A federal panel on underage drinking recently called for higher taxes on alcoholic beverages to reduce alcohol consumption by minors.
While this recommendation may seem reasonable at first glance, it’s unlikely to work. Moreover, it’s part of an ongoing effort by neo-prohibitionists to reduce alcohol consumption in general.
A panel of the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine recommended in its Sep. 9 report “"Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility” that Congress and state legislatures should raise excise tax rates on alcohol, particularly on beer, supposedly the alcoholic beverage that most young people prefer.
“Alcohol is much cheaper today, after adjusting for inflation, than it was 30 to 40 years ago... Increasing the cost of alcohol has well-documented deterrent effects on underage drinkers,” the IOM panel asserts.
But panel’s claim is lame, from both a research and common sense perspective.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism’s “ 10th Special Report,” issued in June, 2000, cites plenty of research reporting no effect of higher beer taxes on college and student drinking.
Even if some IOM panel members were somehow ignorant of the NIAAA report, at least one panel member, Philip J. Cook of Duke University, has no excuse. Dr. Cook wrote in 1999 that, “the scholarly consensus on the public-health benefits of alcohol excise taxes appears to have broken down in recent years.”
“Estimates of the influence of beer excise taxes on drinking, heavy drinking and motor-vehicle fatality rates are not robust…and the true effects may be considerably smaller than suggested in the previous literature,” added Dr. Cook.
That underage drinkers aren’t terribly responsive to excise taxes (or even really price) shouldn’t be news to anyone. Underage drinkers don’t drink because they can afford it; they drink what they can afford.
The IOM panel’s recommendation is further undercut by its own acknowledgement that most underage drinkers get their alcohol “directly or indirectly from adults.”
How is an excise tax going to affect underage drinkers if they’re not buying it in the first place?
Excise taxes, in reality, would probably only impact adult consumers, perhaps causing some to their reduce purchases of alcoholic beverages-- the real goal of the neo-prohibitionists.
Nine of the 12 “experts” on the IOM panel have ties to anti-alcohol activists, according to the Center for Consumer Freedom. Eight of the 12 have ties to the prohibitionist Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
Between 1988-2002, RWJF gave more than $260 million to anti-alcohol causes. Over $60 million went to something called the “Consider Fighting Back” program, a goal of which is to “achieve measurable reduction in the overall use or demand for alcohol.”
Here’s a brief run-down of some of the IOM panel members
Marilyn Aguirre-Molina is a former RWJF senior program officer and current RWJF consultant who accused alcohol companies in 1990 of “killing us softly.”
Judy Cushing is the CEO of the RWJF-funded Oregon Partnership, which has run ads linking beer with heroin and other illegal drugs.
Panel chairman Richard J. Bonnie, previously chaired an RWJF-funded Committee.
Joel Grube is director of the Prevention Research Center at the anti-alcohol RWJF-funded Pacific Institute on Research & Evaluation.
So the IOM panel was seriously biased and its conclusions were likely determined before it began work. The panel’s recommendations are nothing more than RWJF prohibitionism dressed up in IOM clothing.
Perhaps worst of all, the IOM panel paid scant attention to efforts that may actually reduce underage drinking.
“Social norms” is a relatively new approach to addressing risky behaviors. It has been successfully tested on selected college campuses to reduce alcohol use and abuse by students.
Social norms theory predicts that individuals overestimate the degree to which peers have permissive attitudes or behavior with respect to alcohol use, smoking and other risky behavior and underestimate the extent to which peers engage in health, health-promoting or risk-reducing behavior.
Educating students on what are the norms for behavior actually can lead to reductions in risky behavior. Social norms programs at Northern Illinois University, the University of Arizona, Western Washington University, Hobart College and William Smith College have led to significant reductions in problem drinking.
The IOM panel dismissed the social norms approach as not having enough supporting data -- a problem the panel strangely didn’t seem to have with raising beer excise taxes even though the latter approach has been seriously questioned, if not discredited.
But I suspect that the panel’s real problem with the social norms approach is that simply reducing underage drinking doesn’t accomplish the panel’s real goal -- halting the public’s consumption of alcoholic beverages.
Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).