Alcohol Use and Abuse: How to “Lie” with Statistics
by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.
- Is college student drinking increasing?
- Is the rate of alcohol-related traffic crashes going up?
- Does alcohol advertising cause young people to begin drinking or drink more?
The answer to all three questions is no. The scientific evidence about all three is clear that they are false, but alcohol activists mange to convince us otherwise. How do they do that?
Most people who read the classic book How to Lie with Statistics do so in order to become more intelligent consumers of statistical information. However, it would appear that many alcohol activists might read the book as a training manual or guide to action.
Understanding statistics is a challenge, which creates a situation in which deception becomes easy. And the tricks and techniques are numerous. Here’s just a sampling.
Spin Story to Journalists
Journalists have a hard job. They‘re very busy and few are competent in statistics and research techniques. So some activists make the journalist’s job easier by preparing catchy headlines and memorable quotes within a well-written press release. Therefore the over-worked journalist doesn’t feel the need to read the actual research report itself but relies on the “spin” given the story by the activist. The journalist can even abstract the activist’s press release and have a ready-made story.
Case in point: One activist researcher titled a press release “Binge Drinking Continues Unabated on College Campuses.” Many newspapers then used that title for their headlines on the story. However, that title was inconsistent with the findings of the actual report In fact, so-called binge drinking actually declined significantly. An accurate and honest title would have been “Binge Drinking Drops significantly on College Campuses” or even “Binge Drinking Continues Unabated among the Significantly Declining Proportion of Drinkers on College Campuses.” Actually, the term “binge drinking” applied to most college drinkers is very deceptive, but more about that later.
Alcohol activist groups have a difficult task promoting their ideas because the scientific evidence usually doesn’t support their beliefs and proposals. For example, most such groups oppose alcohol beverage ads. However, decades of research by governments, health agencies and universities around the world fail to support their belief that such ads increase alcohol consumption, increase alcohol-related problems, or induce non-drinkers to begin drinking. The research does demonstrate repeatedly that alcohol beverage ads can increase a brands market share, which grows at the expense of its competitors, who lose market share.
Present Deceptive "Facts"
The amassed scientific evidence clearly doesn’t support the restriction or abolition of alcohol ads. Activist groups typically react to this fact by ignoring it. They then inundate the public with deceptive “facts.”
- Alcohol Abuse Statistics: A Report
- Welfare Mothers and Alcohol Abuse
- Study on Social Norms Deserves “F” Grade
- How Accurate Are Statistics on Drinking Problems?
- Federal Agencies: Temperance Approach to Alcohol
- Age of First Drink of Alcohol
- Alcohol Use “Guesstimates” Aren’t Statistics
- Parents versus Alcohol Ads
- Public Health Leaders and Underage Drinking
- Many Parents Unaware
- Activists present meaningless correlations. For example, several
years ago, they made much of fact that alcohol ad expenditures
had dropped for several years and that underage drinking had also
dropped during that time. But they quickly became silent about
the matter when alcohol ad expenditures increased but underage
drinking continued to fall.
Note: Activists exploit the tendency to assume that a correlation demonstrates causation. For example, drownings and the consumption of alcohol are highly correlated, As one goes up the other does; as one goes down, the other does. But one doesn‘t cause the other. Both increase during hot weather. Similarly stork sightings have been highly correlated with births and skirt heights have been correlated with the height of the stock market. And the list goes on and on.
- Activists present irrelevant facts. For example, they report on the proportion of people who believe that alcohol ads cause young people to drink. But large numbers of people believe in things that don‘t exist or aren‘t true. The simple fact that large numbers of people believe something doesn’t make it true.
- Activists provide anecdotes, often emotional in nature. Thus, they appeal to emotion rather than reason or logic.
- Activists show photos of alcohol beverage ads that they don’t like. Again, they appeal to emotion rather than reason or logic.
- Activists simply assert, contrary to the scientific evidence,
that alcohol beverage ads cause people to begin drinking, or increase
consumption, or create alcohol-related problems.
For more, visit Junk Science Congregation.
Present Advocacy as Science
Another technique routinely used by alcohol activist groups is
to present advocacy reports as though they were scientific reports.
Such groups, being political rather than scientific, virtually always
refuse to submit their reports to peer review, which is contrary
to the way real science
In peer review, an editor or other neutral person submits the report to a number of peer experts in the subject of the research. These authorities read the report to determine if it methods, the statistical analyses performed, the logic of the analysis, and other essential criteria, approval by peer experts reduces the chances that the findings are erroneous.
Peer review is fundamental to science. Without it, there is absolutely no reason to have any confidence in the findings of a report. Peer review is the major mechanism science uses to maintain quality control. It's a fundamental defense against incompetence, quackery, pseudo-science, and downright dishonesty.
