segments on the misuse of mouthwash by alcoholics and teens as a liquor substitute.

3. Manufacturers must change the warnings and labels on alcohol-containing mouthwashes so that the people alcoholics need to fool will not be misinformed.

4. Lesislators must change the laws so that purchases of alcohol-containing mouthwashes are covered by restrictions on beer, wine, and hard liquor.

5. Alcoholics should be counseled to reveal the mouthwash dodge to their families before they are in the throes of a relapse.

6. Families of alcoholics should be instructed in Al Anon and elsewhere to be on the look-out for mouthwash abuse as a sign of an alcoholic’s relapse.

Whether through negligence, ignorance, carelessness, irresponsibility or greed, a strange convergence of factors has been aggravating one of the nation’s most serious health and social problems.  All that is required to address the problem is information and education.  If those who have a responsibility to publicize this information continue to fail to do so, our ethical judgment of them should be harsh. As always, however, the priority is to fix the problem. If mouthwash makers, retailers and journalists won’t do the right thing, we need to do it for them, and fast. We can deal with their conduct later.

Spread the word.

50 Comments

Filed under Business & Commercial, Daily Life, Family, Health and Medicine, Journalism & Media, Law & Law Enforcement, Popular Culture, U.S. Society, Workplace

50 responses to “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit

  1. I hardly think you can call it a deliberate deception.I also believe as a recovering alcoholic extraordinaire that my fellow alcoholics and myself are tripped up by our selves.If it was not mouth wash it would be cooking sherry,vanilla extract,sterno and on and on.The bottom line we have to take responsibility.I after some 30 years of battling the bottle,multiple treatment centers,monitored antabuse,jail,many dui’s,lost families.business,homes all of it,multiple times.I had an uncanny ability to bounce back for a good many years and then it got harder and harder and finally I knew in my heart I had to quit,I was dying,why I was not dead,I don’t know when so many of my friends and acquaintances were .But I was really really sick in my head and my guts,both physical as well as emotional,I got on my knees and more earnestly than I had ever asked God for anything I asked that the compulsion to drink be and it was.So I feel extremely. well qualified on the topic.There is nothing wrong with education but you needn’t throw the baby out with the bath water!There are mouth wash brands available that are alcohol free.Going into treatment they confiscate anything with alcohol in it.The thing is if an alcoholic wants to drink there is absolutely nothing on Gods green earth that’s gonna prevent that short of chaining them up and chucking them in the basement.The alcoholic must accept life on life’s terms!The next thing your gonna ban fruit and bread and sugar because they can make jail juice.There are more ways for a drunk to get drunk than Varter has liver pills and there are even more ways to alter ones state of conscience,so it really doe’s come down to personal accountability.I know it’s a bitter pill but seriously it is not Listerine’s fault or problem.So there you have my fifty cents worth….Weaver

    • I agree with what you are saying, but husband is literally drinking himself to death with mouthwash and, I know this is mean, but I wish he would hurry up because I can’t stand the whining of pain, the nastiness and wanting to do nothing.
      I have secondary progressive MS and, I never complain about it because it would do no good, because he always whining about his kidneys hurt, his stomach hurts, he feel nauseated. ALL THIS IS SELF INFLICTED!!!!!
      He has been an alcoholic since the 70’s. Stopped in 1980, when I threatened to leave. Stayed sober until 2005. Family sold a very profitable farm with a bakery, that was ours. Put 2 kids through private school, gave them each a car. Been on 6 cruises and other trips. All ended when the farm sold. Lost our house in July 2011 and sold for what was owed to avoid foreclosure
      Husband and I moved to TN in hopes to start a new bakery (owned a vacation home which we moved into). We have been struggling since we started a donut business in a concession trailer. That did not make any money. We sold the trailer for a measly $18,000. (Paid over $52,000). Had so many problems and could not get company to fix and we could not afford to fix. On top of that the BBB in that area said the company did everything they could to make us happy. What a bunch of garbage.
      Anyway, sold trailer and opened where we thought would do well. We have invested every dime we had and are making no money. We are told once Memorial Day comes, we will be swamped.
      In the meantime, first it was beer. I agreed to this drinking because I could watch how much he drank. Would get a 12 pack. He would drink, maybe 5, at the most, and then fall asleep. I would drink two or three. Then, we agreed to stop beer. Instead, he started sneaking buying mouthwash. Drinks about 12 to 15 ounces per day. I can’t stop him. I lost my license due to MS. He goes to the store, supposedly, to buy things for the shop. I ask for a receipt and he says he forgot. No change either. I found 5 empty 12 ounces bottles in the shop bathroom.
      Said he was going to stop. He was also on steroids due to gout. THEY SAY NEVER MIX STEROIDS AND ALCOHOL. His kidneys hurt so bad that with every breath he took, he whined. Once the alcohol wore off, the kidneys stopped hurting. Now he says he does not feel good, but he still drinking the mouthwash (32 ounce bottle). Pains in his stomach so bad, he asked me to drive without a license.
      He thinks he is the only one depressed. We are late on all bills and will get things cut off real soon. He tells me that I can take things better then he can. He’s right, but I really can’t take him. Told him he disgusts me and I don’t love him anymore. Been married 35 years.
      Here is my final comment. HIS BROTHER ON THE LIST FOR A NEW LIVER BECAUSE OF EXCESSIVE DRINKING OF BEER. ONCE WE LOST EVERYTHING BECAUSE OF HIS FATHER AND HIS BROTHER’S IDEA TO SELL, HE STARTED DRINKING HEAVILY. LOST HIS WIFE, KIDS AND FORCED TO SELL HOUSE. HE NOW LIVES IN HIS SISTER’S BASEMENT.

