The Mythical Monolith Of Big Alcohol

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Since the end of February, Alcohol Justice (AJ) has been tweeting the following:

Big Alcohol will never admit #3 http://bit.ly/1mFY39E Alcohol classified carcinogenic 25 years ago

It’s part of their new series of things that “Big Alcohol will never admit.” I think somebody forgot to tell AJ that there’s no actual organization “Big Alcohol,” no single entity that speaks with one voice on all matters alcoholic.

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The mythical monolith of “Big Alcohol” that doesn’t actually exist, but which Alcohol Justice believes should respond to their propaganda demands.

But let’s take a look at what we’re accused of this time. According to AJ, 25 years ago Alcohol was classified as a “carcinogenic.” That tidbit comes from their Alcohol and Cancer Risk “fact sheet” which states. “The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has classified beverage alcohol as a Group 1 (cancerous to humans) carcinogen since 1988.” That statement is footnoted by two studies. The first is the IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans VOLUME 96 Alcohol Consumption and Ethyl Carbamate and the second is Volume 100E A Review of Human Carcinogens: Personal Habits and Indoor Combustions (2012). And those two documents do indeed state that they “concluded that there was sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity for cancers of the oral cavity, pharynx, larynx, oesophagus and liver.” But is that the whole story? Hardly. Since that time, they’ve added colorectal and female breast cancer for a total of seven types of cancer, out of how many different types? Dozens? Hundreds? And for at least a few of those, moderate alcohol consumption reduces risk and for most of the rest is neutral, meaning there’s little or no effect. But AJ also claims that “Big Alcohol” has been somehow denying this for the past 26 years. How exactly has anyone been denying it?

But another questionable exaggeration is this, from AJ’s press release of February 26 of this year, where they attempt to take a position that the moderate consumption of alcohol is also unsafe.

While heavy drinking presents the greatest risk, daily alcohol consumption of as little as 1.5 drinks accounts for up to 35% of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths in the United States. Added [Director of Research Sarah] Mart, “The research is clear: There is no determined safe limit for alcohol consumption with regard to cancer risk.”

But that’s at least a little misleading. That claim comes from a 2013 study in the American Journal of Public Health entitled Alcohol-Attributable Cancer Deaths and Years of Potential Life Lost in the United States. Here’s the relevant bit from the results, in the abstract.

Alcohol consumption resulted in an estimated 18,200 to 21,300 cancer deaths, or 3.2% to 3.7% of all US cancer deaths. The majority of alcohol-attributable female cancer deaths were from breast cancer (56% to 66%), whereas upper airway and esophageal cancer deaths were more common among men (53% to 71%). Alcohol-attributable cancers resulted in 17.0 to 19.1 YPLL for each death. Daily consumption of up to 20 grams of alcohol (≤ 1.5 drinks) accounted for 26% to 35% of alcohol-attributable cancer deaths.

Although they exaggerated the findings by saying “Up to 35%” instead of “26% to 35%,” which is a typical propaganda tactic, what that one study really found is that 26% to 35% of 3.2% to 3.7% of all US cancer deaths may have come from moderate drinking. Put another way, 0.83% to 1.295% of all U.S. cancers may be attributable to people who drank moderately. From that, AJ concludes that “The research is clear: There is no determined safe limit for alcohol consumption with regard to cancer risk.” If you think that’s clear, keep making those donations, because it makes no logical sense. Less than 1% of all cancer deaths up to as many as 1.3% may be attributable to moderate alcohol consumption, and that constitutes clear causation, ignoring all other factors, such as genetics, environment, and lifestyle.

The study itself claims that there’s “no safe threshold for alcohol and cancer risk” despite it representing only around one percent of all cancers in the United States. Not to mention, when you dig deeper into the data, that particular study is only examining six types of cancer. They ignore all other cancers, while still making sweeping pronouncements about cancer, and ignoring any mitigating benefits of moderate alcohol consumption, including the rather hard-to-ignore total mortality.

Here’s what I don’t understand about calling alcohol a carcinogen. If indeed it increases the risk for certain types of cancers, but not others, it seems to me it would have to increase the risk to all persons (or even most) for all cancers to be considered to show “sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of alcohol consumption.” My sense in reading through WHO literature over the years is that their mission is more about stopping people from drinking because as an organization they’re convinced that alcohol is always bad and has no positive aspects or benefits. When you only look for negative consequences, that’s all you find.

