It’s not sure what to make of some news that’s being reported based on a new report by the Alcohol Research Group of Emeryville, California. Several news outlets have picked up the story, including the San Francisco Chronicle, in Sobering tip – drink makers alter alcohol content; Join Together, in Drinks Often Contain More Alcohol Than People Realize; and Health magazine, in How Much Alcohol In Your Drink? Stronger Beverages Make It Tough to Tell.
The first curiosity is some articles say the report was done by the Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group while others claim it was the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association. Curiouser still is the fact that neither organization has any information I can find about the alleged report, which is odd since the news reports quote people involved in it and from it. It’s not uncommon for only a summary to be available, especially if they’re trying to sell it to people, but I can’t even find any reference to it at all. It’s also fairly common for there to be a press release summarizing the report, but I can’t locate one of those, either. The NABCA in their news section has a link to a report on their report on Health24, the same syndicated article by Brenda Goodman that many news outlets are using. You’d think they’d at least have their own story about their own report.
Although the articles concern themselves with this new report, not one of them even mentions its name, although they each quote the report’s author, William Kerr, who’s billed as “a senior scientist with the Alcohol Research Group.” Scientist seems like a stretch, since his background is not in the hard sciences, having a BA and a PhD, both in economics. Now I have nothing against economics whatsoever, in fact I love the dismal science, and am fascinated by it. I know it’s a social science, a concept I fully accept, but when’s the last time you ever heard an economist referred to as a scientist, or even a social scientist? Having the title “senior scientist” strikes me as just a tad misleading, or is that just me?
Anyway, the point of the report, from what I can piece together, is that the standard drink sizes that are generally used determine as a single drink (mind you, for purposes of research and making people feel guilty, not for our real lives) are not as effective as they once were, because the alcoholic strength of beer and wine varies, and many people are too stupid to realize that. It honestly strikes me as a tempest in a teacup at the very least, and an attempt to fan the flames of anti-alcohol mischief at worst.
Here’s how one of the articles begins. “Thanks to rising alcohol levels in wine and beer, the drinks served in bars and restaurants are often more potent than people realize, a new report shows.” Seriously, just now rising? I know there are perhaps more higher strength beers than before the 1980s, when most beer was all the same, and certainly since craft beer is getting more popular arguably more of it’s being sold, but it’s still a drop in the ocean of the 5% beer majority. And really, is wine getting stronger? The report’s author, William Kerr, is quoted, saying “A lot of the wines now are 14 percent or even 15 percent commonly, and the standard 5-ounce glass of wine doesn’t apply to that level.” Um, as long as I can remember 14% has been the average wine strength. Seriously, if you had asked me how strong wine typically is, that would have been my immediate response. Of course, I’m no wine expert, by any stretch of the imagination, so I’ll defer to my wine brethren on that one. A Guardian article from 2011 reveals that it’s closer to 13% worldwide and 13.65% in the “New World,” by which I assume they mean us upstarts in the colonies. But if the averages are higher than what the “guidelines” are based on, wouldn’t it make more sense to argue for changing them, instead of complaining that people aren’t converting them properly? If they’re really concerned that people are drinking too much because of their own information, then changing it seems a more obvious solution to me.
Here’s another one I don’t quite understand. “Beer drinkers may find themselves in the same boat. A 12-ounce bottle of Bud Light beer has 4.2 percent alcohol, but the same-size bottle of Bud Light Platinum has 6 percent alcohol by volume, a nearly 50 percent increase.” I know math is hard, but that seems to skew the numbers to stretch a point. A 4.2% beer would contain .0504 ounces of alcohol, while at 6 percent, the amount would be 0.72. While ordinary rounding you could argue might make sense in other contexts, when you’re talking about such small numbers, the effect of rounding is inflating by one-half a percent (0.5%), not an inconsequential amount when the difference between the two examples is only 1.8%. That seems designed to make that example seem worse than it really is.
They also mention that it “matters whether you’re drinking a standard 12-ounce bottle, or downing draft beer in pints, which are 16 ounces each.” And that’s partly true, it does make a difference, but most good beer bars don’t serve higher alcohol beers in pint glasses, but in a smaller glass that’s less than that.
The Chronicle’s report claims that “craft beers and European imported beers usually have alcohol content a few percentage points higher than major American beers.” Some, sure, but their point is that beer strength varies widely, but then they give this absurd generality that’s not remotely true.
Also in the Chronicle, Kerr tells us that “Federal law requires hard alcohol manufacturers to list the alcohol content by volume on labels, but it’s optional for beer and most wines.” Actually, it’s the states that determine that, and in California it is indeed required on the label. Given that Kerr is in California, and the article was written by and for a California audience, that seems like it could have been useful information. It’s not optional here, nor do I believe that’s the case for any other state.
One thing I do agree with is the statement by Robert Pandina, director of the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, who posits that the “dietary guidelines aren’t very useful. They don’t parallel the drinking habits of the American public.” So why we keep using them, I think, has more to do with people involved in the addiction business and anti-alcohol groups, then wanting to honestly come up with something that most people can actually use. Tellingly, Pandina is not part of the report that’s the subject of the articles.
The overall tone of the advice from the report, at least as gleaned from the quotes from it, is that people should be ridiculously fastidious in monitoring their intake of alcohol. But the guidelines are not that exact, nor should they be. The UK’s recommended amounts in fact were simply made up, while ours were more likely based on average drink sizes from once upon a time, and became fixed in stone along the same lines as binge drinking became increasingly narrowly defined. This, I can only guess, is the result of working with or around people with drinking problems. Most of us can manage to drink responsibly and moderately without a measuring cup or journal. If the majority of people who drink alcohol are not problem drinkers, which is the case, then being sensible doesn’t require a calculator. Most people know their limits and can, and do, moderate their own behavior and probably do so intuitively, having learned their own limits. I know mine, don’t you?
The headline that the “alcohol content of beer and wine varies widely” seems almost insulting in its assumption that most people think it’s all the same. I may not be among the average drinkers, but the news that different drinks have varying strengths seems too obvious, especially when you consider that the usual argument for not listing strength is that everyone will start shopping the labels and buy the strongest drinks to get drunk faster. So on one hand, us drinkers are smart enough to game the system by reading the labels to get drunk quicker, yet we’re too stupid to realize that different drinks have different amounts of alcohol in them. How many people honestly still believe that all beer is the same in 2013? Maybe it’s just the air of superiority that the prohibitionists and parts of the medical community adopt when they talk down to us in the world that continues to rankle. But I’ll sleep better tonight in the knowledge that by drinking moderately and responsibly, I’ll most likely live longer than the teetotalers who look down upon me and my ilk.