      • Lurker

        I just wanted to express my sorrow. Your story is heart breaking Susan, you shouldn’t be going through such pain, you have enough to deal with without all that. That’s so incredibly selfish for him to do..but addiction is a disease. He doesn’t want to hurt you obviously… He should be supporting you and trying to help you by being a responsible driver and do homely duties and what not. I hope he has a wake up call before its too late.. I truly hope things are looking up for you now.. Stay strong.

    • Vicki

      Am looking after my twin sister who is a chronic alcoholic. She has been three days sober and then she just walked in and I couldnt work out what the hell happened. She was in a stupor , but there was no alcohol and I am dispensing the Valium for detox period and she smelt like mint!! Found three bottles of it !!! This is my last big push to help her and she pleaded innocent and no idea it had alcohol in it! Hasnt had a shower for two days but keeps her month fresh and sweet !! Thanks for the information. Much appreciated XXX

      • A story that awakens memories and unpleasant ones, Vicki…spread the word, and glad to help.

      • Colleen O'Brien

        You are doing a great job Vicki, not in just looking after her, when it’s so
        hard, but trying to understand why she does what she does and coming to the conclusion, she doesn’t do it on purpose, that she is an Alcoholic and that’s what they do. You show her great compassion and patience and that can only help.. I appreciate what you do.
        Your sister Colleen

  2. Danielle

    Any knowledge on whether such a mouthrinse can effect a BAC level? For instance, if someone swiggs with such a mouthwash, & within an hour or so is at a jail (arrested for a DUI), & blows into a BAC machine, can such a mouthwash increase the level of alcohol a BAC machine will detect?

  3. Kevin

    Thank you all for this. Iam am a recovering alcoholic with 25 years up and my wife 18. We have been going through some hard times and only now I have discovered That she has been drinking Listerine for the past three weeks. She says she is over it it but I am at my wits end and in a real mess wondering what our future has in store for us. Reading the above has Helped though.
    Kevin

    • Kevin…hang in there. There’s nothing harder than what you and your wife are battling. Don’t give up.

    • Chrissy

      Kevin…addiction is a sad disease. I just buried my daughters father (40 yrs old) a few days ago. He too was an alcoholic who drank mouthwash. He didnt always drink mouthwash, only recently. It seems its an easy substitute, easily accessible, cheaper (dollar stores) and much more potent. To an alcoholic, it solves their problem. I tried many, many, many years to help (save) my daughters father (now my ex-husband) eventually (after 12 years) I had to realize that my help was just not enough. He had to want to help himself. My constant understanding (me being a codependant people pleaser) only enabled the problem. And I had to accept the fact that I was hurting him more than helping him. Us havin a child together only made the matter worse. I eventually had to stop thinking about him and start thinkin about her, so I let him go. I just could not sit by helplessly any longer and watch him destroy himself. As a person who has battled this disease you know all to well the affects addiction has on a family (and if you didnt u learning it now is a hard pill to swallow). You also know that addiction is a gene that is hereditary. So if you have children involved you may want to start thinking about how the decisions you make today…will affect their future. Its not going to be easy but then again nothing worth while is ever easily attained. Today Im a much stronger woman (mostly becauz of him), independant to a fault, and I do not admit or accept weakness well. The word NO does not exist in my vocabulary, I do whatever I have to for the people I love..And failure is just not an option for me…BUT HIM, HE WAS MY GREATEST FAILURE!!

      The best advice I can give you is to gather her loved ones (no children unless they are aware of whats been going on) and confront her about it. Do not pass judgement (you of all people no this will make her defensive), be understanding but do not be tolerant. Be loving but direct, present her with facts (not assumptions), try to get her to see what she can’t. And if she doesn’t you must accept the fact that you can not control her…the only thing you can control is how you choose to deal with it. In the meantime, the Serentity Prayer always helped me.

      God grant me the serenity
      to accept the things I cannot change;
      courage to change the things I can;
      and wisdom to know the difference.

      Living one day at a time;
      Enjoying one moment at a time;
      Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
      Taking, as He did, this sinful world
      as it is, not as I would have it;
      Trusting that He will make all things right
      if I surrender to His Will;
      That I may be reasonably happy in this life
      and supremely happy with Him
      Forever in the next.
      Amen.

      GOOD LUCK.
      Chrissy

  4. Jay

    Hi,
    I’ve been clean and sober about 28 yrs now, and I can tell you that I drank many many bottles of “house brand” mouthwash back when I was active. I think it contributed to skin rash issues that I had prior to treatment, but to be honest my health was so poor that it’s hard to tell (I was 6′ 1″ and 116 lbs). In any case, it was easily abused and easy to sneak below the radar. Miserable stuff yes, but that’s the way being a drunk is.

    I quit the first time in treatment after 20 yrs of hard drinking, and have never touched it again. It would be the same as putting a pistol in my mouth.

    I don’t think it’s the industry’s “fault”… it’s just what drunks like me do.

  5. Beryl Glover

    Do you have any information regarding the possible ill effects on the body from long-term listerine drinking? Thank you. Beryl Glover

  6. jay bree

    I can tell you that it (and general alcohol abuse) caused serious skin problems for me… rashes, redness. For a while I was diagnosed with Shingles.

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