Where Do The Moderate Drinking Guidelines Come From?

cdc
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

USDA Dietary Guidelines Under Fire Again From Prohibitionists

usda
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.

The Battle Over Beer Label Approval

TTB
The Daily Beast had an interesting profile of Kent “Battle” Martin, the person responsible for approving every single beer label at the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB, in Meet the Beer Bottle Dictator. I’d heard of Martin — um, Battle, I mean — before, but didn’t realize he was the only person approving or denying label applications. I think I assumed he was simply part of a larger staff. I can’t say having a single person in charge of interpreting a fairly vague set of laws in a particularly good idea. There have been some very strange, seemingly nonsensical and contradictory decisions over the years, and I’d always thought that was because those were made by various people interpreting the regulations differently, the way the California ABC does, or the arbitrary way that movie ratings are given. I have to say, I don’t think that should be left to just one individual, no matter how dedicated or hard-working, as Battle apparently is, according to the article.

lagunitas-censored

EU Negotiating For Protected Beer Names

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

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

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

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

oktoberfest2012-kettenkarusselldigitalcathttpflic.krpdedcru

Trouble Brewing: Changes In FDA Rules For Spent Grain

barley
There was an interesting article recently on Craft Beer Business detailing how changes to the FDA regulations regarding spent grain might effect breweries. Under a proposed new “definition, craft breweries would be labeled animal feed manufacturers and be regulated as such by the FDA.” Given that most breweries have to find something to do with their spent grain, whether selling it or donating it, if the proposed rules take effect, it will undoubtedly alter the way breweries dispose of their grain. Check out the article, FDA rule regulates spent grain sold as animal feed, to see the rule changes.

P1070466
Spent grain at Russian River’s production brewery after brewing a batch of Pliny the Elder in May 2009.

Federal Beer Tax Bills Compared

bill
Motley Fool has an interesting overview and comparison of the two bills regarding the restructuring of federal beer excise taxes currently before Congress, and likely to be resolved this year. The two bills, known as the BEER Act and the Small Brew Act (which Motley Fool calls the “Small Beer Act”), are both designed to reduce federal excise taxes, but in different ways, benefitting different size breweries differently. Which bill, if any, will pass is anybody’s guess at this point, but check out Beer May Be In For a Tax Break — Why This Could Be Bad for Some Brewers for one financial website’s take on them.

bills

How Much Does The Government Make From Alcohol?

tax
Today’s infographic shows How Much Does The Government Make From Alcohol? It was created by Inuit, the makers of Turbo Tax. It “illustrates how much money individuals are being taxed to consume alcohol, and subsequently how much the Federal and State governments are generating in tax revenue. There is also a breakdown of how different types of alcohols are taxed in the various states, as well as international comparisons — to put thing in perspective.”

how-much-money
Click here to see the infographic full size.

Beer In Ads #785: Good Beer For Good Fellows


Friday’s ad is from the early 1930s, for Pabst Blue Ribbon, though it references the NRA — not that one, the other one — in this case the National Recovery Administration. The NRA was the agency charged with implementing the National Industrial Recovery Act, passed in June of 1933, as part of the New Deal effort to combat the Great Depression. Since it was found unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1935, there’s a pretty short window when the ad most likely ran. Still, the illustration is pretty cool, and looks like the later Beer Belongs ads that the industry ran after World War 2.

Pabst-1930s-good-fellows

What We Spend On Alcohol

npr
NPR’s Planet Money blog had an interesting report today entitled What America Spends On Booze, breaking it down with some recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and some great infographics by Lam Thuy Vo of NPR.

npr-booze-spending-1
As you can see, we drink outside our homes almost twice as much as we did three decades ago, though as Lam Thuy Vo notes, that’s a little deceptive at least partly because the price of alcohol in bars and restaurants has skyrocketed while real prices have fallen, when adjusted for inflation.

npr-booze-spending-2
Also, what we spend our alcohol dollars on has likewise shifted over the last thirty years. While beer is still on top, it has slipped a little. Wine is way up, while spirits have significantly dropped.

npr-booze-spending-3

The one thing I’m a bit surprised about is the drop in beer. Since the price of craft beer is generally higher than mainstream adjunct lagers, I would think that the higher dollar rings would cause the figures for beer to rise as the percentage of craft beer has increased. Perhaps the price wars among the big players that have kept the price of beer artificially low for so long have contributed, or at least partially account, for the extended dip.

