- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 25, 2003

Congress was clear in its intentions when it allocated half-a-million dollars for the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) to develop a cost-effective strategy for reducing and preventing underage drinking. Essential to the study, Congress asked for a review of existing federal, state and non-governmental programs. Instead of meeting this mandate, NAS squandered $500,000 in taxpayer money and turned the study into an opportunity for panelists to vilify a legal industry.

The National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) strongly supported Congress’ mandate, with the understanding that the study would be conducted in a fair and unbiased manner. As strong opponents of illegal underage drinking, we viewed this as a tremendous opportunity to identify real solutions to the very serious issue of underage drinking.

What Congress received, however, were preordained conclusions from a biased panel of neo-prohibitionists, who unilaterally changed the scope and direction of the study. To fight underage drinking, NAS’ misguided recommendations include raising taxes on beer, restricting advertising and a taxpayer-funded national media campaign. In short, they produced nothing more than a modern-day update to Carrie Nation’s handbook.

Raising taxes on beer will not prevent underage drinking, but will punish the 90 million adults of legal drinking age who enjoy our product. If increased taxes were a successful deterrent, then underage drinking should have dropped dramatically in high-tax states such as Alaska and Florida. But this is not the case. There is no data indicating a pattern that higher taxes lower the occurrence of illegal underage drinking, and NAS had no science to rely on to make this recommendation.

Already, approximately 44 percent of the cost of every beer sold in the United States today is consumed by taxes. This comes largely out of the pockets of America’s lower- and middle-income taxpayers, since more than half of all beer sold is consumed in households with less than $45,000 annual income.

The study also states that the value of alcohol industry programs to eliminate underage drinking lack “documented evidence of effectiveness.” This is an interesting conclusion, given the fact that many of the 125 industry responsibility programs submitted were never opened by the panel. Since these programs were initiated, real progress has been documented. According to government data, underage drinking has declined significantly in the past two decades, and currently 83 percent of youth do not drink illegally. Additionally, a 2002 study sponsored by UCLA revealed that beer drinking among college freshmen had declined 37 percent in the last two decades.

Assertions that restricting advertising and initiating taxpayer-funded media campaigns will reduce underage drinking are dually bogus. The same day the NAS report was released, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) applauded the self-regulation practices of the alcohol industry and revealed that they “found no evidence of targeting underage consumers.”

If the FTC recognized our rigorous industry codes for responsible marketing and advertising, why did it escape the NAS?

Adam Chafetz, who heads a worldwide intervention program promoting responsible sale and consumption of alcohol, agrees that these unproven theories are not the right approach to underage drinking. “Rather than expensive, short-term national media campaigns costing millions of dollars?we should require young people to be part of the solution, educating them about the consequences of underage drinking at an early age. Advertising campaigns do not directly affect behavior. Discussions about responsible behavior with parents, friends and peers are the key to shaping a young person’s behavior.”

The report was clearly lacking in the attention paid to proven methods of reducing underage drinking, such as increasing involvement by parents and teachers; enforcing existing laws; and the value of successful industry responsibility programs that are taxpayer-free. America’s beer wholesalers actively promote all of these initiatives in their commitment to ensure the products they distribute are consumed responsibly by adults of legal age.

In an insult to Congress and the American taxpayer, NAS never intended to follow the study’s original intent. This is no surprise, since at least five panelists had previously advocated tax increases or restrictive alcohol access. Not to mention eight of the 12 panelists had ties to largest anti-alcohol advocacy group in the nation — the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. By federal law, these conflicted individuals should never have been on the panel.

It’s then no wonder that Citizens Against Government Waste called the study a “sham” and a “waste of taxpayer money.” The misguided efforts of NAS were so obvious that 140 members of Congress wrote to NAS encouraging the panel to follow Congress’ original intent. Administration officials also encouraged NAS to work with all relevant stakeholders, including advocacy groups and the licensed beverage industry. While these requests were largely ignored by the panel, these members of Congress and Health and Human Services officials should be commended for trying to keep the process on the right track.

Illegal underage drinking deserves the nation’s serious attention. It doesn’t deserve a non-scientific study focusing on unproven methods that fail to identify real solutions. Congress took the first step in asking for a credible, scientific and unbiased study to attack underage drinking. They stepped up to the plate. Unfortunately, the NAS struck out.

David K. Rehr is president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association.

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