Where Do The Moderate Drinking Guidelines Come From?

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For as long as I can remember, the recommended daily allowance to remain within moderate drinking guidelines has been one drink for a woman and two for a man. With the USDA’s new 2015 Dietary Guidelines open for comment, Modern Drunkard magazine, through their Brutal Hammer news blog, attempted to discover where those longstanding “2 for a man/1 for a woman” (2m/1w) guidelines came from, and wrote up their efforts in The CDC Is Stonewalling Us. In some ways it’s a silly piece, hinging on the CDC’s website comment apparatus not working, but the overriding question is sound. While the rest of the document about the Dietary Guidelines is heavily footnoted, with numerous references to the basis for their recommendations, the 2m/1w guidelines is suspiciously and conspicuously absent of any underlying scientific support.

Nowhere is it apparent how they came to that determination. No footnotes, no citations of scientific studies, not a damn bit of evidence to support it. Granted, my bourbon binoculars (the classier version of beer goggles, but they see deep into the truth of things) can only take in so much information at a time, but I couldn’t find a shred of reasoning for these arbitrary numbers.

I’d never thought about that before, but it’s a valid question. Where did they come up with that? And it’s not an unimportant one. The guidelines for defining moderate consumption are not the same worldwide, and in fact vary widely.

For example, Professor David J. Hanson at the State University of New York notes. “The fact that alcohol consumption guidelines are arbitrary is demonstrated by the wide variance in maximum limits recommended around the world. For example Poland’s recommended limit is 12.5 units per week whereas Australia’s is 35. Indeed, much research finds better health and greater longevity associated with drinking above the recommended guidelines published by most countries.” To contrast the U.S. guidelines, “Canada recommends that men on average consume no more than three drinks per day, five days per week, for a total of 15 drinks per week. For women it recommends, on average, no more than two drinks per day, five days per week, for a total of 10 drinks per week.”

standard-drinks-graph

A British examination of 27 European nation’s guidelines found “a remarkable lack of agreement about what constitutes harmful or excessive alcohol consumption on a daily basis, a weekly basis and when driving, with no consensus about the ratios of consumption guidelines for men and women.” Hanson concluded. “Thus, it appears that the differences in recommended guidelines are not based solely on the scientific medical evidence, but on cultural and political considerations. That is, the guidelines are highly arbitrary.”

And in some cases, capricious, as well. It was revealed in 2007, twenty years after the guidelines for the UK had been set in stone in 1987, that they were simply made up. One committee member who’d worked on the guidelines remembered that they were simply “plucked out of the air” and had “no basis in science” whatsoever, which I detailed at the time in Target: Alcohol. Without a clear basis on which our own guidelines were arrived upon, how can we be certain ours are any less fabricated inventions?

The other issue that’s never adequately addressed is the split for men and women. Supposedly, it’s because “Women tend to be smaller, but also have different body compositions and different metabolic enzymes.” But we know that weight matters. It’s how we figure out how much an individual can drink before they’ll be drunk or at least reach a specific blood alcohol level, because the rates are fairly precise when accounting for weight plus intake. So why do we ignore that simple knowledge with the guidelines? There are, of course, plenty of small, light men as well as many heavier women. It’s just a reality that people are diverse.

The International Center for Alcohol Policies or ICAP, somewhat disingenuously claims that the “Recommendations are based on scientific data regarding drinking levels at which risk increases,” yet never reveals where this “scientific data” comes from. And the fact that the guidelines vary widely from country to country would seem to suggest otherwise. Because if there was hard scientific data it would be the same everywhere, and the guidelines would not vary by as much as they do.

The closest thing I can find in the U.S. is at the Recommended Alcohol Questions on the NIH and NIAAA website states that the guidelines are “based on recent epidemiological studies on alcohol intake and risks which have demonstrated that for estimating risk of mortality, morbidity (including injuries) and other problems including drunk driving and social harms.” But then where are the citations for these epidemiological studies, and how could they possibly quantify such subjective issues as “social harms.” Quick answer: they can’t, not and remain purely scientific as the guidelines really should be.

I had never stopped to question the 2m/1w guidelines before, and it appears neither did almost anyone else. While there are plenty of citations for many aspects of the dietary guidelines, when it comes to alcohol, the government suddenly goes silent. But it doesn’t seem like too much to ask that the scientific basis for them be revealed and transparent. I’m not even arguing against them, and have always thought they were somewhat reasonable, especially in their current incarnation with the addition of the weekly limits. But we really should be able to see how they were arrived at, and what science, if any, they were based on.

graphic_lowriskdrinkinglevels

Parenting Lessons From The Prohibitionists

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I’m always amazed about how people feel there’s nothing with wrong with telling me how to live, what to believe or how to raise my children. Advice is fine, even if it’s often unbidden, but so much of our culture revolves around believing we know what’s best for everybody else. And even that would be just fine if people smugly thought they were better than other people (not that there aren’t of plenty of people who do fit that description) if they didn’t take the next step of trying to force their point of view on the rest of us.

Parenting is certainly not the only place this phenomenon manifests itself, but it is one of the most pervasive. I recently saw a story that illustrates this perfectly. A suburban couple let their two kids (I think ages 7 and 9) walk their neighborhood alone as long as they stayed together. The parents also taught them to hold hands when crossing the street and other sensible safety tips. But authorities saw them walking down a street, picked them up (frightening them in the process), and charged the parents with child endangerment, citing some forgotten law about kids having to be supervised at all times. I can’t tell you how often I was out of my parents watchful gaze as a kid, but it was a lot. And not just me, but literally every kid I knew. I know “times have changed” and all that but have we really become a police state? There was a similar story about a kid in New York City whose mother was teaching her to take the subway by herself, and the police tried to arrest her, too. This is getting seriously out of hand. We may as well just lock up this generation and not let them out of their prisons (homes, I mean homes) until they turn 18 (or 21 lest they discover the illicit pleasure of alcohol while off fighting our next war to protect our way of life).

But what will such a sheltered generation do, having faced no dangers, no frightening situations where there was no parent to swoop in and save the day? They’ll probably fall apart, that’s what. Raising a child is teaching them how to be on their own, to become self-reliant adults. How can we possibly do that by never allowing them to ever be unsupervised? How can we teach them to trust anyone if we never trust them to be on their own? It’s baffling that we’re doing this to our children. I’m not saying ship them off to the inner city to fend for themselves, but slowly, little by little, teach them to be responsible for themselves. Give them small tasks to complete, unsupervised jobs where we let them figure out how to accomplish a goal or even let them fail once in awhile. It’s how we learn. A speaker at my class Wednesday night was reminding my students that not only should you not worry about failing once in a while in your business, but if you don’t, you’ll never learn anything. He remarked that you only learn from your mistakes, taking very little from your victories. So as parents, if we never let our kids learn how to compete, let them fail or put them in situations that test them, they’ll never become full-fledged individuals capable of surviving in the wild. Is that why so many kids are still living at home with their parents after they’re adults? I’m sure it’s not the only reason, but it seems like it has to be a factor. Helicopter parenting has to be part of the answer.

But regardless of how any of us decide we want to raise our children, why do we feel that however we do it is the right way, often the only way, and proceed to do whatever we can to shame anyone with a different idea. I confess, I’m guilty of this, too, from time to time. Every time I’m in a movie theatre with kids who’ve never been taught to shut up, I’m guilty of wanting to shout at their parents, who blissfully keep answering their inane questions — still using their outside voice — with nary a care for the rest of the audience. That’s maddening, to me, especially since it wasn’t that difficult to teach our own kids to be quiet watching a film. But on the larger questions, why do so many people think they should be able to push their ideals on everyone else?

Nowhere is this more in the open as when it comes to alcohol. The very idea that we lowered the drinking age from the nearly worldwide standard of 18 to 21, while still allowing our 18-20 years olds to fight and die for us, is indicative of the “we know better than you” school of parenting. The latest example of this to get me fired up is a link sent to me by Brian Yaeger, who’s recently moved back to Portland from Amsterdam. (Thanks, Brian. I’ll get you for this!) The link he sent me was from a CNN article, Kids allowed sips of alcohol are more likely to drink in high school, study says. WebMD also tackled the same underlying study with Letting Kids Sip Alcohol May ‘Send Wrong Message’.

Alcohol Justice’s reaction was swift and predictable.

AJ-tweet-15-04-01

New Data: Letting Kids Sip Booze Makes It More Appealing http://bit.ly/1G5gFcr Duh!! @AlcoholJustice

Their tweet linked to the WebMD’s take, which is how I subsequently saw that one. I love that they still haven’t quite figured out this Twitter thing, even though they tweet something like two dozen times a a day, often sending the same tweets over and over again for weeks on end. But copying your own Twitter handle in your own message, in effect letting yourself know about the tweet you just sent? What’s that all about? What did they think they were doing? But I’m also happy to see the kid holding a glass of wine, it’s more often beer that they’re overtly targeting.