Without peer review, a political report full of erroneous and misleading statistics can be passed off to the public as a scientific report. That's exactly what most alcohol activist groups do.
With good reason, most alcohol activist groups are not held in high regard by scholars and other alcohol researchers.
“Just Trust Us”
Less common but highly effective is the distribution of a summary of research that has not been peer reviewed or published along with a press release. Because the agency prints the summary, reporters equate printing as equivalent to publication that has gone through the normal peer review process. The summary is treated as the study and is sent to anyone who requests a copy. However, the data and their analyses are not made available.
Create and Fund Network of Activist Groups
Most alcohol activist groups receive funding, partially or completely, from the temperance-oriented Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. To varying degrees, they can be seen as “front groups” for the Foundation, or at least part of the same loose organization. Some describe them as feeding from the same trough.
However, these groups tend to reference each other’s reports as if they were truly independent and did not receive funding from the same common source. This is a violation of scientific ethics. But since they aren’t scientific organizations, they apparently don’t feel bound by such ethics.
The consequence is that weak and discredited reports continue to “echo” back and forth among the agencies, appear to be credible, and are more likely to be reported in the media. The media and public, of course, are duped.
Major players in the network include the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA), the Center on Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and its Alcohol Policies Project, the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), the American Medical Association (AMA) and its Office for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse (funded entirely by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation), Henry Wechsler, the Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free, the Trauma Foundation, the Marin Institute, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, Join Together Online, ImpacTeen, A Matter of Degree, and Fighting Back.
Here is a list of what appear to be grassroots organizations dedicated to reducing or preventing underage alcohol use:
- Pennsylvanians Against Underage Drinking
- Texans Standing Tall - A Statewide Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking
- Louisiana Alliance to Prevent Underage Drinking
- Oregon Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking
- Missouri’s Youth/Adult Alliance Against Underage Drinking
- National Capital Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking
- Minnesota Join Together Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking
- Georgia Alcohol Policy Partnership
- Puerto Rico Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking
- Indiana Coalition to Reduce Underage Drinking
- Partners to Reduce Underage Drinking in North Carolina
- Connecticut Coalition to Stop Underage Drinking
In reality, all of these groups are part of the anti-alcohol Robert
Wood Johnson Foundation’s nation-wide program to influence
alcohol policy at both the state and federal levels. They’re
also important in the Foundation’s efforts to create the illusion
of massive and widespread
grassroots support for its agenda.
The best example of the manipulation of terms is the misleading
use of the term “binge.”
To most people, binge drinking brings to mind a self-destructive and unrestrained drinking bout or bender lasting for at least a couple of days during which time the heavily intoxicated drinker "drops out" by not working, ignoring responsibilities, squandering money, and engaging in
other harmful behaviors such as fighting or risky sex. This view is consistent with that portrayed in dictionary definitions, in literature, in art, and in plays or films such as the classic Come Back Little Sheeba and Lost Weekend or the recent Leaving Las Vegas.
It is also consistent with the usage of physicians and other clinicians. As the editor of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol emphasizes, binge describes an extended period of time (typically at least two days) during which time a person repeatedly becomes intoxicated and gives up his or her usual activities and obligations in order to become intoxicated. It is the combination of prolonged use and the giving up of usual activities that forms the core of the clinical definition of binge.
Other researchers have explained that it is counter-productive to brand as pathological the consumption of only five drinks over the course of an evening of eating and socializing. It is clearly inappropriate to equate it with a binge.
How useful is such an unrealistic definition? It is very useful if the intent is to inflate the extent of a social problem. And it would please members of the Prohibition Party and the Women's Christian Temperance Union. But it is not very useful if the intent is to accurately describe reality to the average person.
It is highly unrealistic and inappropriate to apply a prohibitionist definition to describe drinking in the United States today. Perhaps we should define binge drinking as any intoxicated drinking that leads to certain harmful or destructive behaviors. Perhaps we should at least require that a person have a certain minimum level of alcohol in the bloodstream as a prerequisite to be considered a binger. Perhaps we could even require that a person be intoxicated before being labeled a "binger." But one thing is certain: the unrealistic definitions being promoted by some researchers are misleading and deceptive at best. [For more, visit Binge Drinking]
Another example of manipulation is demonstrated by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY). It contends that alcohol ads are disproportionately found in youth oriented magazines (radio, television, etc.).
To most people a youth-oriented magazine would have at least a majority of youthful readers. But to be clearly youth-oriented, perhaps the readership should be two-thirds young people, or perhaps three-fourths. Would you believe that anything above 15.8% youthful readership was defined as a youth-oriented magazine?! Without distorting the concept of youth-oriented, CAMY clearly wouldn’t have anything newsworthy to report.
