Alcohol Research and Statistics: Deceptive Reports
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
Federal agencies and officials often present distorted, misleading or even false information about alcohol and drinking to the public. A few examples can illustrate the extent of the problem.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 10.9% decrease in estimated deaths attributable to excessive drinking in he U.S. in a period of just one year. That’s a dramatic drop by any standard.
Incredibly, the CDC trivializes this large drop by stating that “the findings described in this report are similar to recent estimates of AAD’s (alcohol-attributable deaths) attributable to excessive drinking in the United States.” 1
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) falsely reports that there were 17,419 drunk driving fatalities in 2002. 2 That’s a gross distortion. In reality, NHTSA estimates that there were that number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Only a minority of alcohol-related fatalities are drunken driving fatalities. Of course, any alcohol-related traffic injury or death is one too many.
Nationally, 12.8% of all drivers involved in fatal accidents during 2001 are known to have been intoxicated according to the BAC laws (.10 or .08) of their state at that time. This number is based on a systematic examination of the official records of each and every accident involving a fatality during that year in the US. It is based on factual evidence rather than on estimates or even guesses. 3
The higher number (about 40%) generally reported refers to accidents in which there was believed to have been some alcohol consumed by anyone associated with the accident. For example, if a person who was believed to have consumed any alcohol is stopped at a red light and is rear-ended by an inattentive completely sober driver, that accident is considered to be alcohol-related.
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The federal agency converts estimates of alcohol-related traffic fatalities into reports of drunk driving deaths. By equating "alcohol-related" with "drunk driving," NHTSA distorts the extent of the problem with impaired motorists, creating an impression of widespread drunk driving that isn't factually supportable -- but which is used with great effectiveness for propaganda purposes by temperance-oriented groups.
Department of Justice
The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced an alleged breakthrough in research on alcohol policy. According to the DOJ, a comparison of drinking rates among American and European teenagers proved that those in Europe, with its generally more moderate alcohol attitudes and laws, lead to more alcohol problems. (A)
Yet even a quick analysis of the DOJ’s report reveals that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The report never went through peer reviews, the process in which other researchers evaluate a study’s legitimacy before it can get published. In fact, the DOJ report was never published. The Department used outdated survey numbers even though newer ones were available, and its European figures left out several important countries.
What’s more, even the numbers the Department did use don’t back up its claims. American teenagers had a higher rate of intoxication than did their counterparts in half of the European countries. When compared with teenagers in Southern Europe, which has very liberal views and practices regarding alcohol, American teenagers were more likely to have been drunk in the last 30 days (21 percent vs. 13 percent). And while more than half of the American teenagers who drank reported getting drunk, less than a fourth of young Southern Europeans said they had been intoxicated.
Thus, the DOJ’s “breakthrough” report turns out to be nothing but deceptive junk science.
Department of Transportation
The Department of Transportation claims it can estimate to the single digit how many people the law has saved: supposedly 927 in 2001, or nearly half the number of alcohol-related vehicular fatalities among the 16-20 year-olds that year. (B)
No serious social scientist would ever make such an outlandish claim. Not only is it impossible to know what would have happened had the law not changed, but real research on the drinking age has not been able to verify a cause-and-effect relationship between the law and alcohol use or abuse. Many studies show no relationship between the two variables while others report that some alcohol-related fatalities have shifted from the 18-20 age group to the 21-24 age group. (C) When it comes to the effects of the drinking age, the most we can honestly say is that the jury is still out.
Yet the supposedly impartial federal bureaucracy insists on claiming that the higher drinking age has been a great success.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) is the US federal government’s lead agency responsible for providing alcohol information to the American public. Because it speaks with federal authority it is essential that its information be clear and accurate. However, the distortions and false statements made in a single document demonstrate that the NIAAA is failing in its mandate.
Alcohol and Health
The NIAAA’s Teacher’s Guide for its seven and eighth grade alcohol curriculum asserts as a misconception the fact that alcohol is good for health. * This, in spite of the fact that medical research extending back to 1925 has repeatedly demonstrated that the moderate consumption of alcohol is associated with better health and greater longevity than is abstaining from alcohol. An analysis made by NIAAA’s own scientists of the medical research concluded that the lowest death rate occurs among those who consume one to two alcoholic drinks (beer, distilled spirits or wine) per day, thus discrediting the assertion in the agency’s Teacher’s Guide. **
Drinking and Driving
The NIAAA incorrectly asserts in its Guide that traffic fatalities attributable to drinking claim about 15,000 lives annually in the US. As indicated above, this is simply not so.
