Here’s another great example of the circle jerk nature of prohibitionist groups. This is, I’m finding, the standard operating procedure for most, if not all, of them. They decide what they’re opposed to, in this case alcohol, and then they commission — that is pay for — research that they claim proves their point. Tobacco companies are the classic example, insofar as they funded lots of studies showing how safe smoking was despite independent research revealing just the opposite. How the “study” is framed is one of the many troubling aspects of how they do this. Assumptions are made that all alcohol is bad and that people who consume it will abuse it and be a burden on society, causing innumerable harms to themselves and others. That’s a persistent theme that permeates much of the so-called scientific literature, there’s hardly a whiff of impartiality if you look deeply enough into it.
A pointed example I recall, outside the alcohol world, is the Meese Commission Report which was directed by then-President Ronald Reagan to find a link between pornography and criminal or anti-social behavior. The important difference between this, and the earlier commission by Johnson/Nixon which resulted in the 1970 Commission on Obscenity and Pornography, is that from an impartial starting point that report found no such link. In fact, the 1970 commission “recommended against any restrictions for adults” and overall “the report found that obscenity and pornography were not important social problems, that there was no evidence that exposure to such material was harmful to individuals, and that current legal and policy initiatives were more likely to create problems than solve them.” Regardless of your feelings about pornography, what’s significant is that Reagan’s mandate to Meese was not to see if there was causation between pornography and violence, but was instead he was tasked with finding one. That was the goal of the report, to find a link to please Reagan’s base on the religious right who weren’t happy with the results of the 1970 report. And that’s how I feel about GAPA and the countless quasi-scientific prohibitionist organizations and their “studies.” They are, by design, looking for trouble, and so naturally they find it everywhere they look.
So once they’ve manufactured and/or exaggerated the problem, the next step is to get the research published in quasi-scientific journals, in some cases one owned or funded by the same organizations. Then they send out press releases claiming their position has been scientifically proven. They usually neglect to mention that they themselves created the “science” they’re touting because it’s more effective if it appears to be objective. Unfortunately, it rarely is, but such is the state of journalism today that press releases are more often reprinted verbatim without any fact-checking or even questioning the content. It’s apparently enough if it simply has a credible-sounding “scientific” journal name attached to it. Once you’ve got enough of these “studies” you can then hold a conference of like-minded individuals where you can present your findings.
So in October of this year, the “Global Alcohol Policy Conference” was held in South Korea. It was hosted by a group I wasn’t familiar with; the Global Alcohol Policy Alliance (GAPA), but which appears to be more of a loose organization of national prohibitionist groups that was formed in 2000 to share information and hold annual conferences. Although I don’t know many of the international groups, the people from the U.S. make it clear who’s invited to the party. GAPA board members include George Hacker, who runs the notorious prohibitionist Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI); Thomas F. Babor, the author of Alcohol: No Ordinary Commodity: Research and Public Policy (an anti-alcohol handbook) and David Jernigan, who’s the Director of the also notoriously anti-alcohol Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Behavior and Society at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. Jerigan was also the author of this travesty: Bud Blamed In Absurd E.R. Visit Study.
Here’s where the circle gets tighter and more insular. There are sixteen board members for GAPA. At the recent Global Alcohol Policy Conference, there were eight speakers on the program. Of those eight, six are also board members of GAPA. Similarly, GAPA is divided into regions. The North American region includes four member organizations: CSPI (Centre for Science in the Public Interest), The Marin Institute (now known as Alcohol Justice), The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth and the Office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse, created by the collaboration of the AMA and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. If you’re a regular reader here you’ll no doubt recognize those groups as being prohibitionist to their core.
