- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

If you woke up on New Year's Day with a hangover, you must have missed the federal government's not-so-subtle effort to shame you into more moderate celebration. The feds hope to compel moderation in the future.

"Binge drinking on the rise in U.S." was the message from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on New Year's Eve.

"Binge drinking" the latest government-manufactured public health crisis is defined as having five or more drinks on one occasion. CDC researchers reported in the Journal of the American Medical Association (Jan. 1) that binge-drinking episodes increased from 1.2 billion in 1993 to 1.5 billion in 2001. Binge-drinking episodes per person per year supposedly increased 17 percent (from 6.3 to 7.4) during that period.

The CDC says this is the first study to estimate the prevalence of binge drinking.

The researchers weren't satisfied merely with publishing the results of their research. They also offered policy recommendations to curb binge drinking, including more laws and regulations, increased alcohol taxes and perhaps the most appalling screening all adults and adolescents for alcohol abuse.

The federal nannies also complained that those below the legal drinking age are exposed to "widespread marketing of beer and wine via television and print media" and that "much of the general public considers alcohol intoxication to be either humorous or a rite of passage."

But before lawmakers and regulatory agencies make us urinate into cups as part of some national anti-alcohol crusade, there are a few things to know about CDC's "research."

First, the data were collected by a telephone survey of dubious methodology.

As part of the CDC's Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, interviewers randomly dialed about 200,000 adults and asked questions about alcohol consumption.

The interviewers asked respondents whether they had a drink in the last 30 days, how often they drink, how much they drink, how often in the past month they consumed more than five drinks on a single occasion, and how often they drove after having too much to drink. Information also was collected on age, sex, race, and level of education.

This telephone survey methodology is seriously flawed for two reasons.

First, none of the data collected are verified. Respondents may overestimate, underestimate or simply lie about their drinking history to avoid embarrassment or simply to be mischievous. The interviewers have no way, and didn't even try, to confirm whether the respondents were being accurate or telling the truth.

It's far from clear that an extra binge-drinking episode per person yearly 6.3 in 1993 vs. 7.4 in 2001 can be credibly discerned by randomly dialing people and asking personal and potentially embarrassing questions.

The reported rise in binge drinking could also be explained by increased accuracy in interview responses.

Respondents might have been more candid about their alcohol consumption in 2001 vs. 1993 because of less societal stigmatization of alcohol consumption. Reduced stigma might increase survey accuracy and produce an apparent but not real rise in binge drinking.

Interestingly, the CDC reported no increase in the number of binge drinkers just the number of binge drinking episodes. Are bingers binging more often or simply being more accurate?

We'll never know since the CDC has no idea how reliable its data are.

The survey's other major flaw is the definition of a "drink." Not all drinks are created equal in terms of alcohol content.

Some people like strong drinks. Others prefer watered-down cocktails. Some drinks are bigger than others. Drinks may be only partially consumed.

According to the CDC's definition of a "drink", consuming five half-filled glasses of a weak punch over the course of an entire evening would be "binging," but consuming three double scotches during happy hour would not.

A "drink" means different things to different people. But none of this variation is reflected in the CDC survey methodology.

Binge drinking isn't a healthy activity and can lead to tragic consequences.

Scarier, though, are the power-drunk government lifestyle nannies who think nothing of using junk science to advance their temperance, if not prohibitionist, agenda.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of "Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams" (Cato Institute, 2001).

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