The e-mail newsletter sent out Tuesday by Join Together, the anti-alcohol center at Columbia University, included a summary of an item in the USA Today from November 3, entitled Beer With Extra Buzz On Tap Up To 16%. Join Together’s emphasis on the article is about “More States Allowing High-Alcohol Beer” and similarly the USA Today article takes a cautionary tone as it starts out stating that a “growing number of states are moving to allow higher alcohol content in beer, despite concerns from some substance-abuse experts.” While admitting that 20 states “still place some kind of limit on the amount of alcohol in beer,” the recent changes to the alcohol laws in several states, such as Alabama, Georgia, Montana, North Carolina, Vermont, West Virginia, and others, are worrying the usual anti-alcohol folks.
Although they did talk to Paul Gatza from the Brewers Association, most of the voices in the article were from neo-prohibitionist groups expressing their “concerns.” For example, “David Rosenbloom, president of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University in N.Y., said the more alcohol, ‘the faster you get drunk and the longer you stay drunk. … There’s no evidence that people will drink less, or fewer beers.’ And here’s Chuck Hurley, CEO of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who said, “Our chief concern is that (higher-alcohol brews) be properly labeled so people understand it takes fewer beers to become intoxicated.”
But here’s why this is a non-story and why author Jessica Leving needs to go back to J-school. What’s not mentioned in this article is that wine and hard liquor, already much stronger than beer, in some cases many times stronger, is already available in those same states who’ve recently raised the allowable alcohol percentage for beer. Higher alcohol drinks have been available since at least 1933, and no doubt for a long time prior to 1920. That an infinitesimal portion of total beer sales can now include some higher alcohol ones is all but meaningless in that light. If someone wanted higher alcohol there’s been no shortage of opportunities for them to find such drinks. When this has come up before, the argument by Anti-Alcohol for why this matters is that more underage people drink beer. But that’s just propaganda. All people drink more beer than wine and spirits, so there’s nothing sinister or unique about beer and underage drinking. In fact, studies by neo-prohibitionist groups reveal that young people really prefer sweeter drinks, like wine and cocktails made with higher alcohol beverages.
The higher alcohol beers they’re all in a panic about are most often more bitter than the average young palate prefers. Those beers are the ones that a small percentage of the population — the beer geeks — want. Sales of those beers as compared to beer’s total is very, very small, I’d wager, and against all alcohol, virtually infinitesimal. So how was that ignored and this non-story published in a national newspaper? How was Rosenbloom allowed to get away with saying “[t]here’s no evidence that people will drink less, or fewer beers” when that’s clearly not true? Simple. Media outlets sell more papers or airtime or whatever by scaring the public and telling stories about what they should fear. What I fear is the lack of truth that accompanies these stories every time they’re told. Despite the fact that Leving at least (unlike many others) tried to include contrary opinions, the piece ends up just giving voice to the anti-alcohol agenda, while not asking the most basic questions that show that agenda to be riddled with misinformation and propaganda.