Societal Costs vs. Personal Costs For Alcohol

cdc
At first glance I thought my pals at Alcohol Justice (AJ) got their hooks in the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), because I don’t know anyone better at making up behaviors that cry out for personal responsibility that are ascribed to society (for the cost) and business (for the fault). Their absurd “charge for harm” campaign, which seeks to make alcohol companies, the businesses that sell their products, and the communities that they live in wholly responsible for the personal decisions and behavior of a minority of people who abuse alcohol, seems to have been swallowed whole in a new study, apparently by the CDC, that was recently published in the American Journal for Preventative Medicine. That study, not surprisingly, was the subject of a recent AJ press release, CDC Releases New Cost Study: Excessive Alcohol Use Cost the U.S. $223.5 Billion in 2006, which they summarize:

Of the total costs, 72.2% ($161 billion dollars) is attributed to lost productivity in the workforce. The remaining costs are attributed to healthcare (11%), criminal justice (9.4%), and effects such as property damage (7.5%). While the CDC has had strong data on premature deaths caused by alcohol consumption (79,000 annually, with an estimated 2.3 million years of potential life lost each year), it last performed an economic cost analysis in 1998, when the annual cost was estimated to be $184.6 billion.

While $223.5 billion dollars is a massive number — almost 3 times what the federal government spent on pre-primary through secondary education in 2010 — the authors of the study believe that it is a substantial understatement of the true costs of alcohol use in the United States. They recommend “effective interventions to reduce excessive alcohol consumption—including increasing alcohol excise taxes, limiting alcohol outlet density, maintaining and enforcing the minimum legal drinking age of 21 years, screening and counseling for alcohol misuse, and specific countermeasures for alcohol- impaired driving such as sobriety checkpoints.” With the national cost of alcohol consumption ringing in at nearly $2 per drink, we could not agree more.

Of course they couldn’t agree more, it’s catnip to their agenda and I wouldn’t be surprised to find a closer link to the study that has not been disclosed since it seems so much like a self-fulfilling prophecy of their own propaganda with conclusions that so closely mirror their own proposals to “fix” alcohol abuse at the expense of the majority of responsible drinkers and local craft brewers who positively affect their local economies and communities. And my instinct turns out to be true, though not with AJ, but because this study “was supported by generous grants from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to the CDC Foundation.” For me, that’s the smoking gun. If you don’t know who the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation is, they’re the mother of all neo-prohibitionist groups, and they fund most of the other ones, setting the agenda for a majority of other anti-alcohol organizations nationwide. Supposedly, AJ no longer accepts donations from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, though when I asked when they stopped receiving support from them, I never got an answer.

But a closer look at the study reveals that the charges it ascribes to “society” are not actually borne by society at large, at least to my way of thinking, but instead are paid privately by the individuals who supposedly abused alcohol or the private companies that employ them. To me, that makes them false statistics because they say one thing that turns out to not actually be true. So let’s look as those numbers of societal “costs.” Here’s the breakdowns, according to AJ’s press release:

  1. 72.2%: Lost productivity in the workforce
  2. 11%: Healthcare
  3. 9.4%: Criminal justice
  4. 7.5%: Property damage

Okay, the biggest expense blamed on alcohol abuse is “lost productivity in the workforce,” accounting for nearly three-quarters of the total, or about $161 billion. But unless they work for the government (and there’s no data on what percentage might) the costs, it seems to me, would be paid by the private companies they work for. And if they continually show up late, hungover or so they can’t do their job, how many would remain employed for an extended period of time? However you slice it, that’s not me or society paying for the poor performance of that binge-drinking employee. I suppose you could argue that a company filled with such people might result in higher prices passed along to consumers, but any such company that doesn’t weed out employees who don’t perform their jobs well is most likely going to go out of business for other reasons, as well.

The other lost productivity category is early mortality by alcohol-abusers. These people apparently selfishly die before they can do enough work to be considered to have paid their debt to be a member of society. But if you drink yourself into an early grave, your unfinished work or debt to society has got to be the least of your troubles. It’s more likely that the reasons for your early demise have multiple causes, many of which were probably not addressed by the society who was as responsible for you as they claim you were to country, state, community and family. I honestly can’t see how you can total dollar amounts for work undone by one individual, when undoubtedly another person stepped in and did it instead. I don’t mean to sound cold, but with unemployment so high, when a position becomes available under such circumstances, I feel confident that there will be someone to take that job and get the work done. So how does that cost society anything?

But let’s also look at the number itself, $161 billion. GDP at the end of 2006 (the same timeframe as this study) was $13.58 trillion. That makes this “cost to society” 1.19% of GDP. Not only is that a pretty small percentage though, even if true, nothing in their reasoning suggests it’s anything close to the truth.

The next highest cost is from healthcare. But again, unless the binge drinker has no health insurance and doesn’t pay his own medical bills, how is society paying? For those with insurance, their policy pays their medical bills, and whatever isn’t covered under their policy they become personally responsible for. I admit that it’s more likely that a person who abuses alcohol, and may not be able to keep down a job, might not have health insurance, but in the only civilized nation without universal healthcare I would argue that’s more a failure of our society than a cost to it. Whoever ends up paying for the medical care of binge drinkers, it seems more likely it will be insurance companies first, responsible individuals second, and, if at all, society last.

