Deceptive Alcohol Statistics: How They Do It

Deceptive Alcohol Statistics

Deceptive alcohol statistics are everywhere. But if you understand how people deceive us, you’re less likely to be fooled.

Let’s start by looking at some statements. Which is, or are, true?

    • College student drinking is increasing.
    • The rate of alcohol-related traffic crashes is going up.
    • Alcohol advertising causes young people to begin drinking or to drink more.

The scientific evidence about these is clear. In fact, they’re all false. Yet those with an ax to grind, many mange to convince us otherwise. How do they do that?

deceptive alcohol statisticsPeople widely who read the classic book How to Lie with Statistics. They do this to become smart consumers of stats.

But it would appear that many alcohol activists might read the book as a training manual. They learn tricks to use deceptive alcohol statistics.

Understanding stats is a challenge. This makes deception easy. And the tricks and techniques are for promoting deceptive alcohol statistics are many. Here’s just a sampling.


I.   Spin Story to Journalists

II.  Present Deceptive “Facts”

III. Present Advocacy as Science

IV. “Just Trust Us”

V.   Create Network of Activists

VI.  Manipulate Terms

VII. Use Impactful Words

VIII.Play to the Press

IX.  Buy Public Relations

X.   Promote Agenda with Money

XI.  Resources

I. Spin Story to Journalists

Journalists have a hard job. They‘re very busy and few are competent in stats and research. So some activists make the journalist’s job easier . They give them catchy headlines and memorable quotes. All within a well-written press release.

Therefore over-worked journalists don’t feel the need to read the actual research report. They often simply use press release itself as a ready-made story.

Case in point. One researcher titled a press release “Binge Drinking Continues Unabated on College Campuses.” Many newspapers then used that title for their headlines on the story. But that title didn’t reflect the findings of the actual report. In fact, so-called binge drinking actually declined.

On the other hand, an accurate 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. That’s because science usually doesn’t support their beliefs. For instance, most such groups oppose alcohol beverage ads.

Yet decades of research by governments, health agencies and universities around the world fail to support their belief. That is, that such ads increase drinking. Or increase alcohol-related problems. Or get non-drinkers to begin drinking.

The research does show that alcohol ads can increase a brands market share. But it’s at the expense of its competitors. They lose market share.

II. Present Deceptive “Facts”

The science 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 alcohol stats as “facts.”

Here are some of their techniques.

One. 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 became silent when alcohol ad spending increased. But underage drinking continued to fall.

deceptive alcohol statisticsNote. They exploit the tendency to assume that a correlation shows causation. For example, drownings and eating ice cream 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.

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. For more with alcohol examples, visit Confusing Correlation with Causality.

Two. 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. For more about irrelevant facts, visit here.

Three. Temperance activists give anecdotes, often emotional in nature. Thus, they appeal to emotion rather than reason or logic. Anecdotes? Visit here.

Four. Activists show photos of alcohol ads they don’t like. Again, they appeal to emotion rather than reason or logic.

Five. Anti-alcohol activists simply assert things. They may contrary to scientific evidence. For instance, that alcohol ads cause people to begin drinking. Or that they increase consumption or create alcohol-related problems. More deceptive alcohol statistics.

III. Present Advocacy as Science

Another technique routinely used is to present advocacy reports as though they were scientific reports. Such groups are political instead of scientific. They virtually never submit their reports to peer review. Of course, that’s not the way real science does things.

In peer review, authorities read the report carefully. They do that to see if the methods, statistical analyses, logic, and other basics are scientific. Approval by peer experts reduces the chances that the findings are erroneous.

Peer review is basic to science. Without it, there’s no reason to have any confidence in the findings of a report. Peer review is used to maintain quality control. It’s a defense against incompetence, quackery, pseudo-science, and dishonesty.

Without peer review, a political report full of erroneous statistics can be passed off to the public as scientific. 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 alcohol researchers. They use deceptive alcohol statistics.

IV. “Just Trust Us”

Less common but highly effective is another technique. That’s printing a summary of research that hasn’t been peer reviewed or published. But reporters tend to equate printing as equivalent to publication. So they print the report but don’t publish it. Then the summary is sent to journalists.

V. Create and Fund Network of Activist Groups

The temperance Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has funded many alcohol activist groups. 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. They treat them as if they were truly independent and wern’t funded by the same source. This is a violation of scientific ethics. But since they aren’t scientific, 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 groups. They 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 all promote deceptive alcohol statistics. They include these.


Here is a list of what appear to be grassroots groups dedicated to 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 fact, all of these groups are part of the anti-alcohol Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s program. It seeks to influence alcohol policy. They’re also important in the Foundation’s efforts to create the illusion of massive and widespread grassroots support for its agenda.