But I especially find the single word “Duh!!!” to be telling. It’s basically an insulting “fuck you” to most of the rest of the world, whose culture and long-standing traditions see nothing wrong with a world in which children are exposed to alcohol in the home as an ordinary part of life. It’s only in recent years that Belgian schools stopped serving table beer to students. Watered-down wine on the table in Italy or France is just part of a normal Friday. But we know better, and we’re happy to tell not just you, but the rest of the world how to live, too.

All the fuss is over a “new” study entitled The Prospective Association Between Sipping Alcohol by the Sixth Grade and Later Substance Use in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. Uncharacteristically, the full text is available online.

As you can see from the headlines, parents beware. You better not be giving your kids a sip of alcohol, or you’ll be setting them down the path to ruin. The study apparently shows “that children who had sipped alcohol by the sixth grade were about five times more likely to have a full drink by the time they were in high school and four times more likely to binge drink or get drunk.” Uh oh. CNN reports:

The study involved surveys of 561 middle school students in Rhode Island over a three-year period. A little under a third of the students said they had sipped alcohol by the start of middle school, with most of those saying they got the alcohol from their parents at a party or on a special occasion.

Even when factoring out issues that could encourage problem drinking down the road, such as how much their parents drink, a history of alcoholism in their family or having a risk-taking personality, the children who sipped were more likely to be drinking in high school, said [Kristina] Jackson[, one of the co-authors of the study].

Twenty-six percent of the kids who had sipped alcohol said they had a full drink by the ninth grade versus under 6% for the kids who never sipped alcohol, the survey found. Nine percent said they had binged on alcohol (had five or more drinks at one time) or gotten drunk versus under 2% for the non-sippers.

Nothing more scientific than giving kids a survey and then factoring out a host of things that may or may not have any influence on whether or not they’ll drink later in life. They make drinking in high school sound like it’s a Satanic orgy, but it’s a pretty normal rite of passage for most people. If you didn’t have a few drinks at some point during your high school years, there’s probably something wrong with you that this study definitely didn’t factor in.

The WebMD version of the story notes that 3 out of ten students told them “they’d had at least one sip of alcohol” and that “[i]n most cases, those sips were provided by parents, often at parties or special occasions.” And because of that “[b]y ninth grade, 26 percent of those who’d had sips of alcohol at a younger age said they’d had at least one full alcoholic drink, compared with less than 6 percent of those who didn’t get sips of alcohol when younger.” Even with their vague controls, I still don’t see any clear causation. 6% vs. 26% and 9% vs. 2% don’t seem like an earth-shattering differences, with less than 600 people in one geographic area. I can think of dozens of reasons that might account for why this occurs, and the lead researcher even says as much, but of course that doesn’t make it into the headline. Jackson said. “The findings don’t prove that sips of alcohol at an early age are to blame for teen drinking” and “[w]e’re not trying to say whether it’s ‘OK’ or ‘not OK’ for parents to allow this.” So what are you saying, if not just that? Why isn’t the headline that the “findings don’t prove that sips of alcohol at an early age are to blame for teen drinking?”

WebMD continues. “She noted that some parents believe that introducing children to alcohol at home teaches them about responsible drinking and reduces the appeal of alcohol. ‘Our study provides evidence to the contrary,’ Jackson said,” contradicting her previous statement. But this is the problem I talked about a few days ago in Studies Show Studies Don’t Show Much, which made a compelling argument that studies in isolation, out of context and on their own are almost meaningless. This is especially true, because of course there are studies that show just the opposite. For example, a study in the Journal of Adolescent Heath “found that children who drank with their parents were about half as likely to say they had alcohol in the past month and about one third as likely to admit to binge drinking (having five or more drinks in a row) in the previous two weeks.”

But here’s where I think the judgmental parenting advice kicks in, despite her insisting that is not the intention. Jackson states near the end of the article that “giving sips of alcohol to young children may send them a ‘mixed message.'” Sure, but you don’t have any idea of the context of the circumstances sufficient to make that claim, do you? If you assume that a parent just handed their son or daughter a drink, let them sip it, and then walked away, maybe she could make such a claim. But that scenario is pretty hard to imagine. There would undoubtedly be a discussion. There would be context, a talk about what was taking place, questions and answers, learning might even be part of it, which is why drawing conclusions about 561 such events without any context makes it so difficult to say those incidents caused future behavior in such a demonstrative way or were the proximate cause of it.

She finished with this sage bit of wisdom. “At that age, some kids may have difficulty understanding the difference between a sip of wine and having a full beer.” Only if parents let that be the case. Only if no discussion takes place. Only if the parents are complete idiots. Only if she thinks kids are really, really stupid. The most common age for the first sip was 10, with 26% of those surveyed. That’s my daughter’s age. She definitely knows the difference between a sip and a full pint glass. And frankly, I think she could make out the difference between 16 ounces of liquid and a teaspoon’s worth when she was much, much younger than that.

In the discussion section of the “study” the message turns from reporting to advice, and to telling me how I should approach my parenting:

Our findings underscore the importance of advising parents to provide clear, consistent messages about the unacceptability of alcohol consumption for youth. Offering even a sip of alcohol may undermine such messages, particularly among younger children who tend to have more concrete thinking and may be unable to understand the difference between drinking a sip and drinking several drinks. In addition, parents should be encouraged to secure and monitor alcohol in the home, and given our reports of accidental consumption, parents should monitor their own beverages—children may intentionally or, as our data show, inadvertently take a sip. Of note, children who report having been asked by adults in the home to fetch or pour alcohol are shown to have greater odds of sipping alcohol. Messages to parents about keeping their children from sipping alcohol may need to be provided via preventive intervention or community education, particularly because some parents report feeling pressured by other adults to allow their children to have sips of alcohol at social events.

She’s basically telling parents to make sure to keep a wall up separating children from interacting with anything found in the adult world. It’s a frequent position taken by prohibitionists, that children should never see their parents drinking alcohol, should never see alcohol of any kind, whether ads for it or even walking by it in grocery stores, so convinced are they that one peek will alter their behavior and forever corrupt their futures and turn them into alcoholics. You may recall Alcohol Justice’s recent temper tantrum that children could be exposed to as many as four minutes of beer advertising during the four-hour Super Bowl spectacle, and what a disaster that would cause.

It’s hard to not bring up the fact that the study was part of the Center for Alcohol and Addiction Studies at Brown University. Their “mission is to promote the identification, prevention, and effective treatment of alcohol and other drug use problems in our society through research, education, training, and policy advocacy.” So it’s not to find out if there are problems, identify what positives and negatives exist, but they set out with the premise that only problems exist and what can they do about it. That’s what prohibitionists do. That is not science. It’s advocacy. Also, the study was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, who similarly starts with the premise of alcohol abuse and alcoholism. It’s right there in their title. They owe their existence to Richard Nixon, who “signed the Comprehensive Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism Prevention, Treatment, and Rehabilitation Act of 1970 on December 31, 1970.” It had been spearheaded by “Senator Harold Hughes, a recovering alcoholic who championed the cause of alcoholism research.” There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it does show that what they’re interested in studying is not health or any balanced study of alcohol, but are focused on “abuse and alcoholism.” It’s what they’re interested in and are looking for. When you set out to find problems, you’ll find them. It’s in your charter and self-preservation will help you along the way. It’s the same as when prohibitionists claim that any study undertaken by someone with ties to the alcohol industry is tainted or biases their findings. This is exactly the same, but curiously that fact is conveniently ignored when it suits their agenda.

But whether stated or not, the reason for the study seems to be embedded in how it’s being used, by both the media and the researchers who created it, to create another tool to stop people from drinking, starting with the children. Even though the author clearly states that the “findings don’t prove that sips of alcohol at an early age are to blame for teen drinking,” she’s still willing to dole out all sorts of advice on how parents should do their job, even offering this soothing balm lest what you just read started you panicking. “‘I don’t think parents need to feel that their child is doomed, ‘Kristina Jackson, one of the co-authors of the study, said of parents who already let their kids have sips of alcohol.” Whew, that’s a relief. After spending countless hours creating a study and analyzing its results, using headlines that suggest one sip and little Johnny or Susie are destined for the life of an alcoholic, which ultimately found no causation, they’re still talking to the press about how to keep your loved ones from drinking in high school and telling me and every other parent how to raise our children. It’s a little bit insulting.

“I think the most important thing is to make sure that children know when drinking alcohol is acceptable and when it is not,” said Jackson.” That’s her final takeaway at the bottom of the CNN piece. Her advice is I should make sure my kids know when it’s okay to drink and when they shouldn’t, I guess under the assumption that before this I didn’t know that. My house, and everybody else’s apparently, were a free for all, because I didn’t know my ten-year old and my newly minted teenager aren’t supposed to drink alcohol just yet. Thanks for that. I don’t know what I would have done without this study. Because if after all that, “the most important thing” my kids need to know is they’re not allowed to drink, they sure wasted an awful lot of time and money. My kids know that. I’m willing to bet yours do to.

