As if there wasn’t enough money in politics, now government agencies are using taxpayer dollars—our dollars—in an attempt to influence state policy. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) has awarded The Public Health Institute’s Alcohol Research Group almost $650,000 a year for five years to research the effects that alcohol privatization in Washington State has had on prices and alcohol-related harms. At first glance, it may seem like a perfectly appropriate research topic for the NIH to support, but the details make one wonder whether the motives for such research are scientific curiosity or pure politics.
The organization that received the grant and its scientists have a long history of producing anti-alcohol-biased research. Dr. William Kerr, the lead on the project, has written and spoken many times in the past about his firm stance against the privatization of alcohol sales which he believes directly results in increased drinking and costs to the state. He received funding from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association, an organization with the sole purpose of defending control state systems, to produce a study warning states of the dangers of privatization. In all likelihood, the conclusion of this forthcoming study will communicate a similar attitude.
Why would NIH award millions of taxpayer dollars to fund a study by a researcher with such an obvious bias? The answer is that NIH wants a study to show the evils of privatization that it can then show to any lawmaker considering privatization in his or her own state. Not only is this a waste of taxpayer money, but this government propaganda makes it harder for real stakeholders in the debate, such as citizens and businesses, to make their case for less government.
Results of Privatization
In November 2011, voters in Washington State approved Initiative 1183 officially ending the state monopoly on the sale of spirits. Since then, health advocates, retailers, and employee unions have waged a PR war, attempting to spin the story about the aftereffects of privatization, either to convince other control states (those states that have government-run liquor stores) to follow suit or to send them running from the very idea of loosening state control over liquor sales. According to the Reason Foundation’s Leonard Gilroy:
Robust competition is starting to take place among national retail chains, which tend to focus on offering few brands at more competitive prices (due to volume purchasing), while smaller specialty spirits retailers are emerging to offer competition through more variety in product mixes and greater attention to customer service and offering a high-quality retail experience. Perhaps more importantly, the fears promulgated by privatization opponents—primarily over the potential declines in state liquor revenues and significant negative effects on public health and safety—have not materialized.
And according to the Washington Policy Center, alcohol-related crimes have even declined since privatization in Washington. Of course, the facts have not deterred public health advocates from spinning a yard about the dangerous of getting the state out of the business of selling liquor.
Of course, that won’t stop organizations like ARG and others from pushing the idea that liquor privatization is unequivocally bad for society.
The mission of the Alcohol Research Group (ARG) is to conduct and spread research on alcohol-related harms and public policy. According to its website, ARG “focuses on better understanding the public health implications of alcohol use patterns and associated problems of all kinds…A major component of ARG’s activities is centered on epidemiology of drinking patterns and alcohol-related problems including alcohol use disorders and social and health harms such as injuries and drinking driving, various co-morbidities of alcohol dependence, and alcohol-related mortality.” The premise that all ARG research rests on is that the effects of alcohol consumption are only negative. That position makes it difficult to form a balanced opinion when looking at the effects of alcohol consumption in context.
In February of 2013, Kerr along with a group of researchers released a report, which I tore to ribbons for its headline-grabbing but questionable conclusion that drinkers should consider any amount of alcohol consumption dangerous due to the fact that it might nominally increase their risk of certain cancers. A conclusion that is not only misleading, but also potentially dangerous to public health. According to a press release for the study:
…an estimated 19,500 Americans died from alcohol-attributable cancers in 2009, accounting for approximately 3.5 percent of all cancer deaths. More people died from alcohol-related cancers than from melanoma and ovarian cancer in 2009 – and the number of alcohol-caused cancer deaths represented two-thirds of the deaths from prostate cancer.
As with all of ARG’s alcohol research, it begins with the presumption that alcohol can only have negative effects—ignoring decades of research showing the potential benefits of alcohol consumption. According to the Harvard School of Public Health’s overview on alcohol’s risks and benefits:
More than 100 prospective studies show an inverse association between moderate drinking and risk of heart attack, ischemic (clot-caused) stroke, peripheral vascular disease, sudden cardiac death, and death from all cardiovascular causes,” ultimately resulting in a “25 percent to 40 percent reduction in risk.
Considering that heart-related diseases kill more people in this country than all cancers combined, a 25-40 percent reduction in risk isn’t something to ignore. Yet, that is exactly what this ARG report and most other cost-of-alcohol studies neglect to factor in. Why consider the benefits alcohol may have on society when you are trying to show its harm? Of course, if society took the advice of groups like ARG — if light and moderate alcohol drinkers began abstaining from alcohol to avoid becoming one of the 19,500 people the study claims had alcohol-related cancers — we would almost certainly see an increase in the number of heart disease-related deaths, which according to the CDC account for about 600,000 deaths in the U.S. each year.
Another paper, titled The Effects of Privatization on Alcohol Control Systems written by Kerr, was done at the request of and with funding from the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association—an organization with a mission is to protect state control over alcohol sales. In that paper, Kerr concluded that:
An effective state alcohol control system helps limit the physical and social damage caused by misusing alcohol, and reduces the costs borne from abusive alcohol consumption not only by drinkers but also by other citizens. Control over alcohol sales provides the means to limit availability in ways that can reduce consumption and problems.
He also notes:
Control states should understand that a change to a private alcohol sales system is a “ratchet” policy: once a state eliminates its monopoly over a segment of the alcohol market, it is unlikely to reverse that policy and return to a control system
Both the Alcohol Research Group and Dr. Kerr have clearly decided that privatization of alcohol sales is bad. The only possibly motivation for NIH and NIAA to grant millions of dollars to people with such an obvious bias is to create seemingly valid “scientific” proof that alcohol sales privatization is bad for states in an attempt to convince other states not to abandon their outdated monopolies over liquor sales.