How Accurate Are Statistics
on Drinking Problems?

The welfare, if not the survival, of alcohol agencies depends largely on promoting the widespread belief that problems caused by alcohol abuse are enormous and growing. However, such distortions are self-serving and may be counter-productive in promoting the moderate and responsible consumption of beer, wine or distilled spirits (liquor).

Citizens have a right to expect the truth, but the welfare, if not the survival, of many alcohol agencies depends largely on promoting the widespread belief that problems caused by abusing alcohol beverages are enormous, that they are growing, and that they are a serious burden on the economy.

While such groups typically state as fact that alcohol beverages are responsible for half of all traffic deaths in the United States, this statistic has no solid foundation. The most accurate estimates, however, from the unbiased National Academy of Sciences, are that roughly one-quarter of fatal accidents are caused by intoxication.

Similarly, estimates of the number of auto crashes in which alcohol beverages might be involved in any way (bystander, pedestrian, etc.) become transformed into statistics on the number of accidents that are actually caused by drunk drivers.

In addition to exaggerating the extent of drinking problems, some alcohol agencies also distort the costs of alcohol abuse by basing estimates on questionable assumptions, by confusing correlation with causality, by looking only at costs while ignoring the economic benefits of the sunstance, and by not using sound accounting principles.

Estimates by independent researchers of the number of people who have experienced any drinking problem within the previous three years as well as those of the number likely ever to experience a problem in the future have been transformed into agency assertions of the actual number of problem drinkers. And this in spite of protests of the researchers to the distortions and misuse of their data.

The motives of many groups are apparent. One is an attempt to justify the existence of jobs while the other is to expand bureaucratic budgets and power.

Readings

  • Cahalan, Don. Problem Drinkers. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1970.
  • Cahalan, Don, Why does the alcoholism field act like a ship of fools? British Journal of Addiction, 1979, 74, 235-238.
  • Chauncey, Robert L. New careers for moral entrepreneurs: Teenage drinking. Journal of Drug Issues, 1980, 45-70.
  • Gross, Leonard. How Much Is too Much: The Effects of Social Drinking. New York: Random House, 1983.
  • Gusfield, Joseph. The Culture of Public Problems. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1981.
  • Heien, Dale M., and Pittman, David J. The economic costs of alcohol abuse: An assessment of current methods and estimates. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1989, 50, 567-579.
  • Josephson, E. An Assessment of Statistics on Alcohol-Related Problems, Trends in Problem Drinking. Columbia University School of Public Health. Distilled Spirits Council of the United States, May 5, 1980. Quoted in Ford, Gene. The Benefits of Moderate Drinking. San Francisco: Wine Appreciation Guild, 1988, p. 135.
  • Mauss, Armand L. Science, Social Movements, and Cynicism: Appreciating the Political Context of Sociological Research in Alcohol Studies. In: Roman, Paul M. (ed.) Alcohol: The Development of Sociological Perspectives on Use and Abuse. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, 1991. Pp. 187-204.
  • Mulford, Harold A. The Epidemiology of Alcoholism and Its Implications. In: Pattison, E. Mansell and Kaufman, Edward (ed.) Encyclopedic Handbook of Alcoholism. New York: Gardner Press, 1982. Pp. 441-457.
  • Rice, Dorothy P. The economic cost of alcohol abuse and alcohol dependence: 1990. Alcohol Health & Research World, 1993, 17, 10-11.
  • Room, Robin. Alcohol and ethnography. A case of "problem deflation"? Current Anthropology, 1984, 25, 169-191.
  • Ross, H. Lawrence, and Hughes, Graham. Getting MADD in vain: Drunk driving - what not to do. The Nation, 1986, 243, 663-664.
  • Wiener, Carolyn. The Politics of Alcoholism. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Books, 1981.
  • Zylman, Richard. OVERemphasis on alcohol may be costing lives. The Police Chief, 1974, 41, pp. 64-67.

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