What AJ, WHO and many of these studies do is start with a premise and try to prove it, ending up cherry-picking the studies that support it and ignoring any that don’t. That creates a powerful propaganda tool but rarely stands up to any scrutiny. Luckily, as prohibitionist groups are well aware, few subject their propaganda masquerading as press releases to much, if any, scrutiny whatsoever. So their incentive to be more truthful is practically nil. So they can just make up whatever they want, like the mythical monolith of Big Alcohol, and then wonder why they won’t admit whatever prohibitionists says, no matter how twisted or distorted.

Elderly Imbibing

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The closer I get to old age, seemingly swifter with every passing year, the more I’ve been noticing that serious people younger than me are worried that senior citizens might be drinking a bit too much at the end of their lives. Hmm. A couple of days ago, the personification of the sheriff of the nanny state, Alcohol Justice, tweeted yet another such study, this one about “Binge Drinking US Seniors — http://bit.ly/1fse3ne — New research raises “‘Cause for Alarm.’” The link takes you to an article on Medscape entitled Binge Drinking in US Seniors ‘Cause for Alarm’ about elderly drinking. Here’s what alarmed the researchers.

A national cohort study of more than 4800 adults older than 64 years showed that almost 10% reported binge drinking ― defined as having 5 or more drinks in 1 sitting for men and 4 or more drinks in a single sitting for women ― in the previous 30 days.

They continue: “Alcohol consumption in seniors can be associated with cognitive decline and worsening of comorbidities, including hypertension, stroke, and osteoporosis.” But that’s false. Moderate drinking has been shown to reduce the risk of dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and increases in cognitive functioning, and there are similar benefits for strokes (“Studies now show that drinking up to 2 alcoholic drinks per day can reduce your risk for stroke by about half”) and osteoporosis (“The National Osteoporosis Risk Assessment studied 200,000+ postmenopausal women with no previous diagnosis of osteoporosis. The study found that drinking alcohol significantly reduced the chances of developing osteoporosis”). So that makes me question the validity or motives of the study.

Similarly, the recent Alcohol Research UK 2014 Conference had two presentations on the same subject: “Moderate Alcohol Use in Older Years” and “Alcohol Misuse in Older Adults.” I assume it’s because the largely self-centered baby boomer generation (of which apparently I’m at the tail end of, though I definitely don’t identify myself with) are aging so now research would turn toward the older boomers.

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This is the image used by AJ with their tweet, but the people in this photo look like they’re having a great time, don’t they? Aren’t old people allowed to celebrate or have a good time? Is that the issue?

Here’s my gut reaction. In ten or fifteen years — assuming I’m still alive and kicking — when my kids have left the house, finished college and started careers and/or families; after I’ve retired and have no more deadlines to file, no more stories to write; maybe I can relax and drink a few beers. Maybe I’ll even drink five beers in a row, making me — gasp — a binge-drinking elderly person. If I decide to do that at the end of my days, choosing in that way to enjoy the remaining time I have with alcohol, I have just one thing to say to the do-gooders who are alarmed by such behavior: “go fuck yourself.” Seriously, do. As long as I’m not hurting you, please don’t presume to tell me how to live out the end of my days, that seriously pisses me off. Please take your “alarm” and shove it where the sun don’t shine. That has to be the most aggressively obnoxious, arrogant position I’ve heard recently. Please stop telling the rest of us how to live.

Besides the fact that defining binge drinking as five consecutive drinks is completely absurd, especially considering the most recent FDA Dietary Guidelines allow four drinks in a row for a man (with no more than 14 per week). So that means the difference between moderate, healthy imbibing and dangerous binge drinking is exactly one drink. Yeah, that seems reasonable.

There’s living and there’s living; just existing and being really alive. I’m planning on trying to enjoy the time I have left. If that means drinking a few beers on occasion, that is, and quite properly ought to be, my own business. If my family has a problem with that, I’m confident they’ll be sure to tell me. Everybody else, keep walking. I plan on being a unrepentant curmudgeon. There’s no reason to change now.

