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The Morality Of The Story
Radley Balko of the Cato Institute dissects the failed war on drinking, and the neo-prohibitionists among us, trying to curb our access to alcohol with new laws:

Some of those laws aim to make alcohol less available through taxation schemes, others through strict licensing or zoning requirements, still others by censoring alcohol advertisements. State and federal government officials have also sought to curb alcohol abuse from the demand side, but such efforts ultimately prove misguided. The 2000 federal law that encouraged local officials to lower the legal threshold for drunken driving, for example, will have little effect on public safety. Instead, it shifts law enforcement resources away from catching heavily intoxicated drunk drivers, who pose a risk, to harassing responsible social drinkers, who don't.

Taken together, the well-organized efforts of activists, law enforcement, and policymakers portend an approaching "back-door prohibition"an effort to curb what some of them call the "environment of alcoholism"instead of holding individual drinkers responsible for their actions. Policymakers should be wary of attempts to restrict choice when it comes to alcohol. Such policies place the external costs attributable to a small number of alcohol abusers on the large percentage of people who consume alcohol responsibly. Those efforts didn't work when enacted as a wide-scale, federal prohibition, and they are also ineffective and counterproductive when implemented incrementally.

Not to mention, plain old moronic. When I was growing up, if my dad was drinking some wine or some vile, schnapps-type liqueur, he'd offer us girls "a taste." I thought it all tasted like crap, and because it was freely offered, I didn't see the allure. Since drinking was so "no big deal" in my family, when I decided I wanted to see what it was like to get drunk, I decided that there'd be no better time to do it than at my cousin's wedding, when my parents would be there to take me home. At the end of the evening, my dad laughed while I threw up (vodka and Tab, yuck!) at the side of the road, and mused that I'd probably be a little more careful not to overdo it in the future. And he was right.

When I got to college, not having been prohibited from drinking in my brat-hood, I didn't see how it would be, in any way, liberating, to stick my head in a vat of grain alcohol. In fact, I didn't even bother to start having a glass of wine here and there until I was about 30. The same logic applies to kids in France, who are allowed wine with meals, just like everybody else. You certainly don't see drunks all over the place in France the way you do in the Puritan Fundamentalist States Of America. Addiction treatment expert Stanton Peele notes the same effect in a few other non-nanny states:

...In Portugal, Spain, Belgium, and other countries, 16-year-olds (and those even younger) can drink alcohol freely in public establishments. These countries have almost no AA presence; Portugal, which had the highest per capita alcohol consumption in 1990, had 0.6 AA groups per million population compared with almost 800 AA groups per million population in Iceland, the country that consumed the least alcohol per capita in Europe. The idea of the need to control drinking externally or formally thus coincides with drinking problems in a paradoxically mutually reinforcing relationship.

Tell that to the idiots in Wisconsin. Somebody, please. Because the legislators there, like those in many states, are making a big mistake: Trying to make it a crime for a parent to give a kid a bit of wine.

UPDATE: A better supporting quote about drinking in Europe:

"Stanton Peele, a psychologist and alcohol issues consultant, said cross-cultural research shows reduced alcohol abuse rates in societies where education emphasizes moderation rather than the no-use approach. Temperance cultures which provide predominantly anti- alcohol messages have much higher incidences of social problems related to alcohol consumption. While cultures that integrate drinking into daily life have many fewer social problems as reflected in Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy and France, he said."

(Cato piece via Reason's blog)

Posted by aalkon at December 4, 2003 8:04 AM


Wait a second. Peele said that Portugal has 0.6 AA groups per million people and the highest alcohol consumption in 1990; Iceland had 800 AA groups per million and the loweest alcohol consumption. In Modern Epi-speak that looks like:

More AA groups --> Less drinking

Fewer AA groups --> More drinking

Why is this evidence of a "paradoxically mutually reinforcing relationship" rather than of AA's effectiveness?

Posted by: Lena the Modern Epidemiologist at December 4, 2003 1:18 AM

Actually, I knew my resident epidemiologist would get me for this one, but it is true -- hmm, got any statistics in your back pocket -- that countries that have more permissive drinking have less alcoholism. I searched for stats on France and couldn't find them. The AA comparison probably isn't the best one.

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 4, 2003 1:27 AM

I'd also like to know why Balko said that efforts to curb alcohol abuse from the demand side are misguided. Alcohol and illicit drugs are substitute goods. If you try to reduce alcohol consumption by cutting supply, demand can shift to drug use (including off-label uses of prescription meds). People on Percodan aren't going to be safe so behind the wheel either.

By your own account, Amy, that story about your dad letting you puke up your vodka and Tab was indeed a successful effort to curb alcohol abuse from the demand side. You probably would've gone sniffing after the airplane model glue if he'd hid the booze supply.

Posted by: Lena the Health Economist at December 4, 2003 1:38 AM

I've never found anyone to agree with me on this, but I think DUI laws are as BS as hate crime laws. If you drive badly, you drive badly. Shouldn't matter if alcohol caused it or not. My only accidents have been due to allergy medication and tiredness (Oh, and huge bits of torn-up tire left in the middle of the road.)

