Bud Blamed In Absurd E.R. Visit Study

That the neo-prohibitionists are rife with propaganda is well documented, but this one may take the cake. A new study at John Hopkins, conducted by David Jernigan, appears to show that Budweiser is the most popular drink “most commonly linked to emergency room visits.” Apparently “Budweiser has 9.1 percent of the national beer market, and represents approximately 15 percent of the E.R. ‘market.'” After Bud, it was “Steel Reserve Malt Liquor, Colt 45 malt liquor, Bud Ice (another malt liquor), Bud Light, and a discount-priced vodka called Barton’s.” Another malt liquor brand, “King Cobra, account[s] for only 2.4 percent of the U.S. beer market, but accounted for 46 percent of the beer consumed by E.R. patients.” The conclusion, as reported by NBC News, was that “[o]verall, malt liquor and lower alcohol beer dominated consumption but vodka, gin, brandy and cognac were overrepresented, too.”

But despite all the attention and scary statistics and headlines — Alcohol Justice gleefully tweeted the headline Budweiser to Blame for Most Alcohol-Related ER Visits — the study itself is absurd. The story Sherrif A.J. retweeted was from Science World Report, and despite the headline, the story doesn’t back up the sensationalist tone of it at all. The “study,” if we can even call it that, consisted of giving a survey to 105 people at one inner city Baltimore E.R., in a predominately African-American neighborhood.

The study was done by David Jernigan, who in addition to being an associate professor in the Department of Health, Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, is more importantly the director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), a notoriously anti-alcohol organization. That affiliation is not disclosed in any of the reports on this particular “study.”

Curiously, he does admit that both the Federal Trade Commission and the National Institute on Drug Abuse both told him personally that “this kind of research cannot be done.” Did he listen? Nope, he went right ahead and jumped to all sorts of conclusions, even though there’s no clear cut causality here whatsoever. And look how they conducted the study, and persuaded people to participate:

By using a drop down menu on a small notebook computer, the survey takers managed to obtain information from patients, and to include about 400 brands, in less than five minutes. At first, Jernigan, said, many patients refused to talk. But then the survey takers, with the permission of the emergency room staff, donned white coats. After that, patients talked freely.

See what they did? They put on white lab coats, so they looked like they worked there or were E.R. doctors, and tricked people into answering. Nice.

But the news was reported that, in fact, the conclusions were sound, especially in the headlines, which is only what a majority of people will see. The problems with the study, its limitations and lack of causality is buried toward the end, well after most people stop reading. The fact that it was done by essentially a neo-prohibitionist organization is never mentioned at all. And that certainly didn’t stop Johns Hopkins from issuing a press release. The study itself was published in the journal Substance Use & Misuse, under the title Alcohol Brand Use and Injury in the Emergency Department: A Pilot Study. But none of that stopped anybody from spreading the news about how Bud, and the other brands, are directly responsible for people visiting the E.R. It couldn’t be any other reason, right?


  1. Pete says

    Looking only at the abstract, the study itself seems reasonable to me. It’s a pilot study to test the feasibility of collecting brand-level data, and while it might stem from a broad neo-Prohibitionist agenda, at least it’s trying to differentiate between different types of drink. That’s a step forward in my book, because the real problem with Prohibitionism is not that it calls our attention to the very real risks and social costs associated with excessive and abusive alcohol consumption, but that it instead paints all alcohol consumption as inherently dangerous and destructive.

    I can’t defend the subsequent reporting of this preliminary study, however, which like so much science coverage, suggests conclusions that go way, WAY beyond what was actually found. And the study’s authors aren’t blameless here. First, as a test pilot, this shouldn’t be published in the first place, at least not with any suggestion that it can provide reasonable findings beyond the feasibility (and limitations) of its methods. Second, the Johns Hopkins press release absolutely begged for the sort of misreporting that has followed. It’s hard to fault reporters for being sensationalist, when they’re being spoon-fed such sensationalism straight from the source. I wonder if there is a back story here, in which the CDC decided not to fund the full-scale study, so Dr. Jernigan decided to go the more sensationalist route in order to drum up money from some private, deep-pocketed neo-Prohibitionists?

    • says

      Pete, as a pilot study in and of itself it was certainly conducted properly, but that it was published, despite the fact that two governmental health agencies told them it was not a valid study (I suspect because it didn’t come close to accounting for external factors and showed no causality) and despite the fact that they had to essentially trick participants makes it suspect to me. But as you say, the most egregious bit is how it was spun after the fact, both by the university’s P.R. machine and the news organizations.

  2. beerman49 says

    Right on, Pete & Jay, but if I was running JHU, Jernigan would be 86’d ASAP, as would any boss of his who OK’d the release of that study. It came to fruition via serious ethics violations (which Pete & Jay alluded to, but didn’t say outright; I’m OK w/their reasons for doing a little legal “cya” – they have faces here & I don’t).

    Sad the the neo-prohbes found an ally at a well-respected institution; might be time for the Feds to take a look, as JH gets a shitload of grant/contract $$ from Uncle Sam.

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