Looking over the program for the conference, the topics all revolve around the negative aspects of alcohol, the harms, the addicts, the too-low taxation and regulation. Reading over the titles, it’s hard not to leave with the impression that it’s about how to bring down alcohol completely. I couldn’t find one positive word about drinking, which seems incongruous to my life experience and literally just about every person I know. Surely, they could find some balance to their efforts, but instead it feels punitive, divisive and almost mean-spirited. Some of the speeches given during the conference are available for download, while others — most, really — give you an error message when trying to download: “Applicants sponsored by alcohol manufacturers are not allowed.” How did they know? What don’t they want people in the alcohol industry to know about regarding what they’re saying or doing?
Another glimpse into prohibitionists worldwide comes from GAPA’s internal magazine, The Globe. In the latest issue, Issue 3 2013 they tackle such horrible behavior by alcohol companies as donating water to disaster relief with the overall theme of “Beware of the Alcohol Industry Bearing Gifts.”
I recall the Marin Institute similarly whining when Anheuser-Busch canned water and sent it to Haiti after the devastating earthquake there, a story I detailed in Let No Good Deed Go Unpunished.
So how was the conference portrayed in the news online? Upstreaming Alcohol Policy reported that an “important theme running through the conference was the role of the global alcohol industry in maintaining and intensifying alcohol-related harm through its tactics and practices.” In other words, we’re all evil and wish your family harm, a persistent theme in all prohibitionist propaganda. Corporations & Health Watch agreed and went even further, reporting that “Dr. Thomas Babor of the University of Connecticut, for example, stressed reasons to doubt the sincerity of the global alcohol industry in its insistence to be part of the solution to alcohol problems.” Yes, we want everybody binge-drinking all the time, every day. There’s nothing better for the alcohol industry than drunk people killing themselves and others, especially when we all have families and want them in harm’s way, too. I’m so sick of this one, where alcohol is criticized for advertising or wanting to sell more products because that, they claim, is “clearly to increase overall consumption — a strategy which is inimical to public health and public safety.” Every alcohol corporation, at least under U.S. law, is like every corporation, beholden to shareholders and must do what they can to increase the share price, in other words increase the business. It’s the law. There’s plenty of corporate behavior I’m not wild about, but at least I understand it. If you want corporations to act differently, change their charters; change the law governing them. But stop making it sound like they’d kill their mothers for a dime. Stop painting them, and all of us in the alcohol industry, as evil. We’re just not.
Their conclusion was that “reducing the global burden of alcohol-related harm will require advocates to effectively counter that industry influence – through reliance on the best science, savvy media advocacy, and robust grassroots organization.” The black humor and irony in that is that the science they’re referring to is anything but the “best” — or evidence-based, as they often phrase it. “Savvy media advocacy” means propaganda which I find usually contains falsehoods and exaggerations, at best. And “robust grassroots organization” means, more often than not, groups funded by large, wealthy prohibitionist groups like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation or others.
The overall impression I have from watching these groups for over twenty years is that they’re so shamelessly dishonest in their actions and their rhetoric that I can’t really understand how they can claim the high moral ground that’s so inherent in their position. They set up the argument as a David vs. Goliath situation which is laughably wrong. Does “big alcohol” have a lot of money. Sure, but so does the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and most of the others. They’ve been spending their money influencing politicians, spreading their message and trying to persuade others to their way of thinking. Does that sound like the same thing that they accuse alcohol manufacturers of doing? It should, because they’re doing exactly the same thing, and have been since at least 1933, when Prohibition ended. The only real difference is they claim to be doing it for righteous reasons and believe those of us who enjoy drinking a beer or even making or selling it, are the spawn of satan. The problem with that is that we’re not. We’re ordinary people, often with many of the same set of beliefs as the prohibitionists. Contrary to the propaganda, we beerists love our friends and families, have our own faith, are civic-minded and contribute to our community and society at large. We’re regular people who also enjoy drinking beer. Period. It’s only through the lens of prohibitionists that we appear any different. And until that cycle is broken and prohibitionists stop creating self-fulfilling propaganda, we’ll never solve any of the real problems that some individuals have with alcohol.