- - Monday, November 19, 2018

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

The holiday season is almost upon us and with the end-of-year merriment comes a sobering report: Alcohol deaths are on the rise, claiming more lives than the national opioid crisis.

While alcohol-related mortality is difficult to assess on a population level — rarely do coroners indicate a history of chronic heavy drinking as the cause of death — we do know that the moderate, responsible patterns of consumption most Americans engage in are not the cause of any worrisome epidemic. Excessive alcohol consumption, namely binge drinking and chronic product abuse, are to blame.

Yet policies targeting social drinking dominate states’ responses to problem consumption. Oregon is floating a 10 percent tax on beer, wine and cider. Last year, Utah became the first state to adopt a 0.05 blood alcohol content (BAC) limit for driving, a threshold that can be reached by a 120 lb. woman after consuming little more than a single drink. Texas threatens to follow suit.

A deep dive into the data reveals just how inconsequential these laws have been at solving problem drinking. A 2014 report ranked Alabama as having the third-strongest alcohol laws in the nation in terms of access and consequences. Yet the state also has the third-highest number of deaths from alcohol. Our own District ranks No. 1 in terms of alcohol deaths, despite having among the most-stringent alcohol laws. So what gives?

I’ll posit one reason: The nation’s collective response to alcohol policy has become tainted by anti-alcohol hysteria. With the sentiment that there is “no safe level of drinking” dominating the media and public policy discussions, laws that deter someone from enjoying even a single glass of wine over dinner sound far less asinine than they otherwise might. Using hysteria to target moderate consumption over excessive drinking does nothing to rectify the latter.

Consider the public response to this year’s string of studies fueling the connection between one drink and a litany of alcohol-related health problems.

In August, a study published in The Lancet attributed 2.8 million global deaths to alcohol each year. But like earlier studies that reached a similar conclusion, this one relied not on new data but on the aggregate results of prior studies. Its conclusions are limited by the quality of data that came before it. In some cases, prior research didn’t control for the effects of smoking or sedentary habits. Poor diet, poverty, and environmental factors also weaken claims of causality, since each of these is tied to poor-health outcomes and none of them were adequately accounted for in this recent study. Nonetheless, the researchers found the risk of developing an alcohol-related illness or disease increased with each drink.

Headlines like “There’s No ‘Safe’ Level of Alcohol Consumption, Global Study Finds” may lead one to believe that this risk was meaningful. But that’s not the case. Dr. Aaron E. Carrol, author and professor of pediatrics at the Indiana University School of Medicine, notes “only 4 in 100,000 people who consume a drink a day may have a problem caused by the drinking, according to this study.” Translation? You’re almost twice as likely to meet your untimely demise in a canoe accident than you are to develop an illness as a result of drinking one glass a day for a lifetime.

Yet as a response to this study and a handful of others using similar data with similar flaws, health advocates are re-igniting their support for higher alcohol taxes, restricted advertising and lower legal limits. These back-door laws that seek to prohibit or depress consumption will have as little success curbing dangerous alcohol consumption as the more direct attacks in the era of Prohibition.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for those of us not blinded by anti-alcohol hysteria, studies continually indicate that addiction is not alleviated by the simple laws of supply and demand. Increasing prices and reducing access may discourage the casual consumer from purchasing a second alcoholic beverage, but it doesn’t deter those who consume upwards of five or six drinks each day.

Similarly, this same population who drink to excess are responsible for the vast majority of fatalities on our roadways. The average BAC of a drunk driver involved in a fatal crash is 0.18 BAC — more than twice the current legal limit. According to St. John’s University, it would take more than eight drinks in one hour for the average American male to reach a BAC level this high, or more than five drinks for the average woman. It’s clear that responsible drinkers aren’t the primary factor here.

If our continued attempts to reduce alcohol-related deaths involve chasing down moderate, responsible consumption, we can’t expect anything to change. Rather than informing public policy with the fruits of exaggerated headlines, we should take care to go only so far as the data can take us.

• Richard Berman is the president of Berman and Co., a public relations firm in Washington, D.C.

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