If you're drunk but driving quite well, you should not go to jail.

On the other hand, if the government wants to tax my booze more, I have no problem with that. I have no divine right to drunkenness at reasonable prices.

Posted by: LYT at December 4, 2003 1:50 AM

I do have a problem with that. Why single out drinkers? Why not bible readers?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 4, 2003 6:46 AM

My dad was an alcoholic (which was enough of a deterrent for his 4 kids to not drink), and he drove well at blood alcohol levels that would probably knock other people out. He used to leave bars and drive right by cops who didn't pull him over, then he'd come home and pass out. Not that I wanted him on the road, but the old advice to take their keys away doesn't work when you don't know where the hell they are to begin with.

It had nothing to do with whether or not he had been exposed to it as a kid. He drank because his buddies drank, and they called him p-whipped when it was time to go home to his wife and kids. It was also his escape from his issues that he didn't want to face.

I don't know what will really work as a deterrent for alcohol, smoking or other drug abuse. I think it's probably an individual thing--for some people, the expense, for others, the lack of social acceptance, for still others, the detrimental side effects. And, unfortunately, for some people nothing is a deterrent.

Posted by: Peggy C at December 4, 2003 6:46 AM

"Why not bible readers?" When they prove that reading the bible (or anything else) alters your mind and slows your reflexes the same way that alcohol or other drugs do, then I'm sure they will tax it.

You support motorcycle riders being free to ride without helmets, as long as they have to pay for an insurance policy that will pay to scoop their brains off the highway in an accident. (No insurance company would actually offer a policy like that, of course, but that's another issue.) The government has simply added taxes to alcohol in an attempt to collect some of that money up front, since they're constantly scooping up the body parts of drunks off the road way, as well as the body parts of their victims.

Posted by: Peggy C at December 4, 2003 7:08 AM

I don't accept the alcoholism as a disease notion. I think Stanton Peele (and Archie Brodsky) are right -- it's a choice. You're choosing short-term pleasure over a more long-term benefit (living without the detriments of alcohol abuse). I think all drug and alcohol use is not abuse, contrary to the thinking of the nannies running our society, and the treatment-industrial complex. I know a number of drug users who are productive members of society, like the renowned science professor who's a big pot-head -- but still manages to publish like mad and make discoveries that win him huge grants and benefit the rest of us. What's wrong with that?

Posted by: Amy Alkon at December 4, 2003 7:13 AM

I don't think it's a disease either, but I disagree with your use of 'abuse'. I think it's abuse when your use of the drug (alcohol or otherwise) affects your ability to perform your normal daily functions. And driving for most people is one of their daily functions. As I stated, my dad could drink well past the legal limits and still function as a driver. He also was fantastic at his job. Of course, he couldn't function as a husband or a father, so I consider his usage an abuse of the drug.

Perhaps your science professor example is the same--what you perceive of him as being fully functioning as a pot-head would be considered less than that by anyone living with him.

Not that I enjoy our government controlling us to the Nth degree, but I think cigarettes should be taxed, same as alcohol. I am actually in favor of legalizing marijuana, too, but it should be taxed as well. And if there was a way of taxing people for their off-label use of prescription drugs, go for it! There are side effects to the use of those drugs that the public has to endure, so why not make the users of those products pay for them up front?

Posted by: Peggy C at December 4, 2003 8:03 AM

"[...] cultures that integrate drinking into daily life have many fewer social problems as reflected in Mediterranean countries such as Greece, Italy and France."

This has a parallel in the argument that prayer makes people healthy. Is it prayer per se, or do people who pray generally make lifestyle choices that are healthier? Similarly, cultures that integrate drinking could be different from cultures that do not in ways that also affect social problems. Surely the countries with more relaxed attitudes toward alcohol are not forcing their kids to drink wine at dinner. Perhaps those countries also have better education and health care systems. Liberal drinking attitudes may be associated with better social policies, but you cant say that they cause them.

Posted by: Lush Lena relaxing on the axis at December 4, 2003 9:28 AM

Great book called "Framing Youth- Ten Myths About the Next Generation" by Mike A. Males. It has a whole chapter devoted to why age-based prohibition on alcohol is actually encouraging kids to drink *more*. It's going to take a vast re-organization of our society to curb the alcohol problem- and I agree that introducing kids to alcohol in controlled settings is a great way to start.

Posted by: Kate at December 4, 2003 12:55 PM

My 18-year-old niece is a great example of a kid learning to drink sensibly at home. She enjoys alcohol, but she also enjoys not feeling out of control. I also get the impression that she's sexually active because she enjoys it, not because she needs validation from guys.

I definitely have a lot to learn from her!

Posted by: Lena at December 4, 2003 1:32 PM

I think it's going to take alot to curb drinking and driving too Kate. Our society has an image that is very hard to break and until we can change the way people view drinking and driving it's never going to change (no matter how many laws there are)

Tom Vargus

Posted by: drinking and driving at January 27, 2004 11:18 AM