A variation of “stupid is as stupid does,” either works, as far as I’m concerned. Because this is a stupid type of study that keeps going around and pretending to be scientific and valuable, of which it appears to be neither. The latest one of these, entitled Beverage- and brand-specific binge alcohol consumption among underage youth in the US, appeared in the May edition of the Journal of Substance Use (although the Post’s infographic mis-identifies the source as the “Journal of Substance Abuse,” which ceased publication in 2002). What it “found,” is that when underage youth drink, and binge drink (a ridiculously defined term), they drink popular brands of alcohol, from which they draw sinister conclusions. Here’s how the Washington Post reported the the absurd conclusions drawn in What underage drinkers drink when they binge drink:
“The most important finding is that the phenomenon of binge drinking among our youth is extremely brand specific,” Dr. Michael Siegel, professor at Boston University School of Public Health and one of the study’s authors, said in an interview. “For the first time we’ve found the brands that are most responsible for binge drinking among our nation’s youth.”
For the first time? Seriously? This sort of “study” has been done before, as I detailed last year in New Study Concludes Kids Drink Same Beers As Adults, in which I found it’s been done previous to that one, as well. It’s not exactly groundbreaking, or new.
Perhaps most obnoxious is Alcohol Justice, who naturally has been tweeting with their usual glee anything that they believe shows alcohol in a negative light. Here’s how they characterized it:
What underage drinkers drink when they binge drink http://wapo.st/1u1V76Y Spoiler alert: BEER.”
So what’s especially annoying about that, is that while beer is indeed number one on the list, of the 25 brands listed, only 8 are beers, or only 32%. And even by the total percentage, the eight beer brands are 44%, less than half. Then there’s the fact that the spirits and wine are, on average, much higher in alcohol than beer, so comparing straight percentages skews the actual amount of alcohol consumed. If we adjusted this for the amount of alcohol in each, and thus how much alcohol was consumed, the amount of beer would likely plummet to an even smaller percentage of the whole. So by virtually every measure, beer is not the biggest culprit, yet Alcohol Justice singles it out with typical ignobility by saying “Spoiler alert: BEER.” Yet it’s not really beer, if you bother to actually look at the data. In the abstract of the actual study, even the conclusion of the researchers is that “binge drinking among youth is most commonly involves spirits [sic].” But Alcohol Justice ignores that — reading is hard, after all — and targets beer once more.
Of course, the data itself is questionable, too. According to the abstract, it was compiled via “[a]n Internet panel [that] was used to obtain a sample of 1032 underage youth aged 13–20, who drank alcohol in the last 30 d. For each brand consumed, youth reported drinking quantity and frequency, and whether they engaged in binge drinking with that brand (≥5 drinks for males and ≥4 for females). Each youth reporting binge drinking with a brand constituted a binge drinking report.” So they put up an internet poll and asked kids to report on their own illegal activity. How scientific. How could anything go wrong?
But it’s especially the conclusions they draw from them that seem absurd. For example, as was found in the previous study I reported on, Bud Light was the brand most often chosen. But Bud Light is, of course, the best-selling brand of beer in the U.S., a fact you’d think the researchers would be aware of. You don’t need a slide rule to figure why the beer that most of their parents are buying, might also be the one their kids are drinking, too. The same is true for just about every brand on the list, all very popular ones, the best-sellers in their individual categories. So you’d expect that they’d be the same brands consumed by our youth, especially if they’re taking them from their parents or other adults’ stashes. It’s the most obvious reason. Even if minors are asking adults to buy them some booze, the more popular brands would be the ones most readily available and sold by the most retailers. But the obvious answers seem to always elude the scientists, who seem more interested in making tenuous, off-the-wall but apparently agenda-supporting conclusions.
But even if we assumed that beer was number one, so what? In terms of both volume and sales, beer outsells every other adult beverage by a wide margin. So why wouldn’t that be across the board, including underage drinking, too. Why would they appear to be surprised that the best-selling type of alcohol, as well as the best-selling brand of beer, are also the most popular among minors?
And they seem to do the same thing with the others, too. So instead of recognizing that Jack Daniels in the best-selling whiskey (the chart incorrectly calls it bourbon, which I’m not sure means the researchers or the Post don’t know what they’re talking about), they instead go down the road less traveled of bizarre reasoning.
The list of the most popular alcohol brands among America’s heavy-drinking youth might appear somewhat disjointed at first glance. Some of them, after all, are difficult to comprehend — Jack Daniel’s bourbons [sic], for one, is significantly more expensive than other lower shelf whiskeys, and yet ranks as the second most popular brand across all spirits and beers. But there’s actually a reasonably clear thread that could be tying them all together: millions upon millions of dollars in marketing.
“Why are these brands the most popular? Is there something in their marketing? There could be messages in their marketing efforts that are encouraging the use of these not just by youths but also in excess,” Siegel said. “We need to take a closer look at the marketing practices of these larger brands.”
Yup, kids choose them because of “millions upon millions of dollars in marketing,” not because they’re already the most popular brands, or because their parents drink them and so are in their homes, or because they’re the brands available for sale at the most places. Yes, you could argue that it’s marketing that built and now maintains their popularity, but that some malicious scheme will be revealed by “tak[ing] a closer look at the marketing practices of these larger brands” is completely absurd. When you go looking for a bogeyman, that’s what you find, especially when you ignore the simple, logical answers and try to find something more complicated. Because it seems like they’re going out of their way to ignore the obvious in favor of finding something to blame alcohol companies for.
Another reason to suspect this study is about promoting an agenda is something they state in “Background and objectives.” They begin their “study” with this underlying premise. “Binge drinking is a common and risky pattern of alcohol consumption among youth.” But as even the NIH admits, “[s]ince 2007, alcohol use and heavy drinking have shown appreciable declines in national surveys of middle and high school students. One study found that 12th-grade alcohol use declined from 66.4 percent to 62 percent in 2013, with a similar downward trend seen in eighth- and 10th-graders.”
And finally, in the Post article’s conclusion, author Roberto A. Ferdman, whose beat is “food policy, consumer business, and Latin American economics,” really shows what he doesn’t know about beer and its history, with this. “Currently, national and state-level policies aimed at curbing underage drinking are more focused on the point of purchase and consumption than on the time of potential indoctrination that precedes them.” Hardly. The moment prohibition ended, prohibitionist organizations began targeting advertising regulations to limit where, when and how alcohol could be advertised, along with where it could be sold, to whom, and all manner of other restrictions intended to do anything they could to limit it, figuring it was the next best thing if they couldn’t outlaw it outright. And they’ve been crying about that very issue ever since, incessantly trying to move the needle to limit “the time of potential indoctrination that precedes” … “the point of purchase and consumption,” exactly what Ferdman seems to think has been ignored has been the number priority of prohibitionist strategies for over eighty years.
I find it amazing that these types of so-called “studies” — what are essentially internet polls — are taken seriously and that they find journals willing to publish them, in effect legitimizing them somewhat. Because if it’s in a journal, the mainstream media often just writes about it uncritically, taking them at face value. But more insidious, prohibitionist organizations, like the ever delightful Alcohol Justice, will distort then and even fabricate their already questionable findings to use in their own agenda, like saying it’s beer that’s the biggest culprit, when even the study does not say that.