TCS Daily

The Temperance Movement Is Back

By Iain Murray - January 6, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week's New Year's celebrations brought out the predictable party-poopers in the medical fraternity. Of particular interest was a study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association by researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It attempted to measure the extent of binge drinking - defined as five or more drinks in one session - between 1993 and 2001. It concluded that binge drinking had indeed increased, with the average drinker going from six such episodes a year in '93 to seven in '01. There was much furrowing of brows at this news.

There were two reasons given for this concern. First, that any increase in alcohol consumption is bad news for public health. Second, there was special concern that binge drinkers (i.e. anyone who consumed five or more drinks at a sitting even once) were 14 times more likely to drive after having had too much to drink than someone who had never engaged in a drinking binge.

The trouble with the first concern is that there is increasing evidence that moderate alcohol drinking is actually good for you. Binge drinkers consume, on average, 1.6 drinks a day and, as they only binge 7 times a year, it is reasonable to assume that this is fairly steady drinking at about the levels that scientists say is good for you. Non-binge drinkers, on the other hand, take only 0.4 drinks per day, so they lose out on the benefits of moderate alcohol consumption.

As for the concern over alcohol-impaired driving, this could indeed be a worry. However, the slight increase in binge drinking has not been reflected in any increase in the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. In 1991, of the 54,000 drivers involved in fatal crashes, 27 percent had a blood alcohol content (BAC) of 0.08 (the legal limit) or greater. By 2001, of 57,000 drivers involved in fatalities, the percentage above the legal limit had dropped to 21 percent, a 22 percent decline overall.

There was also concern about the implications for underage drinkers driving, as the average number of binge drinking episodes in the age range 18-20 had increased from 10 in 1993 to 15 in 2001. Yet, once again, this increase is not reflected in the casualty figures. In 1991, 23 percent of young drivers (aged 16-20) involved in fatal crashes had a BAC of 0.08 or greater. By 2001, that figure had decreased to 18 percent. It seems that increases in binge drinking have happened at the same time as a more responsible approach to drunk driving.

The overwrought concern expressed by physicians at levels of alcohol use in the U.S. is possibly best illustrated by the discussion of this study on CNN's "American Morning" program with Paula Zahn on January 1. As you might expect on that date, the discussion blended into one about the best hangover cures. Standing in for Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN's medical correspondent, Dr. Sandra Fryhofer must have been suffering from something herself when she said of the traditional "hair of the dog" remedy, "Don't go there. Don't go there. Definitely don't try that or else you may end up being one of the 100,000 people who dies each year of alcohol abuse."

In fact, according to the CDC, there were only 19,000 alcohol-induced deaths and 26,000 deaths from liver disease associated with alcohol in 2000. Dr. Fryhofer's figure is at least double the amount attributable to personal abuse of alcohol.

This latest attempt to hype the dangers of alcohol comes after a year of intense campaigning against the substance. Last February saw the over-inflated claim that teens drink a quarter of all the alcohol consumed in the U.S. (the true figure is 11 percent). Then the PBS Newshour and the CBS Early Show aired a Federal Task Force on College Drinking claim that 1,400 students are killed and 600,000 are assaulted each year because of alcohol. But the "assaults" included everyone who said they were pushed or hit" as a result of someone drinking (not only by the drinker). And the deaths included auto accidents in which anyone (not only the drivers) tested positive for any amount of alcohol.

Last year also saw two attempts by the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth to demonstrate that alcohol manufacturers were deliberately targeting under-age drinkers. The assertions were based on the underage share of the audience that read magazines or watch TV programs during which alcohol is advertised. But for all of these outlets - such as Sports Illustrated or "Saturday Night Live" - the audience is predominantly of legal drinking age. The American Medical Association nevertheless used the studies to call for further restrictions on alcohol advertising.

The temperance movement is clearly back with a vengeance.

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