EU Negotiating For Protected Beer Names

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Apparently in Washington, our Congress is hard at work negotiating a free trade agreement with the EU. Not surprisingly, the EU is asking for protective status of European products that are traditionally from Europe. You can’t really blame them. For instance they’re asking for the names “feta” and “parmesan” only for cheese made in Europe. I don’t know the history of those cheeses, but I’m guessing Greece and Italy do, and believe their cheeses to be the true expressions of them. They’re also asking that “‘bratwurst’ be allowed on only European-produced sausages.” Again, I don’t know the history but given that German and other European immigrants came to America and started businesses making bratwursts a hundred years ago, or more, it seems a tough sell. I likewise assume it was Italians in the U.S. who began marketing parmesan cheese here long before Kraft got in the game.

But according to an article in the USA Today, Senators: Back off our brats, beer, they’re not stopping there. I might have expected that Belgian beer might be part of the negotiations, since Belgian brewers aren’t thrilled about American beers labeled as “Belgian” instead of “Belgian-style.” But it’s “Oktoberfest” they object to. According to the story, “[i]f U.S. negotiators agree to European demands, U.S. manufacturers would have to change product names to “Oktoberfest-like ale.”

But since an “Oktoberfest” beer has certain style parameters that just about any brewer worth his salt could replicate, I can’t see how that one makes sense. I’ve never known German brewers to complain about that the way that I’ve heard Belgian brewers, but maybe I’ve missed that. Can a beer style, once created in a geographic area, sometimes because of the locally available ingredients or water source, only be made in that same place to be considered authentic? I think we can say yes for lambics, but others? What do you think?

There’s also countless local American Oktoberfest events throughout September and October each year, some have been taking place for decades or longer. Does Germany object to those, too?

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Beer Birthday: Tom McCormick

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Today is the 57th birthday of Tom McCormick, Executive Director of the California Craft Brewers Association (CCBA). Tom’s also owned and ran a distributorship and the Pro Brewer website, worked with Wolaver’s for a time, but has found his true calling promoting and defending small brewers in California. Tom is the most unflappable person I’ve ever met, and hands down one of my favorite people in the industry. Join me in wishing Tom a very happy birthday.

Tom McCormick, Nancy Johnson & Dave Buehler @ Wynkoop
Tom, with Nancy Johnson and Dave Buehler at Wynkoop for GABF last year.

Stan Hieronymus & Tom McCormick @ Great Divide
With Stan Hieronymus Great Divide’s annual media reception.

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Tom with Amy Dalton, from All About Beer magazine at the World Beer Cup dinner in San Diego.

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Tom and Nancy Johnson at a BA dinner.

Global Association Of Craft Beer Brewers Founded

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Here’s an exciting development and a sure sign that the world of beer is growing smaller as the reach of better beer extends around the globe. Today in Berlin, the formation of a new international trade organization was announced: The Global Association of Craft Beer Brewers (GACBB).

From the press release:

The Global Association of Craft Beer Brewers was founded last month, becoming the first international organisation for independent craft beer brewers. Sebastian Mergel, co-founder of the Berlin craft beer brewery Berliner Bierfabrik (formerly beer4wedding), was elected the association’s founding president. The association’s goal is to empower smaller independent brewers by connecting them on an international level, and to provide resources via association tools and collaborations with other members. With its international reach, the association also looks to provide its members with access to material goods and services that allow them to expand into new international markets.

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The founding board members represent breweries in five different continents.

  • Sebastian Mergel, Bierfabrik, Berlin, Germany
  • Mark Andries, Browerij De Vlier, Belgium
  • David Cohen, The Dancing Camel, Tel Aviv, Israel
  • John Kyme, Stringer’s Beer, Ulverston, United Kingdom
  • Kristian Strunge, Stronzo, Copenhagen, Denmark
  • Jakub Veselý, Pivo Falkon, Zatec, Czech Republic
  • Alex Acker, Jing A, Beijing, China
  • Eric van Heerden, Triggerfish Brewing, Cape Town, South Africa
  • Aleem Ladak, The Big 5 Brewery, Nairobi, Kenya
  • Diego Rodríguez, Barbarian, Lima, Peru
  • Diego Perrotta, Cerveza Zeppelin, Buenos Aires, Argentina
  • Nathaniel Schmidt, Agua Mala Cerveceria, Ensenada, Mexico
  • Rodrigo Silveira, Cervejaria Invicta, Ribeirão Preto, Brazil
  • Shane Welch, Sixpoint Brewing, Brooklyn, NY, United States
  • Kevin Watson, Elysian Brewing Co., Seattle, WA, United States
  • Dan Kenary, Harpoon Brewery, Boston, MA, United States
  • Ricky Stilla, Birra & Blues, Valencia, Spain
  • Tiffany Needham, Magpie Brewing Co., Seoul, South Korea
  • Shawn Sherlock, Murray’s Brewing Co., Port Stephen’s, Australia

