When abused, alcohol poses serious health risks for alcoholics and those around them. That’s why each April since 1987 has been dubbed “Alcohol Awareness Month” as part of the federal government’s campaign to increase awareness of alcoholism and alcohol-related issues.
In recent years, however, the cause has lost its way. Over time, federal resources have been redirected from treating and preventing alcoholism to reducing alcohol consumption for everyone.
If there’s one agency with a clear anti-alcohol agenda, it’s the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The agency earned a spate of negative headlines earlier this year for its paternalistic drinking advice: Fertile, sexually active women shouldn’t drink any alcohol at all unless they’re on birth control.
The CDC’s primary public health goal is to cut down on “excessive” and “heavy drinking.” For most Americans, those are terms that conjure up images of keg stands and shots, not a woman who has two glasses of wine on Saturday night instead of her usual single glass. To the CDC, both of those types of drinking pose major threats to public health and the economy.
So how much is too much drinking?
Adult men who have more than 14 drinks per week and women who have more than seven drinks in a week are classified as “heavy drinkers,” and adult men who consume five or more drinks on an occasion and women who consume more than four are “binge drinkers.” Combined with underage drinking and any alcohol use by pregnant women, the CDC says these drinkers cost the U.S. economy $249 billion annually.
At the CDC’s urging, state and local activist groups are using that extremely broad calculation to push lawmakers to raise the cost of drinking through higher alcohol taxes. But to what end?
At an “Alcohol Policy Conference” earlier this month, activists admitted that the goal of raising alcohol taxes isn’t just to curb drinking by those with alcohol abuse disorders. After all, those who are addicted to alcohol don’t care about price increases — they’re going to drink anyway. Instead, the goal is to cut alcohol consumption by everyone, even those who drink moderately and responsibly.
The CDC has played a significant role in helping activist groups lobby for higher taxes. In addition to calculating the “total cost” of drinking nationwide, the agency funded a project by the Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth to create an “alcohol tax tool” showing how increasing alcohol taxes by five to 25 cents per drink would affect each state.
The agency also spends hundreds of thousands of dollars funding academic research in support of higher alcohol taxes. One CDC-funded study that has received significant attention found that increasing the alcohol tax in Maryland reduced gonorrhea rates by 24 percent. Never mind that the study’s conclusion doesn’t make any sense.
If making alcohol more expensive in Maryland actually reduced risky sexual behaviors that lead to sexually transmitted infections, you’d expect rates of other STIs to fall simultaneously. But that wasn’t the case — rates of syphilis actually went up significantly at the same time gonorrhea transmissions fell. Additionally, rates of gonorrhea fell in neighboring Delaware and Virginia even though the price of alcohol stayed the same in those states.
Though the CDC emphasizes “no amount of alcohol is safe,” research shows, and the U.S. Dietary Guidelines emphasize, that alcohol can still be part of a healthy diet when consumed in moderation. This Alcohol Awareness Month, instead of demonizing all drinking, let’s raise a glass to responsible alcohol consumption and encourage policymakers to redirect our tax dollars back to the true “heavy drinkers” and alcohol abusers who need our help the most.
Sarah Longwell is managing director of the American Beverage Institute, a Washington, D.C. restaurant trade association that defends the right to drink moderately and responsibly prior to driving.