Since Ethics Alarms Appears To Be The Only Source Trying To Publicize This Problem, Here, For The Third Time, Is “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit” [Corrected]

I re-posted the early Ethics Alarms entry from 2010, titled “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit,” in 2016. As I explained then, the original post “raised an important and shamefully under-reported topic, one that despite my exhortations then has yet to be adequately examined in the media.” In 2016, when I googled various combinations of “mouthwash,””Listerine,”‘alcoholism,” and “alcoholic,” the first result was 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,” I wrote. On that occasion I was prompted to re-post the essay after I had been shocked to hear a physician friend who treated alcoholics plead complete ignorance of the links between mouthwash and alcoholism. Today, it was the reaction of my own physician, who is usually up-to-date on all medical research, and he had treated alcoholism sufferers at the VA. He had never heard anything about the problem.

Google would seem to indicate that there is some publicity about the issue. (Interestingly, while in 2016 Ethics Alarms came up first in any search for the topic, today it doesn’t appear in the first five pages. Why would that be, I wonder? Well, this is another issue.)

This section of my 2016 intro is still valid:

“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 Ethics Alarms posts have their greatest traffic around the time they are posted, but since 2010, the page views of this article have increased steadily…More importantly, it has drawn comments like this one:

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

Here again is “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profi,” lightly edited and updated. Maybe the third time’s the charm.

***

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 we 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 whether 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 for certain, but 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. Legislators 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.


15 thoughts on “Since Ethics Alarms Appears To Be The Only Source Trying To Publicize This Problem, Here, For The Third Time, Is “The Amazing Mouthwash Deception: Helping Alcoholics Relapse For Profit” [Corrected]

  1. I have known about this since the late 80’s. Anyone who has a family member in rehab is told to eliminate alcohol based mouthwashes in the home. However, alcohol based mouthwashes are more effective as a bactericidal agent than the chemicals used in alcohol free mouthwashes.

    Personally, I reject the notion alcoholism is a genetically inspired disease. That is a cop out for people unwilling to change their own behavior. I know from personal experience with those who consume alcohol in my family.

    • The research is pretty convincing that there are twp types of alcohol abusers, and one type has a genetic problem that prevents them from metabolizing the stuff properly. Those are the alcoholics. The rest are just drunks. Drunks tend not to die of cirrhosis, for example. The problem is distinguishing between the two types, but there are tests. The longer alcohol has been in a culture, the fewer genetic alcoholics there are—they die off. France and Italy, for example, have few alcoholics—but plenty of drunks.

      • Is there a way for a drinker to tell the difference? It’s not a problem for those who never drink, but if one decides to partake of alcohol, is there a reaction to watch out for? Or a gene sequence or some other test that can determine if one is susceptible to alcoholism?

        • One possible way comes to mind. Alcohol is first converted to a much more poisonous corresponding aldehyde by the liver, ethanol to acetaldehyde, methanol to formaldehyde, and so on, and then that is converted further, leaving water and carbon dioxide to be flushed out of the body (if you live that long, which you may well not with methanol). It’s like having one leaky bucket leaking into a second leaky bucket. In unadapted populations, the first leak is larger, so high levels of aldehyde build up, with all that build up’s consequences*. Anyway, antabuse operates by, in effect, slowing the second leak so that the drinker gets roughly the unpleasant experiences of the unadapted. So it could be that antabuse has little effect on the unadapted as they are like that anyway, and detecting that could be used for a test. Or it could turn out to be a poor proxy; I wouldn’t know.

          By the way, my mother once told me that when she was growing up in France, the derelicts there used to drink Eau de Cologne.

          * The only reason we can cope with ethanol so much better than other alcohols is that our guts typically trickle out the equivalent of about a glass of beer spaced out over each day, from ordinary digestion, so evolution has already made us able to cope with some acetaldehyde.

      • I can accept there are those unable to metabolize ethyl alcohol just as there are those unable to process certain proteins or gluten. Such genetic issues do not affect decision making. Celiac patients don’t consume white bread until they pass out. More specifically, if one is genetically predisposed to alcoholism because “alcoholism” runs in the family and they partake in consuming alcohol then they are responsible for their own lifestyle choices which did originate in the familial curture of drinking to excess.
        Blaming it on a disease is a rationalization of the highest order.

