Byline: David K. Rehr, SPECIAL TO INSIGHT
We all suffer when junk science falls into the hands of the few antialcohol activists in Congress and government bureaucrats who utilize unreliable data to drive their personal agendas. This unfortunately is the case with the recent National Academy of Sciences' (NAS) Institute of Medicine study on underage drinking.
Thankfully in this case those bureaucrats are in the minority and the overwhelming majority of Congress is committed to focusing on real solutions, not scare tactics, to fight the serious issue of illegal drinking among our nation's youth.
There is no question that until everyone under the age of 21 stops drinking illegally we can all do more. But the question taxpayers should be asking is, "Are the government's efforts to prevent illegal underage drinking working and, if not, should we continue to throw good money after bad?"
Most taxpayers probably are unaware that a 2001 Government Accounting Office (GAO) report revealed that 23 government agencies are spending at least 71.1 million tax dollars annually on efforts to prevent underage drinking, and approximately $769 million of grant money is allocated to the states to address prevention efforts. The troubling part is that the report concluded the federal government doesn't know where that money is going or whether it is being spent effectively. In a time of budget deficits and a soft economy, the government can't afford to be so reckless with our tax dollars.
Last year, when a few members of Congress were urging appropriators to fund a multimillion-dollar media campaign to fight underage drinking, Congress made the sound decision to exercise some oversight. What was needed, and what Congress requested, was a thorough review of which government and private-sector programs work and which do not.
The National Beer Wholesalers Association (NBWA) supported Congress and strongly advocated for a study to review all existing programs and identify those that work. Unfortunately, however, the NAS wasted that opportunity and the $500,000 in taxpayer money that was allocated for the audit by ignoring the intent of Congress.
Rather than focusing on existing programs that have been successful in fighting illegal underage drinking, the NAS panel blamed the products, the advertising, popular culture and the alcohol industry. After more than one year and $500,000 spent, the panel recommended exactly what a similar panel recommended 22 years ago: raising taxes on adult consumers of legal drinking age.
Now the few members of Congress who align themselves with the neo-Prohibitionist movement are trumpeting this study as a critical reason to allocate millions of tax dollars for more government programs. The problem is this study never accomplished what Congress intended an audit of which programs are effective.
Some of the most effective programs are being conducted in our communities, not necessarily by government agencies. Private-sector groups, foundations, nonprofit organizations and faith-based groups are avoiding bureaucratic red tape and taking their message directly to homes and schools. Congress needs to know what works.
It is beyond irresponsible that the NAS chose to disregard the instructions from Congress. When Congress asked for a comprehensive review of existing programs, a reasonable assumption might have been to utilize existing research to build on the GAO report. This might have included an audit of federal-government programs and certainly would have sought input from those agencies that regulate licensed beverages most importantly the state alcohol-beverage commissions.
Instead of focusing on existing programs implemented by federal, state and local governments, the alcohol industry, advocacy groups and others, the NAS chose to focus on raising taxes as a means to curb underage drinking. But this theory is not based on real science and falls flat when one reviews actual data.
For example, if higher taxes actually deter illegal underage drinking, then the rate of underage drinking should be well below average in states with the highest alcohol excise taxes such as Alaska, Florida, Hawaii and New York but that is not the case. While alcohol excise tax rates vary widely in the individual states, there is no reliable data indicating a pattern that higher taxes reduce illegal underage drinking.
Also, by the NAS report's own admission, the majority of underage drinkers obtain alcohol from adults. If this is true, and underage drinkers are helping themselves to the family liquor cabinet and refrigerator, then how will raising the price through taxes serve as a deterrent?
The simple fact is raising taxes will not curb illegal underage drinking, but it certainly will punish the more than 90 million adults of legal drinking age mostly hardworking people of modest means who enjoy our products.
According to the 2003 Roper Youth Report, 73 percent of adolescents cite their parents, not cost or advertising, as the primary influence in their decisions about whether they drink alcohol. That is why the beer industry has focused on educating parents, teachers, community leaders and youth on the dangers of underage drinking.
Brewers and wholesalers in the United States have a long-standing commitment to initiatives to fight illegal underage drinking as well as programs to combat alcohol abuse and drunk driving, committing hundreds of millions of dollars toward successful efforts.
Our industry-sponsored programs focus on real solutions, such as educational speakers in schools who encourage youth to stand up to peer pressure, materials to help parents talk to their children about not drinking, resources for law enforcement and retailers, and alcohol-free after-prom events. These efforts are working. In fact, 83 percent of the nation's youth are making the right decision to not drink alcohol illegally, according to government data.
Real progress is being made in the fight against illegal underage drinking. Of course more can be done and, working together, we can continue to make progress by focusing on real solutions. But raising taxes is not the answer. Neither is spending millions of taxpayer dollars on new and untested initiatives that have not proved to be successful. Unfortunately, the NAS panel results are not surprising considering that many of those chosen to serve as panelists came to the table with preconceived biases and ignored good scientific methods.
The NAS is obligated by federal law to protect the overall process of the study and select a balanced and objective committee. But several of the panelists had publicly advocated for tax increases or restrictive alcohol-access laws before being selected.
Additionally, eight out of the 12 NAS panelists had ties to the largest antialcohol advocacy group in the nation the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation which has spent approximately $265 million since 1998 publicly to condemn the legal licensed beverage industry and promote an anti-industry agenda. These panelists should never have been selected due to conflicts of interest.
Various well-respected experts were recommended for the panel by several members of Congress, but the NAS ignored those recommendations. The NAS then denied requests for relevant information regarding the committee panelists, their professional backgrounds and potential conflicts of interests. It's not hard to see why. This revealed that the NAS's selection process was bureaucracy at its worst shrouded in secrecy and insulated from public review.
Congress' mandate to the panel was to "review existing federal, state and nongovernmental programs." Many organizations, including the NBWA, submitted materials on a broad range of established programs designed to prevent underage drinking. However, as of July, most of the programs submitted by the NBWA eight months earlier still were unopened and in the cellophane packaging. It appears the NAS report was written even before all the data were reviewed. It is no wonder 140 members of Congress wrote to the NAS questioning whether the panel had gone astray and encouraging it to follow Congress' original intent.
Bush administration officials also raised their eyebrows at the approach taken by the NAS. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recommended in a letter to the NAS that a variety of groups, including advocacy organizations and the alcohol industry, be given the opportunity to peer review the study before its release. The panel largely ignored this request. Moreover, a panelist was quoted as saying that SAMHSA's request for fairness was "absolutely shocking." Not a surprising reaction from this antialcohol, pro-tax group.
Despite the lack of credibility of the NAS panelists and the report they produced, the few members of Congress aligned with neo-Prohibitionist groups were quick to applaud the study, admittedly even before they had read the contents.