In fact, the National Motorists Association, along with others, has been offering $20,000 to the first person who can prove that this statistic is correct. No one has collected the money
Alcohol and Breathalyzers
The NIAAA states in its Guide that the Breathalyzer measures blood alcohol concentration (BAC), although it only estimates BAC. The only way that BAC can be measured is by testing a sample of a person’s blood. That’s why not all states even permit the use of Breathalyzer or other breath analyzer estimates.
Blood samples can’t be manipulated, as can breath samples. For example, hyperventilating can dramatically reduce a Breathalyzer reading, giving a false result. Many other things can lead to falsely high Breathalyzer readings. They include compounds found in lacquers, paint removers, celluloid, gasoline, and cleaning fluids. Other common things that can cause false BAC levels are things in the subject's mouth (such as alcohol, blood or vomit), electrical interference from cell phones and police radios, tobacco smoke, dirt, moisture, operator error, the specific make of breath tester, incorrectly calibrated breath testers, body temperature, ambient or surrounding temperature, variations in subjects’ hemocrit (cell volume of blood), and physiological differences.
Not surprisingly, one expert has asserted that:
Breath testing, as currently used, is a very inaccurate method for measuring BAC. Even if the breath testing instrument is working perfectly, physiological variables prevent early reasonable accuracy....Breath testing for alcohol using a single test instrument, should not be used for scientific, medical or legal purposes where accuracy is important. 4
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So the NIAAA is presenting false information. Breathalyzers clearly don’t measure, they only estimate. BAC.
Economic Costs of Alcohol Abuse
The NIAAA presents a clearly deceptive and misleading picture of the economic costs of alcohol abuse. Its estimate is actually one of gross costs rather than net costs. That is, the NIAAA statistic adds up all costs (including large “phantom” or false costs) without subtracting the economic benefits provided by alcohol beverages. These include income to the producers of commodities and equipment used in producing alcohol beverages, income of those who produce, distribute and sell alcoholic beverages, profits, taxes generated, and many other economic benefits to tens of millions of Americans.
Alcohol and Youth
The NIAAA states unequivocally that “it is important to note that any alcohol use by underage youth is considered to be alcohol abuse.” For emphasis, the agency re-states and then even highlights its assertion, but is it correct?
- Does the NIAAA actually believe that priests who serve alcohol to their underage parishioners in the celebration of Holy Communion are engaging in alcohol abuse?
- Does the NIAAA really believe that Jewish parents who serve alcohol to their children as part of weekly and other religious observances are promoting alcohol abuse?
- Does the NIAAA want us to believe that physicians who prescribe alcohol to their underage patients are really prescribing alcohol abuse? And are the parents who follow their doctors’ orders causing alcohol abuse?
- Does the NIAAA believe that those states across the US that explicitly permit parents to serve alcohol beverages to their own children of any age within the home are actually permitting alcohol abuse?
- Does the NIAAA believe that adults under the age of 21 around the world who drink in moderation are abusing alcohol?
Apparently, when the NIAAA asserts that “any alcohol use by underage youth is considered to be alcohol abuse” it really means that “any alcohol use by underage youth is considered by the NIAAA to be alcohol abuse.” The NIAAA’s definition of alcohol abuse among young people is radical in historical, cross-cultural, medical, religious, and other terms. It’s obvious that millions of people in the US and hundreds of millions of people around the world would disagree with the NIAAA’s extremely unrealistic definition.
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NIAAA’s Teacher’s Guide is full of other errors, omissions, and misleading assertions too numerous to describe here. Both the American public and our children deserve much better.
People assume that the government is an impartial arbiter, sorting through rival positions and conflicting data in an honest effort to find the truth.
Unfortunately, the federal bureaucracy doesn’t serve as a neutral moderator when it comes to alcohol policies. Instead, it throws all its weight squarely on one side of the debate. Research designed to promote the current temperance-oriented policy gets federal funding, a stamp of approval, and widespread dissemination by the government regardless of its scientific merit.
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