        If in fact alcoholism is a disease then persons afflicted with it could be treated as disabled forcing employers to make reason able accommodations for them but no employer will countenance an employee who reeks of alcohol even if the person does not appear inebriated.

      • I reviewed the publication at https://pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/arh26-3/172-180.htm#:~:text=Linkage%20Approaches.%20To%20identify%20as%20yet%20unknown%20genes,expression%20of%20the%20disorder%20or%20a%20related%20behavior.

        I have no doubt that alcohol like nicotine or cocaine can be physically addictive but once the physical withdrawal effects have passed choosing to reestablish a relationship with the substance is pure choice. I smoked for over 48 years and I only quit when I really wanted to quit. That was almost 4 years ago. Before that I tried all sorts of nicotine replacement products; none worked. The reason they did not work was because I was resistant to quitting because I wanted to say up yours to all those imbeciles who asked me if I knew smoking was bad for me and to the rule makers who tried to make pariahs out of smokers. I gave it up when I said I would no longer allow the state to profiteer on the backs smokers. I found it ludicrous that when the cigarette tax revenues declined the legislature upped the tax so as to keep revenues high all the while bitching about evil big tobacco. The point is that I needed an immediate reason to quit not some conjecture about taking years off my life. If you are not constantly thinking about your own mortality the notion that something you enjoyed might lessen your lifespan fall on deaf ears.

        Based on what I read it appears that the genetic studies focus on likelihood of dependency using alcoholism related traits ( which I assume are the inability to stop drinking, blowing huge amounts of money that you really don’t have on booze, appearing to be in full control despite a BAC of .08 or higher or hiding your bottles and then comparing those traits to the individual’s genome to assess which alleles might play a role. The authors estimate that 50-60% of the variance of alcohol dependence is associated with genetic factors but offer no actual studies to confirm this assertion nor do they say what part of the genome is studied.

        I saw nothing in the publication for how they controlled for environmental factors such as familial observation and learning, peer/social learning, or economic factors that might cause people to retreat to the false sense of security of the bottle. I watched a family member waste away from end stage liver disease brought on by an unwillingness to stop drinking for good. I do not wish to elaborate further but suffice it to say that personal choice played a much larger role than genetics. I learned that alcohol abuse ruins lives and it was a path I was unwilling to follow.

        • That’s one paper. There are many others explaining the “medical model.” All I’ll say is that I am close to many alcoholics and many drunks. Their behavior is very different. Among other things, drunks would never touch Listerine.

  2. Not just mouthwash. Vanilla extract (or any alcohol based food flavoring) is another favorite with hardcore alcoholics; bought right off the grocery store shelf.

  3. Cough syrup is a common choice for teens. This is one of the reasons they have started to require IDs to buy it. Not to mention, there is nothing suspicious about carrying it.

  4. I think part of the post is copy pasted twice. I see the 5 ethical obligations twice. Is it supposed to be repeated for emphasis?

  5. I disagree with making it the manufacturers responsibility. All one has to do is read the present label. Alcohol is ubiquitous in many products we used today. Read the label on the myriad hand sanitizers we are commanded to use. Every gallon of gas you pump contains alcohol. Most household cleaning products are alcohol based. Labels have been put on cigarettes for as long as I remember and still people smoke, that is a matter of choice not manufacturers responsibility. I grow weary that addiction is a disease. It always begins and ends with a choice made by an individual.

  6. I find the alcohol tax avoidance angle interesting. The Treasury department is ruthless about making sure tax avoidance on ethanol never happens, but then this is a huge loophole.
    In a previous employment, I dealt with an industrial product that had ethanol as an ingredient. We couldn’t have methanol in it, so standard industrial ethanol was out as it is denatured with methanol. We had to deal with massive record keeping to be able to buy straight ethanol because of the risk somebody might divert it.
    They guy responsible liked to point out what denaturing is: the IRS would rather you die a horrible death than evade taxes.
    Yet here is a giant mouthwash loophole.

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