To be a member of GACBB, breweries must be “local, independent, and creative.” The group’s first event will take place later this summer in Berlin, which they describe as a “celebration of craft beer from around the globe. The GACBB Global Craft Beer Festival, Craft Beer Award, and Craft Beer Conference will all take place this July in Berlin on July 25th through 27th, 2014.” The downside is that’s the same weekend as the Oregon Brewers Festival. On the other hand, it’s been awhile since I’ve been in Berlin.

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The Shifting Definition Of Sober

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Once upon a time, the word “sober,” meant simply “not intoxicated or drunk,” but over the past few decades, the term has been “hijacked” by AA and the addiction/recovery community to instead refer to “a state of being—one you can only achieve through total, lifelong abstinence if you ever drank alcoholically.” In other words, if you’re an active drinker of alcohol, you’re not sober as far as AA is concerned. Essentially, that’s turning the definition on its head, making it the opposite of its ordinary meaning, twisting it into doublespeak. Orwell would have been proud.

Reason magazine has an interesting article about this phenomenon, The Hijacking of Sobriety by the Recovery Movement, by psychologist, attorney, and psychotherapist Stanton Peele. Peele begins with how one celebrity was referred to by the media after revealing that after years as an alcoholic, she taught herself to have one drink per day without falling into ruin, something the abstinence-based medical community insists is not possible.

According to AA and the recovery movement, no former alcoholic can drink moderately. Any drinking whatsoever, according to these absolutists, and you’re no longer “sober.” One might think that a person who drinks regularly in a controlled, non-intoxicated manner is obviously not an alcoholic. Wrong!

When I suggested to my AA friend Ken (not his real name) that [a famous former alcoholic who's learned to have a drink a day] shows one-time alcoholics can control their drinking, he objected strenuously. For Ken, “the fact that she has to limit herself to one drink a day proves she’s an alcoholic.” That’s right, drinking in a controlled manner proves you’re an uncontrolled drinker.

Not surprisingly, there’s mounting evidence that they’re wrong.

According to the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) — a massive government study of 43,000 Americans’ lifetime alcohol and drug use — about 75 percent of people who recover from alcohol dependence do so without seeking any kind of help, including specialty rehab programs and Alcoholics Anonymous. And only 13 percent of people with alcohol dependence ever receive specialty alcohol treatment. (Note that 13 percent is the upper figure for 12-step recovery, since ever participating does not mean the person recovered due to AA or rehab.)

The NESARC study also revealed that these recovered alcoholics don’t as a rule abstain. “Twenty years after the onset of alcohol dependence, three-fourths of individuals are in full recovery,” it notes. “More than half of those who have fully recovered drink at low-risk levels without symptoms of alcohol dependence.”

I especially love Peele’s conclusion. “For recovery absolutists, no one recovers from alcoholism without AA, just as no one can recover without giving up drinking forever. What arrogance! Who gave these self-appointed experts the power to tell everyone how they must achieve recovery?” Give the article a read and, more importantly, let’s stop letting AA and the medical community focused on making a buck off of people trying to cope with their own drinking problems frame the terms of the debate. I’m sober as I write these words. Later tonight, with any luck, I may not be. But tomorrow morning when the alarm clock reminds me of my daily obligations, I will be sober again. And that’s how it should be, not some Orwellian world where everyone who ever drinks a drop a beer is forever branded as a drunk, and alcoholic or free from soberness.

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Drinking Non-Alcoholic Beer Can Be A Crime?