But the very last thing she says is this howler. “One theory is that some of these children are getting a message that drinking is okay, especially when it is offered by the parent,” she said. Hilarious. I’m sorry to be the one to tell her this, because maybe she doesn’t know, but drinking is okay. My kids know drinking is okay. They watch my wife and I drink all the time. They also know that they aren’t allowed to drink themselves until they’re 21. And they can’t drive until they’re 16. And they can’t join the military until they’re 18. They know all these things, and much more. Is that because they’re budding geniuses or my wife and I are amazing parents? Well, I don’t like to brag … but no, it has nothing to do with any of that. Our kids do well in school but are fairly typical, and I see us as similarly run of the mill parents, trying our best to raise ’em up right. I have a personal theory that each of us deeply remember the wounds inflicted upon us by our own parents and everybody’s approach to parenting is a determination to not make the same mistakes that our parents did, because there’s no such thing as a perfect parent. In the process, each of us makes all new mistakes, that our kids in turn will be sure not to do my grandchildren. It’s the cycle of parenting mistakes. I think the most any parent can hope for is do their best, and try to teach their children how to be their own person; a productive, self-reliant member of society. And there’s definitely no one right way to accomplish that. But I sure wish the prohibitionists and so many other self-professed do-gooders would stop telling to me how to be a parent. It really is getting out of hand. I’d like to ask my son Porter to fetch me a beer, but I’m afraid child services might intervene because I’m putting him at risk for becoming a drinking high schooler since seeing a beer, and especially me enjoying it, might give him the idea that drinking a beer is okay.

USDA Dietary Guidelines Under Fire Again From Prohibitionists

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Every five years, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, or USDA, in conjunction with the Department of Health and Human Services, or HHS, updates its quinquennial Dietary Guidelines. They’re described as providing “authoritative advice for Americans ages 2 and older about consuming fewer calories, making informed food choices, and being physically active to attain and maintain a healthy weight, reduce risk of chronic disease, and promote overall health.” Since the last guidelines were published in 2010, it’s time for the new ones, and they’ve been proposed and are are now open for comments before being finalized.

In the 2010 Guidelines, a change was made to the structure of the recommended amounts of alcohol people should consume, if they’re going to enjoy drinking alcohol and are, of course, of legal age. At the time, the government took the radical view, to prohibitionists, that:

The consumption of alcohol can have beneficial or harmful effects, depending on the amount consumed, age, and other characteristics of the person consuming the alcohol. Alcohol consumption may have beneficial effects when consumed in moderation. Strong evidence from observational studies has shown that moderate alcohol consumption is associated with a lower risk of cardiovascular disease. Moderate alcohol consumption also is associated with reduced risk of all-cause mortality among middle-aged and older adults and may help to keep cognitive function intact with age. However, it is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits because moderate alcohol intake also is associated with increased risk of breast cancer, violence, drowning, and injuries from falls and motor vehicle crashes.

I may not agree with some of the characterizations in the last sentence, but it does serve to demonstrate how conservative the guidelines are, and that they’re not cavalierly telling people to start drinking. Plus, unlike some anti-alcohol groups, I’m not trying to willfully mislead people about what they say. They also have a handy chart of key definitions.

key-definitions-alcohol-2010

So what that second definition means is that if you’re a woman, you can enjoy 3 alcoholic drinks a day (or less), so long as you don’t have more than 7 during the same week, and you’ll be considered to not be a heavy drinker or engaging in high-risk drinking. A man, however, may enjoy 4 alcoholic drinks a day (or less), so long as he doesn’t have more than 14 during the same week, and he’ll likewise be considered to not be a heavy drinker or engaging in high-risk drinking. That, in effect, relaxed the “1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men” axiom that had been in place for a long while. When those changes made the rounds five years ago, the prohibitionists threw a temper tantrum and accused the government of all manner of bias and corruption, which is almost funny given how conservative they really are.

The new Dietary Guidelines for Americans, for 2015, are now going through the comment period, and once again the prohibitionists are apoplectic. Alcohol Justice, for example, whines that the government “proposes a risky and harmful shift in its definition of moderate drinking, and promotes drinking as a healthy dietary behavior. It suggests that a two-to-threefold increase in daily consumption limits is safe, and that questionable claims of health benefits outweigh known, substantiated risks of alcohol consumption. The Report represents a significant departure from previous Dietary Guidelines, and does so without sufficient scientific basis to justify such a shift.”

So how honest is that statement? Let’s take a look. First, what is the “risky and harmful shift in its definition of moderate drinking” from 2010 to 2015? The “new” language is on Page 105 of 107, constituting the proposed guidelines for 2015.

2015 Language:

Moderate alcohol consumption — Average daily consumption of up to one drink per day for women and up to two drinks per day for men, with no more than three drinks in any single day for women and no more than four drinks in any single day for men.

And here’s the old language below. Notice the difference? No? That’s because there really isn’t any. There are a few of the words that are different, numbers replaced by the word written out, some different punctuation, but that’s about it. The meaning is entirely the same.

2010 Language:

Moderate alcohol consumption is defined as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men. Heavy or high-risk drinking is the consumption of more than 3 drinks on any day or more than 7 per week for women and more than 4 drinks on any day or more than 14 per week for men.

There is no shift. If anything, this version of the guidelines merely confirms changes made to the 2010 Guidelines. “Regarding alcohol, the Committee confirmed several conclusions of the 2010 DGAC, including that moderate alcohol intake can be a component of a healthy dietary pattern, and that if alcohol is consumed, it should be consumed in moderation and only by adults. However, it is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits.”

AJ says the “Dietary Guidelines should recommend ways to reduce and prevent alcohol-related harm, not increase it,” but of course that’s not at all what they say. That’s just more whining because they don’t like what the USDA is proposing. They didn’t like it five years ago, and they don’t like it now. They go on to claim that with “current and growing evidence regarding risk of disease and harm from drinking even low levels of alcohol, the Dietary Guidelines should include recommendations for Americans to drink less alcohol – not more.” Of course, that’s another misleading statement. They can, and often do, cite single studies that say what they want, but as detailed in Studies Show Studies Don’t Show Much, most are not worth the paper they’re printed on, but they keep hammering on them because it makes for effective propaganda, especially in the school of “if you repeat a lie often enough ….”

AJ further believes that the proposed guidelines say “that a two-to-threefold increase in daily consumption limits is safe.” But this mythical increase is just that, a fantasy. The 2010 guidelines said the same thing. There’s no proposed increase, just a confirmation of the last version. And guess what happened with the 2010 change? Nothing, that’s what. The country did not fall to ruin from people suddenly drinking too much because they believe the guidelines told people they should, or could.

Then they accuse the guidelines are based on “questionable claims of health benefits [which] outweigh known, substantiated risks of alcohol consumption. The Report represents a significant departure from previous Dietary Guidelines, and does so without sufficient scientific basis to justify such a shift.” What utter bullshit. Do you know what constitutes a “questionable claims of health benefits?” Anything that AJ doesn’t agree with. And how they define “known, substantiated risks of alcohol consumption?” That’s easy, it’s one they like that agrees with their skewed world view. As shown, this is absolutely NOT “a significant departure from previous Dietary Guidelines,” but is virtually identical to the 2010 version. And their statement that there is not “sufficient scientific basis to justify such a shift” is laughable because they’ll never except any scientific evidence that disagrees with or contradicts their dogma. Here’s how the USDA explains how they arrived at the alcohol guidelines.

As alcohol is a unique aspect of the diet, the DGAC considered evidence from several sources to inform recommendations. As noted above, moderate alcohol intake among adults was identified as a component of a healthy dietary pattern associated with some health outcomes, which reaffirms conclusions related to moderate alcohol consumption by the 2010 DGAC.

No matter how you slice it, there is nothing new regarding the alcohol guidelines in the proposed dietary guidelines for 2015. But to hear Alcohol Justice tell it, this is “a radical change,” despite being almost exactly the same as five years ago. This is their action plan for the faithful sheep that follow them, [with my rebuttal in brackets]:

THE PROPOSED CHANGE:

Without providing any explanation or evidence for a radical change [they do explain the reasons, citing that there’s evidence supporting their decision], the Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee proposes to increase limits used to define “moderate” drinking. [No, they don’t. All they do is confirm the changes made five years ago.]

The current (2010) U.S. Dietary Guidelines define moderate drinking as up to 1 drink per day for women and up to 2 drinks per day for men (daily limits) [that’s not all they say, they also cite the weekly allowances]. In contrast, the proposed change would base these 1/2 limits on average rather than daily consumption and suggests it is safe for women to drink up to 3 drinks in a day and men up to 4 drinks in a day so long as the averages are not exceeded [exactly as they did in 2010]. This effectively triples (the daily limit for women and doubles (the daily limit for men). [Not this time, it doesn’t.]

Furthermore, the report implies that drinking is recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle: “the U.S. population should be encouraged to consume dietary patterns that are rich in vegetables …; moderate in low and non fat dairy and alcohol (adults).” [Oh, no! The horror. Frankly, what’s more surprising is that, given their findings that total mortality is improved with the moderate consumption of alcohol, they’re so conservative in their suggestions. But it makes sense in the context of anti-alcohol groups that throw tantrums any time their world view is challenged. But their statement that “the report implies that drinking is recommended as part of a healthy lifestyle” is complete and utter nonsense, and could even be called grandstanding because the language of the proposed 2015 guidelines also includes this: “However, it is not recommended that anyone begin drinking or drink more frequently on the basis of potential health benefits.” So it’s pretty crystal clear that the USDA is not recommending people start drinking “as part of a healthy lifestyle.” AJ just made that up.]

