Spreading the Word: “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit”

"Bottoms up!"

“Bottoms up!”

I am moved to re-post the early Ethics Alarms entry from 2010, titled “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit,” for a few reasons.

It raises an important and shamefully under-reported topic, one that despite my exhortations then has yet to be adequately examined in the media. If one googles various combinations of “mouthwash,””Listerine,”‘alcoholism,” and “alcoholic,” the first result is, sadly, my post. Most people who are not afflicted with the disease of alcoholism have no idea that mouthwash is a popular stand-in for liquor, or that is used to deceive family members who think an addict is no longer using or intoxicated. None of the recommended policy changes I suggest in the post have been implemented, either.

Last week I chanced to mention the use of Listerine by alcoholics to a friend who is a doctor who treats alcoholics. He was shocked, and had no knowledge of this at all. “Eww!” he said. “Isn’t that poison? You can drink it? I had no idea.” And he is a professional who keeps up  with the literature. (But obviously doesn’t read his friend’s blog.)

Despite my frustration that what I regard as a true exposé that should have sparked an equivalent article in a more widely read forum has remained relatively unknown, I am encouraged by the effect it has had. Most posts have their greatest traffic around the time they are posted, but since 2010, the page views of this article have increased steadily every month. More importantly, it has drawn comments like this one, from yesterday:

“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 couldn’t 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! Hasn’t had a shower for two days but keeps her month fresh and sweet !! Thanks for the information. Much appreciated XXX”

Most of all, I am revolted that what I increasingly have come to believe is an intentional, profit-motivated deception by manufacturers continues, despite their knowledge that their product is killing alcoholics and destroying families. I know proof would be difficult, but there have been successful class action lawsuits with millions in punitive damage settlements for less despicable conduct. Somewhere, there must be an employee or executive who acknowledges that the makers of mouthwash with alcohol know their product is being swallowed rather than swished, and are happy to profit from it.

Few had discovered Ethics Alarms by April of 201o. I hope that by re-publishing the post now, it might find its way to more social media pages and even be sent to some investigative reporters. As I ended the original post, spread the word. Mouthwash is killing your friends and family members, or if not yours, those of someone not far away.

Thus, for the second time and hoping for more impact than the first, here is “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit.” Even if you read it the first time, refresh your memory.

People are killing themselves right under our noses, and we are being thrown of by the minty smell of their breath.

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.

31 thoughts on “Spreading the Word: “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit”

  1. I don’t know. It is a balancing test. Most mouthwash manufacturers also offer an alcohol-free version. The problem is, the disinfecting agent that they use for that (hydrogen peroxide in most cases), tastes awful, but more importantly, is quite deadly if swallowed in large quantities by children and pets, as is inevitable. Your proposals would push for more manufacturers to stop using alcohol, but would probably result in more child deaths. Would the reduction in alcoholics be enough to justify that increase? I have no idea, nor probably, does anyone else.

      • Because, while H2O2 leaves a rather unpleasant mouth taste, they still generally flavor them with something more pleasant to cover it up, and kids are basically stupid and will swallow anything. One would hope that parents would keep this kind of mouthwash on a high shelf (along with the other hygiene supplies that shouldn’t be eaten) and not let kids use it until they are old enough not to swallow it- but we know that some parents wouldn’t.

  2. I have two theories about almost everything. Knowledge is better than ingnorance and people need to be aware that actions have consequences. I’m thinking this through with those two theories in place and if I have any shallow insight I’ll share it later.

  3. My 500 mL bottle of Listerine Cool Mint (made in Australia) contains 0.22mL of ethanol. That is 0.044% alcohol, i.e. you need to drink 90 bottles of Listerine to have the same amount of alcohol as drinking a similar size of beer with 4% alcohol.

    So is there is something else other than the ethanol that is also alcoholic?
    Are the Australian ingredients different to the American ingredients?

    • Hmmm not a big math man eh? After downing 500ml of Coles brand, I pissed dirty to the tune of equivalent 375ml 37% Vodka.
      Do the math .22ml per 1ml = 22% ethyl alcohol (natured) be thankful it’s not de-natured with methyl alcohol. Then you can revise warning labels to read “this will send you blind, and kill you”. As a chronic alcoholic, I can sit in judgement.

        • I find this hard to believe. I used the stuff after I had teeth extracted, and I would rather have eaten glass…
          ********
          The first time I heard of it I was as incredulous as you are.
          But it is true.
          During the 2004 hurricane season here in Florida, on two occasions in my county, martial law was declared.
          And you know what that means: no alcohol or firearms sales.
          The ER was full of people who had been drinking Listerine.
          Unbelievably.

