Commentary

Thank You for Not Drinking … In the Bar

This article was published in the Chicago Sun-Times, Dec. 5, 2003.

Hold on to your barstool. The nanny statists are coming again. After considerable success with tobacco, where they’ve managed to restrict advertising, impose mammoth excise taxes, and strip tobacco companies of the class action defenses afforded to most every other defendant, the “public health” activists are now coming for your beer.

There’s a rhetorical tool in the world of debate called reductio ad absurdium. You take your opponent’s argument to its most extreme conclusion — the more absurd, the better. If done right, your audience will see that the other guy’s argument can be applied to achieve an end that most people would find laughable, and you’ll have your opponent backpedaling.

Unfortunately, reductio arguments don’t work so well anymore. That’s because we live in an age that’s becoming increasingly comfortable with absurdity.

Take the emerging nanny state. When the first tobacco lawsuits found their way into court, the reductio line of attack seemed a potent one. How could we hold tobacco companies liable for injuries incurred by people who chose to smoke, particularly those who took up the habit after smoking’s ill-effects were well known? Doesn’t the consumer assume some responsibility for his own actions? What’s next, suing Coca-Cola or McDonalds for making people fat? Uh, yes.

And so now they set their sights on alcohol. Armed with a slew of junk science studies from organizations such as the Center for Science and the Public Interest, the Center for Alcohol Marketing to Youth, and Columbia University’s Center for Addiction and Substance Abuse, anti-alcohol advocates are finding receptive audiences in state legislatures, Congress, and federal agencies for all sorts of nasty bills and public policy initiatives aimed at restricting your access to alcohol.

Just as they did with tobacco, they’re attacking on several fronts. They want to raise taxes on alcohol, and restrict alcohol manufacturers from advertising on billboards, at sporting events or in mainstream magazines. They want to use zoning laws to limit the number of places alcohol is sold. They want to curb consumption with overly aggressive drinking and driving laws (and enforcement). And they want to force restaurants and bars to take a variety of other measures to encourage their customers — you — to drink less.

In the last two years, 29 states have either passed or are now attempting to pass bills to increase excise taxes on alcohol. The cities of Oakland, San Diego, Baltimore, and Chicago have either banned or restricted alcohol manufacturers from advertising on city billboards. Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Seattle, and Albuquerque are considering similar controls.

Since 2002, over 100 new pieces of legislation have been introduced in 31 states aimed at reducing drinking and driving. All but a handful of states have adopted the new, lower legal blood-alcohol threshold for drunken driving (.08 on a breath test), despite studies showing that drivers aren’t significantly impaired at that level, that the overwhelming majority of drunk driving fatalities occur at levels twice that high, and that drunk driving deaths have dropped by 40 percent since the early 1980s, and stabilized over the last several years.

Twenty-two states have imposed restrictions on “happy hour” drink specials. A spokesman for the Fairfax County police department recently defended police raids on local taverns by telling The Washington Post, “You can’t be drunk in a bar.” In Bloomington, Indiana, cops began arresting of-age college students for walking home from off-campus bars while intoxicated. When asked if he’d rather drive students home, a Bloomington cop told the Indiana Daily Student, “Alcohol abuse is the problem, not whether or not you’re going to be driving.”

Forty-four states now have laws that hold bar owners liable for any damages caused by their alcohol-consuming customers, after they leave the bar. Another 31 states apply those same liability standards to private residences. In Chicago — a town rich with the lessons of Prohibition — 400 of the city’s 2,705 precincts are now dry, and each election adds a few more.

None of this happened by accident. A well-funded, well-organized campaign is afoot to make it as difficult to drink a beer as it is becoming to smoke a cigarette. This “neo-prohibition” has advocates in the news media, academia, and most certainly in government. Sandy Golden, a spokesperson for the Campaign for Alcohol-Free Kids has said, “We’re 10 to 15 years behind the tobacco people, and we want to close the gap.”

You thought it was absurd when city and state officials told you that you could no longer smoke in a bar. Just wait until they tell you that you can’t drink in one, either.

Radley Balko is a policy analyst for the Cato Institute and author of the Cato study, “Back Door to Prohibition: The New War on Social Drinking.”