THE PROBLEM:

Since most adult drinkers in the U.S. don’t drink every day, the proposed change effectively encourages consumption right up to binge drinking levels, thus increasing health risk. [That identifies the problem with the definition of binge drinking, as I’ve written about numerous times. That’s the problem here, not encouraging people to drink moderately. After all, if they did, they might live longer. We wouldn’t want people to know that, would we?]

Binge drinking (4 or more drinks per occasion for women; 5 or more drinks per occasion for men) causes more than half of all alcohol related deaths each year in the U.S., and impairment and increased risk begin below those levels. The proposed changes are, therefore, dangerous for public health. [Again, that’s a problem with the definition of bingeing, which used to be more vague, making it hard to quantify. So it’s been narrowed over the years, and made easier to quantify, bringing more and more people into the specter of binge drinkers, artificially inflating statistics about its dangers.]

There are no randomized studies showing any health benefits from any level of alcohol consumption as well as no evidence that moderate drinking promotes a healthy lifestyle. [Poppycock. They’re hanging their hat here, one presumes, on “randomized” studies, but it’s unlikely even that’s true. The USDA itself in 2010, looked at meta-analysis of a wide range of studies, concluding just the opposite of AJ’s position. But AJ keeps ignoring that “evidence” because they don’t like it. It’s easier to just keep saying what they want to be true.]

It’s hard to know what to make of so dishonest a piece of propaganda as this is, raising unfounded fears, not to mention being littered with just out and out misinformation. It’s one thing to be in favor of promoting “evidence-based public health policies and organiz[ing] campaigns with diverse communities and youth against the alcohol industry’s harmful practices” but quite another to watch how that plays out in reality. “Evidence-based” seems to really mean anything they agree with and “the alcohol industry’s harmful practices” includes literally every single thing we do. I wish that was hyperbole, but I’ve never seen any action taken by an alcohol company that AJ didn’t find fault with, from donating cans of water to Haiti after the devastating earthquake there to their “‘charge-for-harm’ approach, which is based on the assumption that anyone who drinks deserves to be punished.” And another similar group stated at a 2013 conference that “they simply didn’t care about the public health impacts of taxes. They were in the game solely to get some of the tax revenue steered toward their organization.”

This is getting seriously out of hand. as anti-alcohol groups get bolder and more obviously prohibitionist, their divisiveness makes any meaningful discussion increasingly impossible. And unlike these prohibitionists, most people I know in the beer world, and the real world for that matter, recognize that while moderate drinking of alcohol is a good thing for a majority of adults, it’s not for everybody. Some people can’t handle it, and they often ruin it for the rest of us. Because those are the people that anti-alcohol folks always use to represent everyone who drinks, ignoring that they’re minority and that most of us can have a few drinks and not plunge the world into turmoil. But as long as they keep painting us as all the same, they’ll never be able to admit anything but an absolutist view of drinking, no matter how ridiculous that is, and no matter how ridiculous it makes them seem. When you start accusing the conservative USDA of ignoring science and encouraging people to start drinking, you’ve definitely jumped the shark.

Studies Show Studies Don’t Show Much

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If there’s one thing prohibitionists love to shout about, it’s a new study showing how terrible alcohol is, and how it supports what they’ve been proselytizing about all along. A growing trend has been anti-alcohol groups funding studies, having the “team” look for problems through phrasing the study’s goals and methodology with a particular outcome in mind, and then releasing the results as if it was impartial news. Sadly, with our media overworked and underpaid, many fall for it and report such a sham study’s results without ever critically examining it or even looking for a dissenting opinion to bring some fair and balanced perspective. Prohibitionists, knowing this, package their press releases into print-friendly versions so media outlets can simply cut and paste, passing it off as actual news. To be fair, it’s not just them. Almost everybody does it. It’s become a game, of sorts, one where most reasonable people’s wishes are ignored in favor of a more extreme agenda. Issues get polarized, and meaningful dialogue is becoming increasingly impossible with mud being slung in both directions, though I tend to think on the prohibitionist front that more mud comes our way, than vice versa.

But I’ve spent the last decade or so taking a fairly critical look at study after study, taking issue with almost all of them in one way or another. For every study that says one thing, you can find another that says the complete opposite, which you’d think wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, be possible. But a lot of it has to do with the way studies are conducted, how rigorous the science is, and whether or not they started with a specific agenda or not. I’ve certainly crowed about studies that show alcohol in a positive light, though I’ve never financed any. But despite all the tamper tantrums from the prohibitionists, they’re the ones spending all the money creating a false record of harm, not to mention taking advantage of any others they can, part of their post-prohibition strategy to bring down alcohol by less obvious means in a slower, more patient approach, chipping away at public policy and the law brick by brick, so to speak.

As a result of seeing so many of these so-called “studies,” I’ve noticed a lot of tricks that they use to make them seem like the findings actually mean something, but they rarely do, and usually even the study’s authors, who presumably want to keep their status as impartial scientists despite taking money for funding, almost always issue cautions and calls for further testing and for no one to make too much of what they found, words invariably ignored by the people using their findings to promote an agenda. It’s made me question the entire medical, and to some extent the scientific, community because it’s so obviously been corrupted by money — like every other aspect of our society, sad to say — with so many willing to take money to help a fanatical group promote its agenda. And it seems like the shear number of such studies has ballooned in recent years, too. Just how many scientific journals can there be, and how many are truly scientific, if any?

But an article on Vox a few days ago addressed this very issue, with This is why you shouldn’t believe that exciting new medical study. As the author wonders “whether there is any value in reporting very early research,” I’ve seen how it’s more often misused than anything else. As she writes. “Journals now publish their findings, and the public seizes on them, but this wasn’t always the case: journals were meant for peer-to-peer discussion, not mass consumption.” Because of this, the amount of studies being conducted has skyrocketed since their use is often now well beyond the original purpose of real study and furthering the science surrounding an issue. The actual number of so-called journal studies have seen an astounding 300% increase over the last quarter-century.

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But as she points out, early reporting on these studies rarely leads to any meaningful breakthroughs, even though those initial findings become fixed in the public mind as fact. A recent example that springs to mind is about glutens. A study in Australia initially seemed to suggest that eating gluten-free could be healthier for even people who didn’t suffer from Celiac disease, but further work by the same scientist found that his initial results were incorrect, and that there were no appreciable health benefits to a gluten-free diet for most people. Despite this clear repudiation of the initial findings, gluten-free as a healthier lifestyle remains an idea many people not only still believe, but even follow, despite having been refuted years ago. This is not an isolated occurrence.

In 2003, researchers writing in the American Journal of Medicine discovered something that should change how you think about medical news. They looked at 101 studies published in top scientific journals between 1979 and 1983 that claimed a new therapy or medical technology was very promising. Only five, they found out, made it to market within a decade. Only one (ACE inhibitors, a pharmaceutical drug) was still extensively used at the time of their publication.

One.

So that means 100 others proved to not pan out, their promise as originally reported proving to not stand up to further research or lead to any meaningful breakthrough. But the news cycle has already moved on, and the damage has been done, with the study reported and its inaccurate findings fixed into people’s minds. And this is just one of the reasons why immediately promoting the results of a study to the public is a bad idea. As the Vox article makes clear. “This cycle recurs again and again. An initial study promises a miracle. News stories hype the miracle. Researchers eventually disprove the miracle.”

“There’s a big, big, difference between how the media think about news and how scientists think about news,” Naomi Oreskes, a Harvard professor of the history of science, recently told [Vox’s Julia Bellus] in an interview. “For you, what makes it news is that it’s new — and that creates a bias in the media to look for brand new results. My view would be that brand new results would be the most likely to be wrong.”

In some cases, results are published too soon precisely to get attention for the study or the research in order to get more funding to carry on the research, or simply because of the pressure to “publish or perish” in academia or a career. Or, of course, it’s published specifically to promote an agenda or ideology.

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More often than not, single studies contradict one another — such as the research on foods that cause or prevent cancer. The truth can be found somewhere in the totality of the research, but we report on every study in isolation underneath flip-flopping headlines. (Red wine will add years to your life one week, and kill you quicker the next.)

This is seen in beer, a lot, too. But as the graph below makes clear, it happens everywhere, all the time, with the main culprit being the media in general, and the prohibitionists more specifically, reporting on single studies that show one thing rather then treating the issue as a whole or continuum of understanding. In particular, Alcohol Justice frequently takes one study that shows something in line with their agenda and treats it as if it’s the final answer and no further study is necessary; they’re right, case closed. Which, as you can see, is never the case.

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A good example of this is a recent tweet from Alcohol Justice, questioning that “Alcohol good for your heart? Evidence is evaporating http://usat.ly/1JkkEny Don’t believe industry-sponsored science.”

