September 27 2011
Nearly 80 years after prohibition ended, the temperance movement in the United States continues to thrive in the form of state-run liquor stores which attempt to limit consumption of liquor through price manipulation. Yet while last century's temperance movement sought to protect women and children from "the drink," those who defend government-controlled liquor sales today aren't quite so altruistic. Their concern is state tax revenues and government jobs.
Currently, 19 jurisdictions (18 states and one county) use government monopolies to control how alcohol is sold. The degree of monopolization varies - most states allow wine and beer to be sold in licensed locations like grocery stores and specialty shops, but restrict distilled products (whiskey, rum, vodka, etc.) to government-run stores. The state with the most stringent laws is Utah, dictating that all alcoholic beverages must be sold by the state. Pennsylvania comes in second, granting itself a monopoly on distilled beverages and wine.
Today, lawmakers in Pennsylvania are trying to move away from this model by introducing legislation to replace the roughly 620 state-owned liquor stores with privately run retail establishments. Yet, these efforts face some tough opposition - the Obama Administration and powerful forces at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
In April, an "independent" task force, whose members are appointed by the Director of the CDC, released a report recommending against the privatization of alcohol sales based on their finding that "privatization results in increased per capita alcohol consumption, a well-established proxy for excessive consumption." In layman's terms, they're asserting that privatization leads to binge drinking.
Yet while this report states that the Task Force is "an independent, nonfederal, volunteer body of public health and prevention experts," the findings are being presented to the public with the CDC imprimatur-creating a misleading impression that the government has an "official position" on the issue, while shielding the CDC from having to back up the task force's assertions.
The report goes on to state (in very fine print) that their data is "preliminary and are subject to change as the systematic review goes through the scientific peer review process." So, what might a "peer review process" reveal about the report?
The Task Force's official conclusion is that "privatization of retail alcohol sales may lead to an increase in per capita alcohol consumption by several means...lead[ing] to increases in excessive alcohol consumption and related harms...including interpersonal violence and vandalism."
This was deduced by a literature review of 21 studies -- most of which were conducted in the 1980s -- covering both alcohol consumption and alcohol-related harms (such as traffic accidents, injuries, etc). Of the three studies on alcohol-related harms, the Task Force concluded that two "yielded mixed, statistically non-significant results," while one Swedish study found that under a state-controlled system, there were "statistically non-significant decreases in rates of hospitalization for a variety of alcohol-related harms." In short, privatization did no actual harm.
To assess the validity of using state control as a tool to reduce alcohol consumption, the Task Force based much of its finding on an outdated theory from the 1950s known as "single distribution," which postulated that the abuse of alcohol could be reduced by lowering consumption among all drinkers. This decades-old theory makes no distinction between people who are light to moderate drinkers and those who abuse alcohol.
Today, scientists agree that people with drinking problems react differently to alcohol partially because of a specific gene that predisposes certain populations to alcoholism. In a recent Yale University study on alcohol abuse, researchers studied the impact of higher taxes on drinking patterns and found that the heaviest drinkers were the least responsive to price increases.
Just last week, a study conducted by the CDC and published in the American Journal of Public Health found that moderate drinking was one of four behaviors that would help extend an individual's life. However, the CDC's press release ignored these findings saying that people should be "limiting alcohol." What the study actually said is that people should include "moderate alcohol consumption" in their diets.
While subtle, these word games serve an important purpose-to instill fear in the American public about alcohol consumption and to give the overall perception that alcohol-no matter the amount-is bad. It's clear that the CDC is no longer an agency that relies on science when doling out health advice. Instead, the agency ignores its own research when it conflicts with the political agenda they wish to promote.
Privatization of alcohol sales will neither increase the number of alcohol abusers nor will it lead to a massive loss of state tax revenue. It will, however, cost government jobs. Perhaps that's the real agenda behind the CDC's sloppy science.