Third, criminal justice apparently accounts for 9.5%. What is meant by “criminal justice” includes $73 billion, of which “43.8% came from crash-related costs from driving under the influence, 17.2% came from corrections costs, and 15.1% came from lost productivity associated with homicide. Other categories include fire loss, crime victim property damage and “special education” about “fetal alcohol syndrome.” In the full text of the study, Table 2 lists who they think is responsible for all these costs, whether the government, the drinker and his family or society (though I should point out how that was arrived upon is completely absent from the study). Given that the entire study supposedly claims the “cost of excessive alcohol consumption in the United States in 2006 reached $223.5 billion,” you’d think that the personal costs even they admit to would not be a part of the total at all. Even by the CDC study’s own admission, 41% of the costs they claim are to society, are actually “paid” by the individual drinker (and his family). That’s almost half that don’t appear to be a cost to society as a whole. How does that not call into question their methodology and/or their conclusions?

But many of these other categories seem plain silly. Fire loss and property damage? Those are crimes, whether or not the person perpetrating them was drinking or not. To say it’s alcohol-related if they had a drink before they robbed someone seems as ludicrous as including a car accident in which the passenger was drinking in drunk driving statistics (which actually has been routinely done). And corrections? If you’re in jail for a crime you committed, yes that’s a cost to society, but that’s a cost we’ve all agreed is supposed to be borne by society, like the police and fire departments. It’s not like there’s some special jails that don’t count or count double if the criminal had a drinking problem. It’s really just a way to inflate the numbers and, as usual, make the problem with alcohol abuse seem far worse than it is.

And while I’m on that subject, let’s briefly mention how absurd the very definition of a “binge drinker” is in compiling these statistics, too. I’ve written about this many times, such as in Inflating Binge Drinking Statistics, Son of Binge Drinking Statistics Inconsistencies and Inventing Binge Drinking.

Lastly, “property damage,” which is really “other effects,” is listed as 7.5% of the harm blamed on alcohol. This is very confusing, because in the study’s Table 1, “criminal justice” is actually listed under “other effects” so I’m not sure what AJ is up to with their list. So I’ve actually addressed property damage above here, though Table 1 also includes a separate column for “crime-related” so the row for “criminal justice” is 100% “crime-related” so I’m not sure what’s being doubled-up on, but surely something is odd, if not intentionally.

The other factors not accounted for, as usual, are any positive effects of alcohol. Although both the study and AJ makes a big deal about what negative effects they couldn’t quantify, they’re completely unconcerned about any omitted positive ones. Certainly there are economic benefits for local communities as well as society at large. But even ignoring those, this “study” undoubtedly does not take into account how total mortality is improved by moderate, responsible drinking as set forth in the most recent FDA dietary guidelines, as well as a number of scientific studies and meta-studies that have shown the same thing. How many people who do drink moderately as part of a healthy lifestyle actually save society money because of their responsible behavior, which includes a drink or two daily?

It also doesn’t take into account how many crimes are prevented or stress relieved which might otherwise have led to “costs to society” because a person had a drink or two and calmed down, relaxed and decided not to do something rash, stupid or illegal. Given that the majority of people who drink alcohol do so responsibly and do not cost society anything, even by these absurd standards, it seems likely a lot more “costs” are actually prevented by moderate alcohol consumption. So where’s the balance? As even this “study” admits, “[m]ost of the costs were due to binge drinking — it’s the subtitle of the CDC’s press release — although the CDC claims “[e]xcessive alcohol consumption, or heavy drinking, is defined as consuming an average of more than one alcoholic beverage per day for women, and an average of more than two alcoholic beverages per day for men, and any drinking by pregnant women or underage youth.”

Of course, that’s at odds with the most recent dietary guidelines that the FDA released, which “defines ‘low-risk’ drinking as no more than 14 drinks a week for men and 7 drinks a week for women with no more than 4 drinks on any given day for men and 3 drinks a day for women.” But the anti-alcohol groups didn’t like that definition, and they gave the money for this study to be done, so they can safely ignore anything that doesn’t fit the conclusion they paid for. Why the government is so hot to be in bed with anti-alcohol factions is a bit trickier, but I feel confident money and control are at the root. The CDC’s handling of autism research has made me more than a little suspect of their motives and their ties to the medical industry and academic institutions.

But the larger picture is the question of Societal Costs vs. Personal Costs for alcohol. Few other products sold in America are as demonized as alcohol and it remains one of the few that continues to be blamed en masse for the actions of a minority of people who abuse it. Whatever harm they do personally is writ large across the entire spectrum of consumption, as if everybody who drinks is a bad person costing society its moral compass and leading us down the mother of all bad roads. We are becoming the scapegoats for all of society’s ills. Make no mistake about it, there are people who want a return to prohibition and the groundwork is being laid as we speak to try it again. And we know how well it turned out the last time. But we should be honest about it. Everything we do costs society something, but only alcohol is singled out to pay for the small number of people who abuse it. It’s a question of weighing the good with the bad and what’s best for a majority of people. Given that the vast majority of people are responsible drinkers who enjoy both drinking alcohol and the rituals that go along with it, I’d say that society has always been better off when its populace could have a beer. And that’s good both for the individual and society as a whole.