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The link takes you to a USA Today story, entitled Alcohol good for your heart? Evidence is evaporating, which is where AJ got the witty language in the tweet. But the part about not believing “industry-sponsored science” is completely made up. The story never even addresses that as an issue. It’s pure propaganda. As you’ll see, the trail from the USA Today story leads not to “industry-sponsored science,” but to another anti-alcohol group.

The USA Today story itself is a hodgepodge of misinformation and innuendo, written in that most common style of the mainstream media that believes scaring people captures their attention and gets ratings, viewers or whatever metric they measure their success by. Early in the piece, the author sets out her premise.

But before you pour your next cocktail, beer or glass of wine, you should know this: the science suggesting a benefit has never been conclusive. And some experts believe the evidence is getting thinner all the time.

Almost no science is conclusive, or ever has been. That’s the point of continuously conducting research, to constantly learn more and to further our understanding of whatever’s being studied. But just as benefits may be inconclusive, the evils are similarly inconclusive. But she chose to frame the story in such a way as to emphasize the negative, despite the fact that the statement could be said almost any way and still be technically correct. And saying “some experts” reveals that not everyone agrees, even with so vague a premise. You can always find a person to disagree about anything, especially if they have some reason to do so.

To illustrate what I mean, take her reliance on an editorial written by “Mike Daube, professor of health policy at Curtin University in Australia.” He “writes that the once-touted benefits of moderate drinking ‘are now evaporating,'” providing the piece’s catch phrase and hook. But who is Mike Daube. Is he a doctor or scientist? Nope. Is he an impartial expert? Hardly, “Mike Daube, professor of health policy” is all that USA Today reports, and at the editorial she’s quoting from, the only author affiliation listed is “Curtin University, GPO Box U1987, WA 6845, Australia.”

But you don’t have to look too hard to find out that Mike is also co-chair of Australia’s National Alliance for Action on Alcohol, an organization who’s sole stated purpose is that is “has been formed with the goal of reducing alcohol-related harm.” So while he’s railing against “industry lobbying and promotion [being] rife and unchecked by governments, he’s pretending to be an impartial health professional, while also leading an organization who’s already convinced that alcohol has only a negative impact on society and is working to battle it, or get rid of it. That doesn’t seem particularly impartial to me. How utterly disingenuous and hypocritical. He’s using his background as a health policy professor to make it seem as if he has some expertise in medicine, but his area of study is public policy, with an emphasis on health, and you don’t need an advanced degree to understand those are two very different things.

And the editorial USA Today is relying on, Alcohol’s evaporating health benefits (they sure love a good turn of phrase, don’t they?), is published in The BMJ (formerly the British Medical Journal). So essentially a policy expert — who in 2012 was “awarded [the] ‘Oscar’ of public health campaigning — is editorializing about science and medicine in a medical journal. It’s an editorial — an opinion. No matter how authoritative, he should carry about as much weight on scientific matters as I do. We have exactly the same number of doctoral degrees in medicine.

Even so, while lambasting alcohol over a new British study which forms the basis for his “evidence is evaporating” quip, he has to admit that the study did show a positive correlation for “women aged 65 or more” but dismisses that as “at best modest and likely to be explained by selection bias.” Which may true, but then again maybe not. Perhaps more study is necessary before making such sweeping pronouncements as the “evidence is evaporating.” Which is entirely the point. He’s looking at one study in a vacuum and choosing the outcome he favors, because of his own bias. So that’s not, or should not, be newsworthy. “Hey guess what? What I believed all along is what I still believe, and here’s this one study that partially agrees with me, so I must be right after all. Can I be in your scientific journal?” Is this really what passes for peer-reviewed science? What a load of bollocks.

The USA Today article is actually very short, but is padded out with a list of “what U.S. experts say you need to know for now.” Unfortunately, that list is entirely about the negative aspects of alcohol consumption and completely ignores any positive contributions to a person’s health, and it’s not like they’re hard to find.

But one study said something different, so I guess all those others are wrong, right? Yet this is the approach prohibitionist groups take time and time again. And as the Vox article makes clear, this approach can result in creating false hopes and leading researchers, scientists and even public policy-makers down the wrong path. As journalist Julia Belluz admits, it’s hard for the press to not jump at new study results, because their novelty is catnip to the management structure of both old and new media. But as the media blinders are understandable and even forgivable, at least to some extent, that’s not the case for the anti-alcohol groups who take that news and use it unscrupulously to advance their agenda. They’re the ones doing actual harm, because they’re creating a false narrative that is dishonest and knowingly wrong. I think they’ve forgotten that advancing a particular point of view doesn’t mean destroying the other side by any means possible, especially since they so often claim to own the moral high ground. But if their “ends justify the means” strategy reveals anything, it’s that they don’t own a mirror. They only judge our morals, attacking us frequently and accusing us of caring only about business, money and hurting children.

The Vox article concludes with some sage advice from “Harvard’s Oreskes, Stanford’s John Ioannidis, and many other respected researchers,” who insist “we need to look past the newest science to where knowledge has accumulated. There, we’ll find insights that will help us have healthier lives and societies.” Could somebody please tell the prohibitionists?

Misusing Data

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As I’ve written time and time again, lying with statistics may not be the oldest profession, but it’s got to be pretty close. Alright, I may be exaggerating slightly. Modern propaganda and the P.R. machine got going around the time of the First World War, with many of the profession’s leading lights coming out of that time period — Edward Bernays, Walter Lippmann, Ivy Lee. But it’s a powerful tool of the propagandist today, especially the numerous prohibitionist groups and anti-alcohol organizations. So when I saw Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you last month on the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, I noted it with suspicion and made a note to look at it closer when I had the time. What got my spidey senses tingling was the idea that “the top 10 percent of drinkers account for well over half of the alcohol consumed in any given year.” Here’s the chart the article ran, showing the data for that conclusion.

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Although it shows the common Pareto Principle, it just didn’t ring true. That many people can’t, and don’t, drink that heavily. I knew there had to be another explanation for this data. And there is. Trevor Butterworth, writing for Forbes, did the heavy lifting on this one with his wonderful expose, When Data Journalism Goes Wrong. It turns out that when you drill down the data, looking at its source and analysis, things begin to unravel. Apparently the results of the original poll had the data manipulated by nearly doubling them to account for a perceived problem with under-reporting. To put that another way, the data was “fixed.” One of the problems with that (there are many, many, I’d say) is that people looking for data to support an agenda tend to seize on such manipulated data and pass it on, using it in their propaganda, and the mainstream media tends to fall for it uncritically, rarely looking at where the original information came from or how it was gathered. Happily, Butterworth does a good job of demonstrating where it all went wrong, and I urger you to read his entire When Data Journalism Goes Wrong. And a h/t to Maureen Ogle for sending me this. She knows me all too well.

More Beer At Starbucks: Let The Whining Begin

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Several times I’ve seen the anti-alcohol wingnuts claim that alcohol is the most addictive substance on the planet, typing that as they sip their morning coffee and dip their doughnut into it. I’m pretty sure worldwide, and certainly in this country, many more people are addicted to caffeine and sugar than alcohol.

A few years ago, Starbucks tested selling beer in the evenings at one of their locations in Seattle. It must have went well, because they quietly expanded the test to 26 Starbucks locations, and then 40. Recently, however, they announced via Bloomberg and the USA Today that Starbucks would expand what they call “Evenings Stores” to many more locations. No exact figure has been released, but there are over 20,000 Starbucks worldwide, with around 11,500 (or 13,000, depending on the source) in the U.S., and so far they’ll only be adding “Evening Stores” in America, selling only beer and wine, not spirits.

You have to figure most sales of caffeine are in the morning or earlier in the day, at least, when people need that pick-me-up. As the sun moves farther west toward its daily sunset, less and less people want caffeine, for the obvious reason that it will keep them up at night. There are, of course, people who work different shifts and who therefore will be exceptions, but by and large caffeine — coffee and tea — is a daytime drink. So it makes sense that when sales inevitably and predictably fall at night that Starbucks, any company really, would be looking for something to keep sales flowing when their core product ebbs. They already have a comfortable infrastructure where people come and sit for hours, so why not extend that at night, with beer or wine instead of coffee or tea?

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But, not surprisingly, delight over the prospect of Starbucks selling beer and wine is not universal. The Sheriff of Notinmyworld, Alcohol Justice, as usual thinks anything they don’t like is a “bad idea.” They tweeted as much, saying “Bad idea Starbucks,” along with a link to an opinion piece in the Washington Post by Greg Williams, “who has been in recovery from alcohol and drug use for more than 12 years.” Williams is also a filmmaker, and is promoting his documentary film The Anonymous People which appears to be at least in part about traditional recovery stories, i.e. ones using the 12-step or AA model. As I’ve written numerous times, that’s the sacrosanct abstinence method that most Americans, and most of the medical community who makes money off of addicts, believe is the only way to treat addiction, despite a mountain of evidence to the contrary.