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There was a news item a few days ago that recently a fifth grade teacher in Michigan offered students non-alcoholic beer — O’Douls — as part of “a lesson on colonial times,” with the intention to “represent ale common in the 1700s and consumed because of the scarcity of clean water.” Sounds harmless enough. No students were forced to try it, but they had the opportunity to sample it if they wished to. What could go wrong?

What the teacher didn’t know is that apparently it’s actually illegal to give a minor in Michigan a non-alcoholic beer. The law was passed back in the 1950s, when people were even nuttier about alcohol than they are today, if that’s possible, but Michigan did pass a law making it illegal for minors to drink non-alcoholic beer. Here’s the entirety of the law:

THE MICHIGAN PENAL CODE (EXCERPT)
Act 328 of 1931

750.28 Cereal beverage with alcoholic content; furnishing to minors, penalty.

Sec. 28.

Any person who shall sell, give or furnish to a minor, except upon authority of and pursuant to a prescription of a duly licensed physician, any cereal beverage of any alcoholic content under the name of “near beer”, or “brew”, or “bru”, or any other name which is capable of conveying the impression to the purchaser that the beverage has an alcoholic content, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

History: Add. 1957, Act 283, Eff. Sept. 27, 1957

How Kafkaesque. The state defines what non-alcoholic means then still makes it illegal even if it’s within their own definition, and if it’s 0.5% or below, Michigan state’s Liquor Control Commission doesn’t even regulate it. So alcohol in cough syrup. No problem. Non-alcoholic wine? Go for it. A cereal beverage? Heavens no. That’s going too far.

And perhaps more curious, the law can be read to suggest that what’s at issue is giving the “impression” that the drink has alcohol in it, not that it really does. Because it seems like you could create a non-alcoholic beer within the legal definition but call it something random, like “Barley Pop” or “Brown Cow” and not be in violation of this law if you gave some to your children. The name seems more important than the alcoholic content. Why would that be the case?

When I was a kid, the only reason near beer existed was for kids. No sane adult would drink it. My first taste of beer was from a can of near beer that my parents bought for me when I expressed interest in trying beer, which was the case for some of my friends, too. It was horrible. I think that may have been the point, I don’t know.

The Flint Journal reports that the school sent letters home to parents after they discovered the “incident” but according to school district Superintendent Ed Koledo. “Nobody complained to the teacher, principal or me,” or to the police, and no disciplinary measures were taken against the teacher. Despite nobody being upset in the least, you’d think a nuclear blast had gone off, the way they talk about it.

“We talked to the teacher and said this was an inappropriate choice,” Koledo said. “There were a lot better choices to represent a colonial-era drink than what was chosen here.”

Really, what would have been a better choice to represent what the vast majority of people drank during the colonial era? And he says “a lot of better choices.” A lot? Really? I can’t wait to see the list.

“I know there was no intent to expose anyone to harm, just poor thought in this situation.”

Seriously, “poor thought?” It’s non-alcoholic beer for chrissakes, and a few kids had a sip of it in a controlled environment, not a back alley clutching a paper bag. And it was a sip. What is a sip? A teaspoon? Half an ounce? Oh, the horror.

Linden schools are drug and alcohol-free zones and Koledo said he did not know if O’Doul’s beer would constitute a violation.

Again, are we really going to split hairs because it has 0.5% alcohol (or less) in it? So is cough medicine allowed on campus? I’m pretty sure caffeine can be considered a drug, so I hope they’re going to remove the coffee maker from the teacher’s lounge. Up until the 1970s, schools in Belgium served students table beer every day.

So how exactly did this end up being a news story?

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A Historical Look At English Drinking Habits

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This is an interesting report from the British Parliament, specifically from the Health Committee. It’s a memorandum by Dr. Phil Withington and Dr. Angela McShane entitled Fluctuations in English Drinking Habits: An Historical Overview.

The overview includes a chronology beginning around 1550 and discusses increases and decreases in alcohol consumption in five periods since then, which they summarize as follows below.

In terms of consumption (inevitably crudely measured at times) it can be seen that England experienced a significant rise and consolidation of drinking levels during the “early modern period” (1550-1750). Between 1550 and 1650 there was a commercialisation of “old world” production and distribution plus the introduction of tobacco. The 100 years after 1650 were in turn characterised by the assimilation of, and moral panics about, new commodities, in particular coffee and gin. In the following two hundred years, which coincided with industrialisation and massive increase in population, there was a marked decline in the consumption of alcohol. The post-industrial or post-modern era (post-1960) seems to have returned to the kind of trends in the early modern period: increased consumption—especially conspicuous and public consumption among certain sections of the population—facilitated by powerful business organisations that are extremely competent at managing their relationship with political authority.

