First They Came for My Coke, Then They Came for My Jack

Not satisfied with hounding smokers and purveyors of Big Gulp sodas – or even gun manufacturers – nanny-staters have reached way back into their historical toolkits to go after alcohol. That’s right, in this the 80th year since the repeal of Prohibition, a new coalition has arisen to take on the scourge of demon rum.

But these aren’t your great-granddaddy’s Baptists and bootleggers; instead we have a transnational alliance of “public health professionals” out to make the world a more sober place.  Not satisfied with the persuasiveness of their entreaties, however, they further want to muzzle alcohol producers and anyone else with a “stake” in the debate.  (Apparently limiting the freedom to drink isn’t enough for these people; the freedom of speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances are also suspect.)

Here’s Exhibit A, a “statement of concern” put out in February by a group of public health advocates calling themselves the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance.  In a nutshell, GAPA doesn’t like the fact that the beverage alcohol industry is involved in the debate on how to reduce alcohol abuse, not even the commitments that 13 of the largest alcohol producers made in support of the World Health Organization’s “Global Strategy to Reduce the Harmful Use of Alcohol.  The most revealing “reservation” the GAPA-niks have is item 3 on page 3:

Prior initiatives advanced by the alcohol industry as contributions to the WHO Global Strategy have major limitations from a public health perspective …

That sounds rather innocuous – an academic disagreement about alcohol policy – but let me put this in context.  The public health community consistently advocates “population-based” controls that simply seek to reduce total alcohol consumption, regardless of whether alcohol abuse declines.  There could be cirrhotic ne’er-do-wells dying in the streets, but as long as yuppies buy less Jack Daniel’s, all is fine.  The alcohol industry, or anyone that cares about actually fixing social problems rather than taking steps that at best just make politicians feel good – call it the inverse Baptists/bootleggers – prefers a targeted approach: keep booze away from kids, get alcoholics treatment, don’t drink bad moonshine that’ll make you go blind, etc.

Naturally, a targeted approach focusing on individual cases of alcohol abuse – the relatively small percent of the population that has a problem – conflicts with a theory that the problem is society’s use of alcohol writ large.  So-called public health experts seem to think that alcohol abuse is an infectious disease (setting aside the separate debate of whether alcoholism is a disease and what the answer means for disability policy).  I suspect that what really scares these folks is the fact that targeted remedies necessarily focus on individual treatment, leaving the do-gooding advocates cut off from the government funding that sustains them.

While the busybodies claim that Big Alcohol has an inherent conflict of interest, that of Big Public Health is even greater: It lives off of taxpayer funding that would be cut off if their policies were shown to be ineffectual and even counter-productive.  That’s why GAPA recommends, on page 10, that WHO countries “not engage commercial or vested interest groups, or their representatives, in discussion on the development of alcohol policy.”  And, of course, GAPA advocates for more funding – to be spent by GAPA and other advocacy groups as they see fit.

It’s rather shocking that a self-appointed group of international public health lobbyists, with the support of unelected international bureaucrats, would issue a document suggesting that policymakers shouldn’t even let a particular interest group make its case – even as the Supreme Court has held again and again that the First Amendment protects speech regardless of the identity of the speaker.  Moreover, why should someone from Australia, Brazil, China, Lithuania, Nigeria, Norway, South Korea, Sweden, Uganda, or the UK tell the U.S. government which U.S. citizens it ought to listen to?  (And apparently at least two of the Americans who signed the GAPA statement are active recipients of U.S. government grants.)

Oh, and here’s Exhibit B, a letter by Dr. Margaret Chan, the Chinese director-general of the WHO, in response to an article in BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal) examining the above debate.

Sounds like it’s time for a meeting of the MOD Squad.