A third example of the manipulation of terms is found in the definition of “adult.” In the US, people legally become adults at the age of 18. They can vote, serve in the military, marry, serve on juries, own businesses, adopt children, employ others, enter into legally binding contracts, have abortions, be imprisoned, be executed, fly airplanes, drive automobiles and other vehicles, and so on. However, many alcohol activists arbitrarily define adulthood as beginning at the age of 21. Similarly, they define as children those under the age of 21. So a legal adult is defined as a child! All of this is done because it serves the interests of the alcohol activists.
Select Words for Emotional Effect
Alcohol activists routinely refer to college students to as “kids.” However, virtually all college students are adults and 72% are age 21 or older.
By calling young adults kids, alcohol activist groups attempt to deny their adulthood and to justify denying them the right to consume alcohol beverages
Similarly, some activists groups almost never use the word alcohol but rather booze in an obvious effort to stigmatize the beverages. Thus, two 20-year-olds toasting their mutual love at their wedding with Champagne are seen by many alcohol activists as “kids boozing.”
Play to the Press
The media want something sensational to report and the temperance cause demands that things be getting worse... there must always be an epidemic. If a survey reveals no increase in drinking or drinking problems, the determined activist can always find something about which to be alarmed.
For example, when there’s nothing alarming in the overall figures, some activists carefully examines all subgroups and categories. Then they can usually find something to report. Perhaps it’s an increase in drinkers among Asian-American students from, say, two up to three percent of Asian-American students. Then the headline can read “Epidemic in Drinking among Asian-American College Students.” There may have been declines among other students, but that can be ignored.
Buy Public Relations
Most research reports are published in journals without any fanfare. Those for which the university or organization issues press releases are likely to get some press coverage. However, the use of professional public and media relations companies can dramatically. It can even turn insignificant findings into front-page news.
A prime example of “bought news” is that of Henry Wechsler. The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has poured about $6,500,000 into Mr. Wechsler's College Alcohol Study project to date. One million of that sum has been used to buy publicity:
"That blew it out of the box," says Marianne Lee, project director of the College Alcohol Study at the time. "We came out one day, and there were seven TV cameras outside the School of Public Health. We were taking calls from Australia." 1
Henry Wechsler made the media rounds, appearing on TV shows, including Nightline and Good Morning America, wrote newspaper editorials, and issued news releases on his studies. A million dollars can buy a lot of publicity, even if the findings are not new and have been earlier published by many others.
Pour Money into Promoting Agenda
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has alone poured over 265 million dollars (over one-quarter of a billion dollars) into establishing funding and promoting a nation-wide network of organizations and individuals in less than five years to promote its temperance oriented agenda. That’s over one million dollars per week spent to buy public acceptance of its temperance message.
As a result, nearly every study disparaging alcohol in the mass
media, every legislative push to limit marketing or increase taxes,
and every supposedly “grassroots” anti- alcohol movement
was conceived and coordinated at the RWJF’s headquarters.
Thanks to this one foundation,
the U.S. anti-alcohol movement speaks with one voice.
For the RWJF, it is an article of faith that diminishing per capita consumption across the board can contain the social consequences of alcohol abuse. Therefore, it has engaged in a long-term war to reduce overall drinking by all Americans. The RWJF relentlessly audits its own programs, checking to see if each dollar spent is having the maximum impact on reducing per capita consumption. Over the past 10 years, this blueprint has been refined. Increased taxes, omnipresent roadblocks, and a near total elimination of alcohol marketing are just a few of the tactics the RWJF now employs in its so-called “environmental” approach.
The environmental approach seeks to shift blame from the alcohol abuser to society in general (and to alcohol providers in particular). So the RWJF has turned providers into public enemy number one, burdening them with restrictions and taxes to make their business as difficult and complex as possible. The environmental approach’s message to typical consumers, meanwhile, is that drinking is abnormal and unacceptable. The RWJF seeks to marginalize drinking by driving it underground, away from mainstream culture and public places.
The RWJF funds programs that focus on every conceivable target, at every level from local community groups to state and federal legislation. Every demographic group is targeted: women, children, the middle class, business managers, Hispanics, Blacks, Whites, Native Americans. Every legal means is used: taxation, regulation, litigation. Every PR tactic: grassroots advocacy, paid advertising, press warfare. Every conceivable location: college campuses, sporting events, restaurants, cultural activities, inner cities, residential neighborhoods, and even bars. 2
The bottom line is this: the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and its vast organized network seek to marginalize and reduce drinking by driving it underground, away from mainstream culture and public places.
Unfortunately, that’s what Prohibition did. And the result of marginalized, underground drinking, by whatever name it’s called, is heavy episodic drinking and an increase in drinking-related problems.