As Independence Day approaches Monday, one wonders if the U. S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will follow its recent pattern and release some scary anti-alcohol study right before the holiday, so that everyone who enjoys a cold one can feel at least a little bit guilty about it.
In 2013, they were hawking junk science in opposition to liquor privatization in Pennsylvania, earning them a public rebuke from Dr. Raymond Scalettar, a clinical professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center, a medical adviser to the Distilled Spirits Council and a former chair of the American Medical Association.
As Scalettar explained, the CDC cited a 44 percent median increase in per-capita sales of alcoholic beverages within jurisdictions that switched from a state store system to private ownership. The CDC derived this figure by analyzing 17 studies, six of which showed no increase in consumption, and four of which showed only moderate increases. The CDC’s own task force found no pattern of increased alcohol-related harms from privatization, although it implied the opposite.
The 44 percent figure actually came from studies of wine sales from 35 years ago. Between 1970 and 1981, six states privatized the sale of wine. Wine sales increased significantly in those states. But guess what? Wine sales increased significantly in every other state during that same period. Americans simply started to drink more wine in the ’70s. It had nothing to do with privatization.
The CDC predicted that privatization in Washington State would lead to a 44 percent median increase in per-capita alcohol sales. Washington State’s data showed a per-capita increase of less than 1 percent.
In 2014, this was the eye-grabber: “Drinking behind 1 in 10 deaths of working-age adults.” What editor can resist a headline like that? The CDC is so credible, no one thinks to challenge them, but they should.
The CDC got those extreme numbers by liberally attributing causes of death to alcohol. If the person who died in a car crash had alcohol in their system, it was alcohol-related, regardless whether the person actually was impaired, or whether the impairment caused the death. The same with death from falls, homicides and drowning. If you drank and died from breast cancer, liver disease or heart disease it was an alcohol-related death. If you drank, had unprotected sex and contracted AIDS, it was an alcohol-related death.
The Distilled Spirits Council called this report “shocking and disappointing,” because the CDC failed to emphasize evidence-based strategies, including screening and intervention, which the council recommends and which the CDC itself had promoted earlier that year as a proven, effective approach to stem alcohol abuse.
Recently, the CDC seems to have moderated its stance somewhat. It now acknowledges that most drinkers consume alcohol moderately and experience no negative health effects over their lifetime. It admits that binge drinking among teens and young adults is at an all-time low. It recommends moderate consumption of alcohol, as defined in the dietary guidelines issued by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There were no pre-Independence Day hysterical headlines in 2015.
But the CDC still advocates policies such as banning alcohol advertising, reducing the number of retail outlets and expanding commercial host liability. It advocates higher alcohol taxes to reduce consumption, despite research by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism that shows alcohol abusers are little affected by price increases. For control states, CDC opposes privatization. There is little evidence that any of these policies reduce binge drinking, drunken driving or other alcohol-related harms.
All this matters because the CDC has an essential mission and needs to be highly credible when it makes recommendations about risks such as the Zika virus. An anti-alcohol campaign based more on bias than evidence jeopardizes that credibility.
Guest blogger Charles K. Cowdery is the author of Bourbon, Strange: Surprising Stories of American Whiskey (2014); Bourbon, Straight: The Uncut and Unfiltered Story of American Whiskey (2004) and The Best Bourbon You’ll Never Taste (2012).