So what is Williams’ problem with Starbucks selling beer and wine? It’s all in the headline. By serving alcohol, Starbucks risks losing key customers: people in recovery. Yup, you read that right. If a coffee shop sells alcohol, then alcoholics and other addicts won’t be able to go there. Because nothing signals recovery better than the inability to be in the same building as alcohol. Never mind that alcohol is sold, in most of the civilized world, in grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, virtually every restaurant, sports venue, and countless other places. Whew, that’s a long list of places that people in recovery can’t go. I guess they might as well move to an Islamic country or some other place where alcohol is illegal to be really sure.

Every day, people in recovery meet up in Starbucks cafes to support one another, to talk to their 12-step sponsors and, most of all, to be welcomed in one of the few lively, popular, alcohol-free gathering places in their community.

I understand that they might be afraid of backsliding and ordering a beer if it’s offered on the menu, but alcohol is available to adults in countless other places, and yet most AA members have somehow managed to safely navigate the world. I certainly haven’t heard of there not being enough safe places for them to go before now. But even in an alcohol-friendly venue, in a meeting setting, with their support network in place to help them, that really shouldn’t be an issue, should it? Not to mention, in my view, you’re not really anywhere close to a cure if you can’t sit in a coffee shop and not order something you shouldn’t, especially when you’ll face the same issue in every restaurant, grocery store, etc. you set foot in. But with the next sentence it turns weirder.

Starbucks should pay special attention to them.

Huh?!? Why? That reminds me of those annoying “Baby On Board” signs suggesting that I have to drive extra careful when I’m near a car with a baby in it. We all live in the same world. Either figure out how to survive in it, or get the hell out. We all have the same responsibility to one another as a member of society. People who can’t handle themselves should not be entitled to special treatment. The world doesn’t owe you “special attention” because you’re incapable of acting responsibly, usually of your own making.

I know that sounds cold or callous, but it’s not meant to. I’ve known plenty of alcoholics and addicts in my life. But you can’t let them determine how you act, or how society as a whole acts, without making society a different and altogether worse place. I’m sorry you’re struggling with your own demons, but making me act differently whenever you’re around is dragging me, and everybody else, down with you. You have to stand up, on your own terms, and without our having to bend down to meet you. Otherwise, it’s not really a cure, is it?

Williams notes that the journal Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research “found that 88.5 percent of those studied who were in recovery from alcoholism drank coffee. Thirty-three percent of those coffee drinkers drank more than four cups a day.” (I can’t help but see that as a sign that AA members are trading in one addiction for a more socially acceptable one, but that’s another story.) Based on that factoid, he’s extrapolated that to mean that many of Starbucks’ patrons must be alcoholics, too. Maybe some are, but then again, perhaps not. There’s no causation shown by the statistic in the study and the fact that Starbucks sells coffee. Williams, in concluding, suggests that if “executives studied this market demographic, perhaps they would think twice about this move.”

Hmm, let’s see. “Starbucks is the largest coffeehouse company in the world, with 20,891 stores in 64 countries, including 13,279 in the United States, 1,324 in Canada, 989 in Japan, 851 in China and 806 in the United Kingdom.” Their revenue was nearly $15 billion, with a “b,” last year, and they had a net income of $8.8 million and assets totally more than $11.5 billion. But he thinks Starbucks didn’t analyze their demographics before making this decision? They tested the concept for four years, in different metropolitan markets, before announcing they were planning on rolling it out to more locations, and would do so slowly over the next several years. But he thinks they acted rashly, without thinking it through?

Industry analysts, such as Mintel and Beverage Daily, seem to think the move will be a good one for Starbucks, especially if they focus on local craft brands, as current rumors suggest they will. Alcohol Justice and Williams’ “people in recovery” may now have to buy their coffee elsewhere, but I’ll be very surprised if enough to make a dent in the coffee giant’s marketshare actually do stop buying at Starbucks.

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As You Watch The Big Game Sunday, Ignore This

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Never one to pass up an opportunity to proselytize, Alcohol Justice’s annual Superb Owl press release, Big Alcohol’s Big Game Plan is another excellent example of hypocrisy in action. What does Big Alcohol’s “game plan” consist of? Why patent lies, of course, that is completely obvious lies. We’re always lying, apparently, whereas the Watchdog Sheriff of Alcohol always tells the truth.

Our main lie, this time, is that the alcohol industry maintains “that there is no evidence that exposure to alcohol ads encourages underage consumption or harmful over-consumption among adults.” Of course, there is an annual report that has for years shown that advertising is the least influential factor for underage drinking, and has been dropping since they started doing the survey in 1991. According to GfK Roper Youth Report Examines Influences on Youth Decisions about Drinking, advertising accounts for 1% of youth drinking influence. So while I don’t think anyone is arguing advertising has no influence over anything, it’s very small, and kids see ads for things adults buy all the time for the simple reason that they’re in the world. I saw beer ads as a kid. I also saw cigarette ads, and yet I’ve never smoked them.

As for adults, alcohol is legal, advertising is legal, if people over-consume it that’s their business. Why can’t people use the occasion of one of the biggest sporting events of the year to relax and celebrate, sharing a few beers with friends and family? As long as they’re not doing something illegal or obnoxious, that should be nobody’s business. This is certainly a topic for debate, the amount of influence, etc. but as I’ve written before, as long as AJ keeps calling everyone in the alcohol industry a liar, any meaningful dialogue seems fairly inconceivable, but then I don’t think they have any interest in actually having a discussion or finding any workable solutions. They just want to bash the industry and collect donations because they think we account for all the evil in the world.

But the most interesting part of this particular propaganda piece is the section entitled “As You Watch The Big Game Sunday, Think About This.” Here’s the first thing they want us to think about:

Driven by Big Alcohol advertising, branding, sponsorship and celebrity endorsements, America consumes an estimated 325 million gallons of beer on the day of the big game, so alcohol-related harm is inevitable.

325 million gallons? There are approximately 314 million people in the U.S. That means every man, woman and child drinks 1.035 gallons of beer, or about 11 12-oz. bottles of beer in four hours, a figure that represents 5% of total annual beer production. Does that sound even remotely reasonable? That figure fooled me last year when a website listed it and I re-posted it. But I later took a closer look at it and discovered that it came from — shock — Alcohol Justice, who as far as I could tell just made it up. Because as I wrote in Hoodwinked By Propaganda, that number just doesn’t add up. A more reliable figure is around 50 million cases of beer are purchased for the Sunday of the game, probably not all on that day, but in the week leading up to it. That’s around 112.5 million gallons, or roughly one-third of AJ’s number. Talk about inflation. And that’s purchased, not all of that beer is consumed that one day, either.

And “inevitable?” “Alcohol-related harm is inevitable?” Remember that the amount AJ insists is consumed is wrong, a patent lie. But regardless of the amount, whenever people drink it’s not inevitable that harm will follow. It’s not even likely. I’ve consumed my fare share of beer during, well, every single Super Bowl since around 1980. Guess how many times I’ve experienced the supposedly inevitable alcohol-related harm? That would be a grand total of zero times. Will some people act stupidly and make fools of themselves? Of course they will. But that has more to do with the law of large numbers than alcohol. But if 1,000 people drink and one person does something stupid, does that invalidate the other 999? Apparently in AJ’s mind it does, they seem to find anything short of perfection unacceptable. But I’d like to know what other human pursuit is held to such a standard. Certainly gun-related accidents account for some of the annual death toll in America. But I don’t see anyone rushing to ban all guns until we achieve perfection in gun safety. It’s absurd to think that accidents or stupidly won’t happen, if for no other reason than we’re imperfect, fallible humans. But it’s even more absurd to think that any attempts to stop all of them, usually by punishing the majority of people who are blameless and have done nothing wrong, can ever be 100% effective, or frankly even marginally effective.

“It is estimated that about 20 to 30 million kids will tune in to watch [the Super Bowl] on TV and online. As usual, they will be saturated once again with seductive beer ads.”

Saturated? Saturated is defined as “completely filled with something.” Anheuser-Busch InBev is running five spots during the game, for a grand total of four minutes. According to AdAge’s list of Super Bowl advertisers, MillerCoors won’t have any ads in this year’s broadcast. The Super Bowl is scheduled to be aired over four hours, or 240 minutes. Kids, if they’re even paying attention, will see at most four minutes of beer advertisements in four hours. That’s 1.66% of the game’s broadcast time. So the beer industry is a bunch of liars, but 4 minutes out of 4 hours is saturation. That’s what passes for truthfulness?

Two of smartest [sic], most popular TV personalities in the country also believe that there’s something wrong with mixing alcohol and sports. Jon Stewart on “The Daily Show” recently skewered booze-swilling pot critics http://bit.ly/1c0evqa and questioned excessive beer ads on TV sports. While Steven Colbert on “The Colbert Report” commented on lucrative NFL sponsorships and Peyton Manning’s recent “shout-out” for Bud Light http://bit.ly/1dBo0kz “What’s weighing on my mind is how soon I can get a Bud Light in my mouth after this win. That’s priority number 1,” stated Manning.

You do understand that those are comedy shows? They’re not hard news. I love both Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s shows, but they mine the news for comedy gold, and make fun of it wherever they find it. They’re really good at it, so good in fact that you thought they were seriously taking your side and promoting your position? Wow, how sad.

