TCS Daily

Crying In Your Beer

By Radley Balko - March 27, 2003 12:00 AM

On March 13, a writer named Jim Gogek published an op-ed in the New York Times calling for across-the-board increases on alcohol taxes from state governments. Gogek was described on the Times op-ed this way: "an editorial writer for The San Diego Union-Tribune [and] a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation fellow."

More accurately, Jim Gogek is a hired gun. He was hired by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to sow the seeds of a new anti-alcohol movement. He's being mentored by Michael Messing, a noted anti-alcohol writer. And the statistics he used in the Times column to support his argument for higher alcohol taxes all came from studies underwritten by, you guessed it, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Meet the new prohibitionists.

Earlier this month, an organization called the Educational Development Center hosted the 13th Alcohol Policy Conference in Boston. In attendance: a panoply of alcohol researchers, academics and advocates. The subtopic for this year's conference was "Environment and Accountability: Who Is Responsible?"

To the conference participants, the question posed in the subtitle is rhetorical. They believe "the environment" is undoubtedly responsible for all of society's alcohol-related problems. The alcoholic isn't to blame. And so, they conclude, we must go about changing the environment of alcoholism.

Representatives from the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse - or "CASA" for short - attended the conference. Over the last few years, CASA has published a number of alarmist studies addressing America's alcohol habit. Gogek alluded to at least one CASA study in his article. Most all of CASA's work has been called into question by serious social scientists, health workers and editorial boards.

Just last month CASA published a study declaring that half the alcohol consumed in the United States is consumed by underage and/or excessive drinkers. But as the Journal of the American Medical Association pointed out in an editorial accompanying the study, CASA's definition of "excessive" may surprise you - "more than two drinks a day," not accounting for the timing of those drinks, metabolism, body weight, gender, or food eaten before or after consumption. Two people sharing a bottle of wine would by CASA's definition have engaged in "excessive alcohol consumption."

The same organization published a widely ridiculed study last year claiming that one quarter of the alcohol consumed in the U.S. is consumed by underage drinkers. In his op-ed, Gogek claims that 20% of alcohol sold in the U.S. is sold to minors. The real number is closer to 11%.

Two other anti-alcohol organizations - the Center for Science in the Public Interest and Join Together Online - have also cited the latest CASA study in calling for higher taxes on adult beverages. CASA itself is calling for strict warning labels on beer, wine and spirits, and for a $1 billion industry-funded research trust that will, inevitably, fund more anti-alcohol studies published by organizations like CASA.

Another anti-alcohol group - Mothers Against Drunk Driving - has also adopted a neo-prohibitionist point of view of late. MADD has shifted its focus from preventing "drunk driving" to preventing "drinking and driving."

Drunk driving deaths have leveled off the last few years, after steady declines since the early 1980s. This leveling-off has led most experts to conclude that drunk driving is largely limited now to a small core of alcoholics, the kind of people who aren't likely to be swayed by public relations campaigns.

But instead of calling for more resources to catch those few hard core drunks, MADD has set its sights on social drinkers, and has embarked on a nationwide campaign to lower state blood-alcohol limits to .08. MADD's also working with law enforcement officials on the local level to arrest motorists who have had anything to drink at all - BACs as low as .01 - at random roadblock checkpoints.

In Madison, Wisconsin, an organization called" the PACE project" conducted a study which concluded that drink specials at local bars and taverns were responsible for a rash of downtown rioting and vandalism. Under heavy public pressure, Madison bar owners agreed to a self-imposed one-year moratorium on drink specials to gauge what effect a ban might have on local crime. So far it's had none. A similar program in Orange County, California encourages restaurants to reduce alcohol sales by reducing drink sizes, limiting customers to one drink per hour, and cutting off customers after as few as two drinks.

Last year, Deborah Cohen of the Rand Corporation garnered media attention with a study concluding that alcohol-related health problems in most communities were directly related to per-capita consumption. She recommended higher taxes, random roadblocks, and "greater restrictions on alcohol availability."

None of these efforts is much concerned with holding individual alcoholics responsible for the consequences of their alcoholism. Rather, all aim to change the environment of alcohol consumption. "Limit access to alcohol on the whole," the thinking goes, "and you'll limit the damage inflicted by the few who drink excessively."

The other common component of all the examples above, as well as Mr. Gogek, is that they're all funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a mammoth New Jersey philanthropic organization with over $9 billion in assets.

CASA has received about $33 million from RWJ since 1991. The Center for Science in the Public Interest has received $1.21 million since 1996. MADD has received $3.39 million since 1996. The PACE study was entirely underwritten by RWJ, and Cohen's Rand study was also funded by foundation. The Educational Development Center got a $200,000 grant from RWJ to host this year's conference, and received another $5 million in 2001.

Join Together Online is headed up by Robert Hingson, a MADD vice president, and publisher of an infamous study on the effectiveness of .08 BAC laws that was thoroughly debunked by the General Accounting Office. Join Together Online is funded with $28 million from Robert Wood Johnson.

What's troubling is that all of these RWJ research and writing grants seem to be contingent not on sound science and prudent analysis, but on conclusions that are consistent with RWJ's anti-alcohol advocacy.

A summary of action points from the 2000 edition of this year's Boston conference couldn't be clearer: "Research and data from community partnerships and programs to reduce underage drinking should support the goals of the partnership/program funders."

In other words, if you want more money, be sure your conclusions support the mission. There's nothing in and of itself wrong with this, but it should call into question any study or article underwritten by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

Especially since the focus on prohibition distracts from the primary problems. Excessive alcohol consumption is a significant public health issue - both in the damage drunks do to themselves and to their communities. A recent Los Angeles Times article estimated that about 5,000 sober people are killed each year by drunken drivers, a far cry from the 17,000 figure put forth by MADD, but still 5,000 too many.

But lowering the boom on light drinkers will do little to prevent those 5,000 deaths, most of which are the result of a driver with a blood-alcohol level of .14 or higher. It's like lowering the speed limit to 50 mph in order to cut down on the idiots who zip down the highway at 100 mph +.

Restricting the general public's freedom to make choices about a glass of wine, a champagne toast, or a beer at a baseball game does nothing to prevent a recidivist drunk from again getting behind the wheel.

The medical community is in near-unanimous agreement now that moderate alcohol consumption - 2 to 3 glasses per day - carries enormous health benefits. It can stave off everything from heart disease to dementia to some forms of cancer. A series of decades-long studies just recently completed have all concluded that moderate drinking can be more beneficial to personal health than losing excess weight, regular exercise, or even quitting smoking.

Yet a powerful, well-funded lobby of activists has emerged with the message that alcohol, not alcoholism, is the real threat to public health. Their remedy, then, is to restrict your access to alcohol through higher taxes, pressure on the alcohol industry, and zero tolerance for alcohol on the roadways.

They fight with emotion, not science, and calculate risk with anecdotes, not statistics. They're the new prohibitionists, and they're coming for your beer.

Radley Balko is a freelance writer living in Alexandria, VA. He publishes the weblog

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