Social Studies That Flunk The Truth Test

by the Center for Consumer Freedom

Columbia University's National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) announced that "underage drinkers account for 25 percent of all the alcohol consumed in the U.S." That's shocking -- shocking because it's completely incorrect, and CASA has not recalled its report.

CASA's seeing double: The New York Times, in an article entitled "Disturbing Finding on Youth Drinkers Proves to Be Wrong," reports that the real proportion of alcohol consumed by teenagers was less than half CASA's figure, according to the federal government. CASA "acknowledged that it had not applied the usual statistical techniques" to derive the inflated number, "which would then have been far smaller," the Times reports. But even so, CASA's study "Teen Tipplers: America's Underage Drinking Epidemic" remains on CASA's website.

This is not the first time CASA, and its president Joseph Califano, Jr., have been exposed for factual distortion. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services blasted a 1994 CASA report on welfare and substance abuse as "seriously flawed." That report said one in four (which seems to be a favorite proportion of Columbia University-based CASA) women who receive welfare were alcohol or drug abusers. HHS's real number was 4.5 percent, and criticized CASA's overly broad definition of "abuser." Said HHS: "Readers of the headlines need to understand the fine print."

And a CASA report on "binge drinking" among college students, also from 1994, cited statistics linking alcohol with sexually transmitted diseases and campus rape. According to Forbes MediaCritic magazine's Winter 1995 issue, many of the "statistics" cited were merely conjecture by health educators at various universities. One number even came from a student handout that was "not intended to reflect any kind of original research." Another statistic came from a misquote published in a student newspaper. Said Professor David Hanson of the State University of New York at Potsdam, who has studied college alcohol use for over 20 years: "If I were teaching a research class, I would use this CASA report as an example of what not to do."

This is just one sign of a "social engineering" movement meant to use misleading "statistics" to influence and restrict consumer freedom. The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), which has called for increased regulations on restaurants and restrictions on all sorts of food products, also takes on the right to responsibly consume alcohol through its Alcohol Policy Project, which has "led efforts to improve policies regarding the labeling, advertising, and taxation of alcoholic beverages." The program's head, George Hacker, minces no words about the fact that he is an activist before a scientist, and comes with an agenda: He has worked on a national campaign to link alcohol consumption with illegal drug abuse through advertising, and called for blood alcohol content (BAC) arrest levels as low as .05%.

Like CASA, CSPI is not above fudging the numbers to make its point. CSPI released a report on soda in 1998. Like CASA's report, it dealt with consumption by children -- and like CASA, CSPI doubled the numbers, inflating its actual findings by 100 percent. CSPI admitted the error and did revise the report -- but, like CASA, left the original up on the Internet even after being called on the mistake.

Sometimes the deceptions cannot be explained away as mistakes. Assistant professor Frank Flynn of Columbia University (where CASA and Califano are based) sent letters to 240 New York restaurants, falsely claiming their wares had given him food poisoning. He also lied about what he did for a living as part of a "research project" on how restaurants respond to complaints. The letters said he and his wife had gone to each restaurant to celebrate their first wedding anniversary, but he had become ill after eating, curled up "in a fetal position on the tiled floor of our bathroom in between rounds of throwing up." Ten of the restaurants are now suing Flynn.

What do these various deceptions have in common? These "social engineering" distortions are all intended to change the way consumers think and act. In a recent study funded by a $250,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Deborah Cohen of the RAND Corporation wrote: "Alcohol consumption by any individual is, in part, a function of the overall distribution of consumption of the community and leads to the conclusion that [the] magnitude of alcohol-related health problems in a population is directly related to per capita consumption. Individual consumption in turn is associated with various factors affecting the physical and social availability of the product within the community in which individuals reside." In other words, reduce the availability of the product and consumption by responsible adults, and you reduce abuse by the few. Among her recommendations, "greater restrictions on alcohol accessibility, stricter disciplinary measures for violations and stricter licensure requirements."

Cohen, who has recently launched an effort to apply the same product-control tactics to obesity by shutting down restaurants, told the Dallas Morning News, "It's easier to control the providers than it is the consumers."


*Reprinted, with permission, from The Center for Consumer Freedom web site,

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