The dense information about continuities, discontinuities and gender is fascinating reading, but takes time to digest. It’s still marinating in my brain. I’m especially intrigued by this statement. “The medical industry now has the technology, knowledge, and incentives (especially commercial) to identify and treat many of the biological consequences of alcoholic consumption. This is in definite contrast to previous centuries, when medicine was more likely to use alcohol as a treatment rather than cure its related maladies, and when the primary impact of medical practitioners was, it seems, to create, legitimise and/or popularise new kinds of intoxicants.” The memorandum also notes that “[i]ncreased female consumption of alcohol may go some way to explaining the increases in general consumption since the 1960s since half the population was tacitly barred from drinking before then.” So that would suggest that per capita consumption is actually falling if one of the primary reasons for an increase is essentially a twofold increase in the number of people consuming alcohol.

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As prohibitionists incessantly nip at the heels of drinkers, doing everything they can to curb consumption, I think it’s constructive look at the bigger picture. Patterns of consumption tend to ebb and flow, and are affected by a variety of factors: economic, social, legal, and others. So whenever some prohibitionist group claims their new law, or awareness campaign, or what have you, has caused consumption to go down — or more often claims whatever they’re proposing is necessary precisely to decrease peoples’ drinking — it’s important to remember that people have always enjoyed alcohol, and will continue to do so, and changing the laws merely changes those patterns, it doesn’t really effect much over the long haul. I wonder if anyone has taken a similar look at historical drinking patterns in America?

Beer In Grocery Stores: Oh, The Horror!

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Here in sunny California, we can stroll down to the local grocery store, or convenience store, and buy a six-pack of beer. It’s not a big deal. It’s been that way since I moved here in 1985, and probably was that way long before I arrived. I pretty much take it for granted, but there are still states where adults still can’t buy a beer without going to a special store, sometimes run by the state itself, to protect its tax revenue, but more importantly to tightly control the distribution of demon alcohol. My home state of Pennsylvania was (and is) one such state. All of the states’ alcohol laws were written in the wake of prohibition’s end, and were designed with that failed legacy in mind. Most of these laws today are antiquated and out-of-date in the face of modern life.

But changing alcohol laws are harder than many other laws, because there’s a special layer of angst that lawmakers must face. Alcohol is still treated as a toxic substance, one that poses a danger, despite it having been around since the dawn of civilization and having been legal for adults for literally the entirety of human history, with the notable exception of thirteen years in the mid-20th century. But prohibitionist strategy since essentially the moment the 21st Amendment was ratified has remained unchanged: to make it as difficult as possible for adults to obtain legal alcohol. And so for the past 80+ years they’ve been tireless in their efforts to make us work for our beer. So now the state of Kansas is seeking to modernize the state and allow beer, wine and spirits to be sold in grocery and convenience stores. The modest bill takes into account liquor stores’ current monopolies and gives “them 10 years to adapt to increased competition in the marketplace. Beer sales would not be legal until 2017, wine in 2020, and spirits in 2024.” But that would mean there would be more places where adults could legally buy something that they’re legally entitled to purchase, and we certainly don’t want to encourage that. Or rather the prohibitionists don’t want people to be able to. Alcohol Justice tweeted out their displeasure with Kansas, chastising lawmakers there with a simple admonishment: “Bad move.”

I’m sure they have an excellent reason why it’s a “bad move” for adults to have more freedom and convenience in purchasing their alcohol, something they’re already allowed to do, but so far A.J. is mum on the whys are wherefores. Although you can be sure it has something to do with protecting children or how much more the state will be harmed if people can increasingly be able to engage in the legally permissible act of enjoying a beer. They’ve never been too strong on logic or rational thought, so maybe it’s best they stick to the sublimely absurd. Because as far as I can tell, Alcohol Justice telling the legislature of the state of Kansas “bad move” is the schoolyard bully equivalent of “because we said so” or “because we don’t like it.”

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