More Temperance Tomfoolery

This morning on the radio, I heard the Washington Post’s Richard Morin express alarm at the latest study from the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse regarding underage drinking. This year’s study — like previous studies from CASA — declares underage drinking a monumental problem, and concludes that the alcohol industry is not only to blame, but that the industry’s bottom line is dependent on continued consumption by minors.

Morin is an ideas guy. He should know better than to buy into what a baldly neoprohibitionist group like CASA puts in its press release without a bit of skepticism. Unfortunately, he’s not alone — this short NY Times piece bites on the study, too.

CASA has an unfortunate history of fudging data in pursuit of an anti-alcohol agenda. The group had to apologize and retract a 2002 study just hours after its release when critics pointed out massive errors in methodology.

The invaluable Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University (STATS) takes a crack at this year’s study and, once again, finds it lacking:

Here are a few numbers that don’t make sense: according to their estimate, over 20 billion drinks are consumed by underage drinkers. STATS was unable to reconstruct this number. According to their own analysis, 47.1 percent of kids age 12-20 are “drinkers”, that is, they consume at least one drink per month. According to the 2000 U.S. Census, there are 35.8 million people in the United States in this age range; of these, just under 17 million drank in the past month. The average number of drinks/month, according to the data given in this article, is 35.2 per person per month– or about 422 per year. This amounts to about 422 times 17 million, or just under 7.2 billion drinks per year, far from the 20 billion reported in their table, and used for their analysis. For these same kids to consume 20 billion drinks, each teen would have to consume over 1,000 drinks per year, or almost three drinks a day!

STATS runs through CASA’s other hysterical claims, debunks them, then concludes:

The upshot of all this: the number of drinks consumed by youth under 21 is overestimated, the cost per drink is overestimated, the amount of drink attributed to abuse and dependence is overestimated, and the benefit to the industry of youth drinking and alcohol abuse and dependence is overestimated.

Alcohol industry giant Diageo has started a blog to debunk neoprohibition nonsense. Regarding the CASA study, Diageo also points out that nearly all statistical data indicate a sharp decline in underage drinking over the last 15 years, as well as sharp declines in the social problems one might associate with alcohol abuse — drunk driving fatalities, for example. (While Diageo is an alcohol manufacturer, the data it cites come from the federal government.)

Two other points to consider in all of this:

  • This type of data manipulation is alarmingly common among anti-alcohol activists. Just a couple of months ago, the American Medical Association (which has adopted an odd, militant temperance philosophy of late) was caught passing off an Internet poll on spring break and alcohol consumption as scientific, complete with a made-up margin of error. That story was all over the media before any reporter or editor thought to look at its methodology. And it’s unlikely that the millions who saw the original story on the Today Show or read about it in USA Today saw the handful of follow-up stories showing the poll to be little more than anti-alcohol propaganda.
  • There’s no question that underage drinking is common, and much of it is unhealthy (though I don’t buy into the notion that each time a glass of alcohol touches a 19-year-old’s lips qualifies as an incident of “abuse”). But it’s not nearly as widespread as the neoprohibition crowd would have you believe.  Nor is putting bans or severe limitations on alcohol marketing the proper way to address it.   

Unfortunately, neither CASA and its comrades in temperance nor the alcohol industry will consider what I think is a far more sensible approach: Abolish the federal drinking age and, at the state level, adopt a more realistic minimum age — 18 or 19 for purchase, with no minimum for consumption under parental supervision.

Prohibitions on intoxicants have never worked, and never will. They encourage binging and “underground” consumption.