          Some of us are smart enough to include alcohol rations in our emergency supplies.
          (hehe, j/k.)

          • Sorry I was wrong on the Martial Law thing, it was rather a State of Emergency, declared by the Governor, who at that time was Jeb Bush.
            Either way, the Army Reserves (armed) were here directing traffic and suchlike and you could not purchase guns or booze.

            After a few days with no electricity in 90’F heat, getting liquored up and driving around shooting up road signs starts to sound tempting. hehe

    • You obviously don’t have any Russian friends, lol. Let me tell you, the truly addicted drink anything from toilet cleaner to eau de toilette which incidentally contains even more alcohol than listerine, about 80 %.

  4. I thought the Listerine/alcohol content was common knowledge. We had an alcoholic in the family and we knew to lock away all the mouthwash, cough syrup, etc. Huh.

  5. Much of the cost difference between hard liquor and mouthwash comes from the fact that the former is taxed and the latter isn’t. I’m amazed that the ‘tax man’ hasn’t figured this out and gone after the un-taxed alcohol in the mouthwash.

  6. Family member, a minor, hid the addiction carried from a young age, with mouthwash consumption, for 2 years till clueless mom, me, was informed by someone who knew the alcohol connection and let me know.

  7. Didn’t I read something in the papers about Johnson&Johnson a few years back: They tried to squash a self-test for mouth cancer by some group which studied the effects of listerine and the likes on mouth cancer?
    There have been studies for some years now that show that to regularly gargle with alcohol mouth wash lowers you gum’s ability to repel carcinogenic substances and, of course, acetaldehyde is carcinogenic in itself.
    It’s not really hard to see the link because alcoholics die more often from undetected mouth cancer than non alcoholics…
    The alcoholic father of a friend of mine lost part of his tongue. He was lucky it was found so early.

    I’d say anything is possible when it comes to a conglomerate like Johnson&Johnson.

    • Just found out that the sales of Listerine alone accounts for more than $1 billion of what J&J makes in the States with their products.

  8. Vanilla extract too (or any alcohol based food flavoring). Far more expensive, but they’ll drink it if they’re desperate and it’s in the cupboard.

  9. I was under than impression that the ethanol in mouthwash was denatured (with perhaps isopropol alcohol), meaning that the poison warning was not completely superfluous. Alcoholics may still be at risk for an accelerated rate of liver damage due to the added toxicity of the denaturing substance.

    This may not discourage the addict, but it should motivate the awareness campaign to discourage mouthwash consumption.

      • It’ll still slowly poison them- it’s more harmful than normal ethanol, but not immediately lethal. Of course, they could go the lab supply route and denature Listerine with wood alcohol, but that might raise some eyebrows…

      • Ah, thank you. I’ve worked in labs using ethyl alcohol denatured with truly noxious substances (isopropyl, gasoline, etc). It makes sense though, as as Luke G notes, that they would not deliberately make Listerine more toxic to humans than necessary for its antiseptic uses.

  10. Aside from the misleading label is the fact that alcohol-based mouthwashes simply don’t work. In the short term they kill the germs in your mouth and leave a mint taste and smell, but rinsing your mouth with alcohol removes moisture and leaves you with a dryer mouth than before. Dry mouth lets bacteria grow more freely and therefore, dry mouth is stinky mouth, and nasty tasting mouth, and you use more Listerine and can’t figure out why you rmouth got so funky again so fast…

    Even without the alcoholism angle I recommend alcohol-free mouthwashes to my friends. They can leave an off taste from the other sterilizing agents (usually Peroxide) but it just takes a bit of getting used to, and you don’t realize how dry your mouth was from alcohol wash til you try the alternative. Plus they aren’t a pain-master endurance challenge like Listerine is.

  11. I’d never heard of this before I enlisted in the Marine Corps (mid 90s). Once I arrived at MCRD San Diego there was one guy that went around every few days if anyone had any extra Listerine, at the time I had no idea why. Later in training I injured my knee and while waiting for my ELS I was in the Recruit Separation Platoon and one afternoon came across a few guys just chugging the little bottles and asked them why. They invited me to try it to get trashed out of boredom (There is almost nothing to do while waiting on paperwork to separate), I passed as I didn’t drink at all at the time (funny what an alcoholic dad will do to your view of alcohol) and didn’t feel like spending my last few days in the Brig.

    Talked to my brother who enlisted in the Army about 10 years later and same thing went on there.

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