Why the alcohol problem in the Philippines is complicated and the issue of marketing corporate social responsibility
by Gianna Gayle Amul ; October 16, 2023
Despite the cost and harm alcohol consumption causes in the Philippines, alcohol companies there are deeply intertwined with the national government in decades-old relationships that only deepened during the COVID-19 pandemic.
San Miguel, one of the largest alcohol companies in the Philippines, promotes its products with a tagline that references a “shared history” with the Filipino people. But given how dearly it costs the government and the community, it is also a shared suffering.
Alcohol in Philippine Culture and History
Alcohol consumption harms Filipinos and society. The Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation estimate that in 2019, 39,802 Filipinos died from causes attributable to drinking, and each year the government picks up the tab for an estimated PHP 200 billion ($3.5 billion) for treating alcohol-related illnesses, policing alcohol-involved crimes, and covering burial expenses for those killed by drinking.
Many, though, are blind to these harms because alcohol consumption is so deeply ingrained in Filipino culture. With the exception of the Muslim minority, most Filipinos view drinking as an important part of their heritage and a key element of the nation’s tourism industry. Filipinos often give bottles of liquor as gifts and serve them at birthdays, baptisms, weddings, reunions, and wakes. In big Philippine cities, people drinking outside of neighborhood convenience stores or in front of their houses are a common sight. All these habits are normalized by ubiquitous alcohol marketing.
Alcohol production in the Philippines has its roots in the country’s colonial history. San Miguel, the country’s oldest brewery, was founded in 1890 and has since evolved into the San Miguel Corporation, one of the country’s largest conglomerates. It owns the country’s oldest gin producer, Ginebra San Miguel, and has an extensive distribution network that ensures its products reach far-flung places. This inspired its marketing tagline “kahit saan, kahit kailan,” which translates to “anywhere, anytime.”
San Miguel Corporation has also come to be associated with the country’s favorite sport, basketball, because it owns two of the top teams in the country, which are named after their products—San Miguel Beermen and Barangay Ginebra San Miguel. San Miguel Beer’s month-long Oktoberfest, which began in 1982, has been recognized by the Department of Tourism as an official Philippine festival.
The San Miguel Corporation and the Lucio Tan Group have presented themselves as socially responsible companies, which increases their sales among women, but have been criticized for developing and marketing products that appeal to youth and children.
The alcohol industry has portrayed itself as a partner of the national government in sustainable development, aligning with the UN Sustainable Development Goals which they claim to be advancing them in their annual reports. In times of disasters and emergencies—which are frequent in the Philippines—the industry has provided a helping hand to earn goodwill. For example, San Miguel Corporation’s Team Malasakit program partnered with the government to help victims affected by the eruption of Mayon Volcano. San Miguel Brewery has also donated amphibious vehicles, rubber boats, and rubber boat carriers to the Philippine Navy and the Philippine Coast Guard for disaster rescue operations.
In 1972, San Miguel Corporation established a corporate social responsibility arm, the San Miguel Foundation, which runs programs addressing health, education, the environment, disaster relief, and more. It has branded this work as malasakit, the Filipino word for concern or empathy. The foundation has branded its community development projects as BEER: barangay (the Filipino term for the smallest unit of local government unit) strengthening, enterprise development, education, and reforestation.
In times of disasters and emergencies—which are frequent in the Philippines—the industry has provided a helping hand to earn goodwill
Similarly, the Lucio Tan Group established the Tan Yan Kee Foundation, through which it funds various education, health, relief, and environmental programs. This foundation was particularly active helping the victims of typhoons Ketsana (2009), Haiyan (2014), and of the eruption of Taal Volcano in Batangas in 2020.