Alcohol ads, sponsorships, and celebrity endorsements associated with sports are disturbing not just because they are designed to lure young people to take that first drink but because as Kerry O’Brien said “…they also
cleverly create a culture where kids perceive alcohol consumption as a normal everyday part of life.

Designed to lure young people to take that first drink? Really? Can you honestly believe that celebrity endorsements only sway kids, that adults are immune to them and not their main target? Alcohol advertising is aimed squarely at adults, the people legally allowed to purchase and consume it. That’s who they’re designed to “lure.” You do understand that the purpose of advertising is to produce a result, like when you run ads endlessly begging for donations. It would be completely bad economics to target persons who are prohibited from buying the advertised products and, in most cases, have little or no money to buy them.

Alcohol consumption as a normal everyday part of life? There’s nothing clever about that, alcohol consumption is perfectly legal, and apart from those surreally ineffective thirteen years last century, it always has been. It is a normal part of everyday life. AJ may not like that fact, but that changes nothing. It’s not clever, creative advertising that give people that perception that “alcohol consumption [is] a normal everyday part of life,” it’s reality.

What I continue to find incredibly insulting about AJ’s propaganda is their insistence that they’re the honest ones and we’re all a bunch of liars. And yet they take huge liberties with the truth constantly. But what’s also annoying is the idea that adults can’t do anything adult if there are children present. Seeing a beer ad during a football game with adults present, to explain the context, etc., is exactly how they should see them. AJ seems worried that 20 to 30 million kids will watch the Super Bowl, but I have to question that figure, too. The most Americans who watched the Super Bowl was 111.3 million people for the 2011 contest, with 111 million the year before. Even at 20 million, that would mean about 18% of viewers were children, or almost 1 in 5. At 30 million, it would be 27%, just over one-quarter of viewers. Nielsen puts the percentage of kids at 16% or around 18 million.

But does the number really matter that much? These kids will undoubtedly be with their families. I doubt many, or any, of them will be watching the Super Bowl by themselves. You’d think that any event that brings families together would be something to celebrate: families spending time together is good thing, isn’t it? But apparently that’s not how AJ sees it. So I have to ask: what would AJ prefer? Should the kids be sent away? Should society set up day camps all over the country where kids can be sent to so they can be shielded from seeing those four minutes worth of beer ads during the game? Separated from their families for an adults-only game? Maybe they think that having kids means you no longer should be permitted to enjoy adult pursuits. Being a parent means giving up every aspect of your own life for your kids, the two worlds can never meet. That seems reasonable, doesn’t it?

Or would they prefer we just do away with all sporting events entirely, instead having us all stay home and play Chutes and Ladders or Candyland until our kids go off to college or are on their own, no longer living at home. At that point, and that point only, will it be safe once more to turn on the TV set and watch a football game. Seriously, what exactly would satisfy Alcohol Justice? What is their goal here? What would a reasonable outcome that satisfies their fanaticism look like? We know they want all alcohol advertising removed from sports. But adults can, and do, enjoy a beer while watching sports. It’s still legal, despite the prohibitionists efforts to limit it as much as possible. And while kids do watch sports, it’s adults who constitute the vast majority of its audience. Is it really reasonable to ban something perfectly legal for a majority of the population because kids can see it. The strategy is that by saying that the alcohol is causing harm, it should be banned the same way we banned tobacco ads and smoking in most public places. But smoke was uncontrollable and could do actual harm. Alcohol doesn’t do any harm, it’s action neutral. People abusing it might, but that’s entirely different. Unless you’re blinded by ideology, you get that some people can abuse alcohol but most people don’t. The outcome is up to the individual, so that’s the variable; it’s not the alcohol that’s doing any harm, no more so than too much red meat can effect your heart or too much sugar can rot your teeth.

We can’t, and shouldn’t, create two separate worlds where one is adults only, a place where we can’t take the kids … ever, and a separate kid’s world where kids are forever sheltered from the adult world until that magic day when they turn eighteen and we throw them into the deep end to fend for themselves, completely unprepared. Actually, we’ll need three worlds. We’ll need an extra, separate adult world that still is void of alcohol, since adults ages 18-20 aren’t allowed to drink yet. Because nothing less will satisfy Alcohol Justice. It doesn’t matter that it’s utterly unrealistic.

So watch the Super Bowl tomorrow, if you want. Ignore all of this. Have a good time, with your wife/husband and kids, if you have any, along with any other family and friends you wish. Enjoy a beer or two, or more. You’re an adult, do what the hell you want.

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UPDATE: OMG Facts tweeted during the Super Bowl that the average American drinks 4 beers over the course of the day of the game. That figure works out to be 117,750,000 gallons, just over one-third (36%) of the 325 million figure that Alcohol Justice is spreading in their propaganda. Seeming more and more like a patent lie to me all the time.

What A Surprise! Prohibitionists Hate Beer-Flavored Jelly Beans

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Hilarious. I saw this one coming. The prohibitionists — who my friend and colleague Harry Schuhmacher calls the “no fun bunch” — are already expressing their outrage that there’s a jelly bean with beer flavor. Alcohol Justice (AJ) took to Twitter today to voice their disapproval, even using the photograph distributed by Jelly Belly in their press release.

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But let’s look at their nature of their outrage. First there’s this sarcastic sentence.

Kids really need beer-flavored jelly beans.

They do the same thing any time there’s a drawing or cartoon on a beer label. They make the very wrong assumption that only kids like candy. Or that jelly beans are just for kids. I think former president Ronald Reagan would take issue with that. Reagan famously loved jelly beans and jars of them were all over the white house during his two terms. I think it’s fairly safe to assume that plenty of very serious people and politicians ate jelly beans then, and continue to do so.

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Could we please dispense with the notion that if children like something, that adults can’t (and vice versa), or that there can’t be adult versions of things that kids like, too? It frankly is absurd and surely they could come up with a better argument.

The company Jelly Belly has for decades made cocktail-flavored jelly beans. “The company first created a non-alcoholic gourmet flavor in 1977 with Mai Tai. Since then, more flavors from Blackberry Brandy to Strawberry Daiquiri were developed, inspired by popular cocktails. Over the years, favorite flavors like Piña Colada (1983), Margarita (1995) and Mojito (2010) have helped carve out the Jelly Belly Cocktail Classics® collection of six cocktail flavors.” Yet as fas as I know, this is the first whining by AJ over alcoholic flavored jelly beans. And it should also be noted that not one of these, the beer bean included, have any actual alcohol whatsoever in them. But none of us who have made it past age 21 should be allowed to enjoy any of those on the off chance that a child might eat one, or even want to eat one. Oh, the horror! What utter nonsense. If you don’t want your kids to eat the nonalcoholic jelly bean with a whiff of some of the same flavors as a hefeweizen, I think I see a way out. Don’t buy them, and don’t let them buy them either. Maybe you could just lock up your kids until they’re old enough to navigate the world on their own. I’m sure that wouldn’t be bad for them. You should definitely keep them as sheltered as possible from anything that’s of the adult world so they’ll be prepared to be adults themselves. What could go wrong? But here’s AJ’s insightful conclusion:

So very wrong.

Why? Seriously, why? What the fuck is wrong with there being adult-oriented flavors of jelly beans for adults (or children for that matter since there’s absolutely NO alcohol in them). Seriously, what is wrong with you? Can you really be afraid that it will give kids a taste for beer so they’ll want to try the real thing? Or that it “normalizes” the idea of drinking beer? Which is, may I remind you, still legal for adults 21 years and over, despite your best efforts. I’m sure there’s some perfectly logical reason why you hate this other than you just hate anything to do with alcohol. So what is it? Let me strap in. Go ahead. Why shouldn’t there be candy aimed at or made for adults? Why can’t there be nonalcoholic candy of any flavor, especially when there already has been other such flavors for decades? Why is it “so very wrong?”

Ivory Tower Thinking

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The proverbial ivory tower of academia, where some intellectuals live and work in an insulated world separate from the real world, was never more on display than in this “study” about which alcohol brands are mentioned most often in popular songs. Conducted by Boston University and Johns Hopkins, their survey of popular music, Alcohol Brand References in U.S. Popular Music, 2009–2011, was published in the December issue of the journal Substance Use & Misuse. The researchers looked at the Billboard charts in four music types — Urban, Pop, Country, and Rock. Here’s the abstract:

This study aimed to assess the prevalence and context of alcohol brand references in popular music. Billboard Magazine year-end charts from 2009 to 2011 were used to identify the most popular songs in four genres: Urban, Pop, Country, and Rock. Of the 720 songs, 23% included an alcohol mention, and 6.4% included an alcohol brand mention. Songs classified as Urban had the highest percentage of alcohol mentions and alcohol brand mentions. The context associated with alcohol brand mentions was almost uniformly positive or neutral. Public health efforts may be necessary to reduce youth exposure to these positive messages about alcohol use.

Because most journals require you to pay large sums to read them (or be an academic yourself), most of the information about this one comes from an article about the study, Music Artists Love to Sing About These 4 Alcohol Brands, which appeared on Futurity, a website covering “research news from top universities.” In it, the researchers reveal how out-of-touch they are with their subject. Of the more than one-thousand alcohol labels sold today, they noted, “only four brands show up often in the lyrics of popular songs.” Those four were Hennessy, Grey Goose, Jack Daniel’s and Patron; a cognac, vodka, tequila and whiskey. “They accounted for more than half of the alcohol brands named in songs from Billboard’s most popular song lists in 2009, 2010, and 2011.” Here’s the insights from one of the researchers.

“You would expect there would be hundreds of brands that are randomly mentioned,” says Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at Boston University’s School of Public Health. “But we found that those top four accounted for 52 percent of all the brand mentions. That can’t be coincidental.”

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Are you sure?

Apparently, they also found that “alcohol use was portrayed as overwhelmingly positive in lyrics, with negative consequences almost never referred to.” I don’t think they listened to enough country music which, traditionally at least, was all about the consequences of drinking too much. But all kidding aside, why would a singer sing about any negative aspects of drinking? They’re not PSAs. The goal of pop music is to entertain, period. It’s not to educate or warn kids about the dangers of overindulging. They also seem worried because — gasp — kids also listen to the same music as adults, which the researchers found “alarming” because in their mind that meant the music was “promoting” drinking.

But after all that fretting, professor Michael Siegel admits that no “causal connection” was found between the music actual consumption, stating “further research is needed.” He also mentions that they also found that some of the artists — gasp — had sponsorship deals with some of the alcohol brands. To the researchers, that means that listeners are being marketed to, because in the ivory tower that simply has “to be recognized as marketing, not random chance.”

This so-called “study” examined (really, examined? They just listened to some music, didn’t they?) 720 songs. Of those, less than one-quarter (23.2%, or 167) mentioned alcohol. And just 6.4% (or 46 songs) dropped the name of a specific brand of alcohol, of which 51.6% mentioned one of the top four brands; Hennessy, Grey Goose, Jack Daniel’s and Patron. Of the four music genres they surveyed, alcohol was mentioned most often in “so-called urban songs (rap, hip-hop, and R&B, with 37.7 percent), followed by country (21.8 percent), and pop (14.9 percent).” They further discovered that “Tequila, cognac, vodka, and champagne brands appeared more prevalently in urban music (R&B, hip-hop, and rap), while whiskey and beer brands were more common in country or pop music. Surprisingly, there was no alcohol referred to in the rock-genre music examined.” Maybe that was Christian rock, because I can name more than a few rock and roll songs about beer alone, but maybe they’re not popular right now.

Is anyone not living in the clouds surprised by that? But let’s take a closer look at reality regarding these brands. Hennessey is hands down the best-selling brand of cognac in not just the U.S., but worldwide. Likewise, Grey Goose is the best-selling vodka. Jack Daniel’s is the best-selling American whiskey worldwide, too. At this point, you probably won’t be too shocked to learn that Patrón is the biggest selling ultra-premium tequila in the US. So when the researchers say it “can’t be coincidental” that “those top four accounted for 52 percent of all the brand mentions,” it’s not, but it’s not a conspiracy, either. They’re each the most popular brands of their type, which is the more logical reason why they’re the ones most often mentioned in songs. You don’t need a slide rule to figure that out.

As long ago as when I worked for BevMo, and saw sales figures for spirits on occasion, those were popular brands, especially among the same demographic as might listen to urban music. The brands were, and most likely still are, status symbols in some communities, which would also account for their popularity in song lyrics. That’s the reason these companies are looking for sponsorship opportunities with musicians and music events, not the other way around.

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The researchers, showing just how biased their thinking is, claim that their concern over advertising stems from a belief that “[a]t least 14 long-term studies have found that exposure to alcohol marketing in the mass media increases the likelihood that young people will start drinking, or if already drinking, consume more.” And yet a recent GfK Roper Youth Report on the Influences on Youth Decisions about Drinking clearly shows that since at least 1991, advertising is at the very bottom of the reasons that influence kids to drink, age 13-20, accounting for just 1%, though for all media (defined as a including TV, radio, magazines, and Internet) it’s twice that, but of course that’s still only 2%. It’s hardly the scourge that the prohibitionists continue to insist it is.

It’s hard to see this as anything more than researchers out of touch with the real world of music or alcohol, making pronouncements from their ivory tower without really understanding the context of what they’re commenting on, mis-analyzing the results as a consequence. For example, professor Siegel suggests that “[o]ne intervention would be to teach young people ‘media literacy skills’ that would educate them about marketing techniques.” That’s rich, considering most young people are probably far more media savvy than the average college professor.

But beyond that, the idea that music made by and for adults, but also listened to by children, is rarely, if ever, the danger it’s believed to be. Or that adults singing about adult situations, in this case alcohol, for adults to listen to should not be permitted to do so on the off-chance that kids might hear it too. But that’s typical of the ridiculous lengths and logic to which the prohibitionists will go in promoting their agenda with junk science. This type of thinking suggests that they believe there should be two worlds, one that’s exclusively adult, walled off completely lest the kiddies be corrupted by seeing and hearing adult entertainment. That advertising is so often the bogeyman, despite it having so little actual influence, has more to do with the strategy that prohibitionists have employed since the day after prohibition was repealed. Every generation, they claim, is being corrupted and ruined by alcohol advertising. And yet, each generation seems to turn out just fine, don’t they? Those same youth from the previous generation grew up to become among the next generation of researchers claiming how this next group of kids will be ruined by being advertised to by alcohol companies, and each time they miss the irony that they, too, grew up seeing alcohol advertising, as well. Maybe it’s the air up in their ivory tower that makes them so forgetful, that along with being detached from reality. Can I assume Michael Bolton, Kenny G and Barry Manilow are playing on the radio?

Watchdog’s Department of Redundancy Department

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While I don’t think too much about what I post on Twitter, lots of companies do think about their Twitter frequency, content, timing, etc. How much is the right amount? How much is too much? Organizations should, and usually do, give this careful consideration. Last year, Track Social conducted a study to determine the sweet spot entitled Optimizing Twitter Engagement – Part 2: How Frequently to Tweet. They determined that 2-5 tweets per day is best to get a response from your followers. Less than that and they forget about you, more than that and they start to tune out. Looking at my own Twitterstream, I tend to tweet 4-6 times a day, usually no more than 10; though sometimes I tweet more when I’m traveling.

Lately, I’ve been noticing that I see an awful lot of tweets from the prohibitionists at Alcohol Justice, usually with a great deal of repetition. I started noticing that I keep seeing the same twitpic day after day, the same plea for money day after day and the same propaganda day after day. For example, recently I was annoyed by one of their tweets, and considered doing a post about it, but then changed my mind. But I noticed I saw it again, and then again, and then again today. It turns out they first tweeted the one below every single day since December 17, which was the first time, until today. That’s fourteen times in two weeks. Exactly the same every time, as below. They could change the wording, change it up, make it at least appear fresh, but nope, they just retweet it over and over again, as is.

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What originally annoyed me is that clicking on the link takes you to a story, Watchdog Group Slams Alcohol “Social Responsibility” Campaigns. The “watchdog” doing the slamming is none other than Alcohol Justice. So in effect, every day they’re saying hey, look at this information about what a watchdog group is saying as if it’s from an objective, unbiased source. But what they’re really saying is: “hey check out this study by us that we got someone else to post without questioning anything.” It feels dishonest at best. There’s nothing about it that’s not slimy and self-referential, more of the circle jerk of prohibitionist propaganda. They could have tweeted that there’s a story about their own study or something to the effect that here’s an article by one of our own, or at least own the information. But that would be honest, something the watchdog holding big alcohol accountable has a hard time doing themselves.

But as this sank in, I also noticed I’ve been seeing lots of repetition. Beating a dead horse seems to be part of the S.O.P., a policy decision. As far as the amount of tweets, looking at the last ten days, Alcohol Justice tweeted 369 times, not including RT’s. That’s an average of almost 37 tweets per day. As of 2:30 p.m. PST, they’ve tweeted 70 times today! That would push the average to nearly forty tweets per day.

Beyond the insane number, it’s the repetition that’s so amazing. There appears to be a calculated policy of tweeting the exact same tweets every day for weeks on end. Just seeing the same graphics tweeted every day makes that point. Take a cursory glance down their twitterstream and you’ll see the same photo and language over and over and over again. The graphic for this tweet is a bottle of Absolut in a rainbow pattern and the text “Absolut Pride,” making me wonder if perhaps they’re also subtly trying to appeal to homophobics, too. Otherwise, what was the point of choosing that particular ad to use in a post about social responsibility? Personally, I like this colorful neon beer bottle sign better. But then, I generally prefer beer.

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And then there’s donations, pleas for which are seemingly never-ending. During the month of December, so far, they’ve asked followers for money 57 times, or an average of almost twice a day.

The amount of redundancy in the average day’s Twitter feed by Alcohol Justice reminds me of an old Monty Python bit with a government agency called the “Department of Redundancy Department.” Can their nearly 16,000 followers really welcome that much repetition in the information they’re sending out on a daily basis? Or can it be possible they think so little of those followers that they believe that they need to keep telling them the same things over and again in the hopes that it sinks in eventually?