VI. Manipulate Terms

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. It lasts for at least a couple of days.

During that time the heavily intoxicated drinker “drops out.” Doesn’t work, ignores responsibilities, squanders money, and does other harmful things.These might include such as fighting or having risky sex.

This view is consistent with that portrayed in dictionary definitions, in literature, in art, and in plays or films.

It’s also consistent with the usage of doctors and other clinicians. To them, a binge covers an extended period of time (typically at least two days). During that time a person repeatedly becomes intoxicated. Finally, the binger gives up his or her usual activities and obligations in order to be intoxicated. Essential is the combination of prolonged use and giving up usual activities.

It’s counter productive to consider drinking five drinks over the course of an evening of eating and socializing. It is clearly inappropriate to equate it with a binge.

For another great example of manipulation of terms, see Selling Booze to Our Babies.

     Deceptive Definition

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. (They both exist.) 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 US today.

Perhaps we should define binge drinking as any intoxicated drinking that leads to certain harmful or destructive behaviors. Or we could at least require that a person have a certain BAC to be defined 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)

     Youth Oriented?

Another example of manipulation is shown by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY). It contends that alcohol ads are disproportionately found in youth oriented magazines. Or on youth oriented radio, TV, etc.

To most people a youth-oriented magazine would have at least a majority of youthful readers. Would you believe that anything above 15.8% youthful readership was defined as a youth oriented magazine?!  At least to CAMY. Without distorting the concept of youth oriented, CAMY clearly wouldn’t have anything newsworthy to report.

A child or a “kid”?

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.

These adults can do all of these.

    • Vote
    • Serve in the military.
    • Marry
    • Serve on juries.
    • Own businesses.
    • Adopt children.
    • Enter into legally binding contracts.
    • Have abortions.
    • Drive cars vehicles.
    • Fly airplanes.
    • Buy pornography.
    • Perform in pornography.

They can be be fined, imprisoned, and executed.

Yet many alcohol activists arbitrarily define adulthood as beginning at the age of 21. They refer to those under the age of 21 as children or or even as “kids” So a legal adult is a child or a “kid.”! All of this is done because it serves the interests of the alcohol activists.

VII. Use Impactful Words

Alcohol activists routinely refer to college students to as “kids.” But virtually all college students are adults. And 72% are age 21 or older.

By calling young adults kids, (and even babies!), alcohol activist groups attempt to deny their adulthood. This, to justify denying them the right to have a drink.

Some activists groups almost never use the word alcohol. Instead, it’s booze. That’s to stigmatize the beverages. Two 20-year-olds toasting their mutual love at their wedding with Champagne. But they’re “kids boozing”!

VIII. Play to the Press

The media want something sensational to report. The temperance cause demands that things be getting worse. There must always be an epidemic. That’s good fit.

Let’s say a survey reveals no increase in drinking or drinking problems. But a determined activist can always find something alarming.

For instance, 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.

Then the headline can read “Epidemic in Drinking among Asian-American College Students.” There may have been declines among other students, but that’s ignored. Again, deceptive alcohol statistics result.

IX. Buy Public Relations for Deceptive Alcohol Statistics

Most research reports appear in journals without any fanfare. Those for which the university or organization issues press releases are likely to get some press coverage.

But the use of professional public and media relations companies can greatly increase publicity..It can even turn minor 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. He spent one million of that 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. They included Nightline and Good Morning America. He 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.

X. Promote Agenda with Money (Lots of It)

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) has alone poured over 265 million dollars into its temperance agenda. That is, over one-quarter of a billion dollars. And that was in less than a five-year period. That’s over one million dollars per week it spent to buy public acceptance of its message.

As a result, the RWJF conceived most stories disparaging alcohol in the mass media. It started legislative pushes to limit marketing or increase taxes. And it seeded most supposedly “grassroots” anti-alcohol groups in the country.

The RWJF pushes the environmental approach. That shifts blame from the alcohol abuser to society in general. Thus, it wants to stop all alcohol ads, increase alcohol taxes, and strengthen warning labels. It wants to reduce sales outlets and to hold alcohol retailers responsible for problems caused by their customers, etc.

The environmental approach tries to marginalize drinking and to stigmatize consumers. In short, it wants to follow in the footsteps of the anti-smoking campaign.

XI. Resources

Deceptive Alcohol Statistics

Readings on Deceptive Alcohol Statistics

1. Hoover, E. Binge Drinking. Henry Wechsler has defined the Student Drinking Problem, for Better or Worse. Chron High Ed, 49(11), p. 11A.

Note on deceptive alcohol statistics
    • You now know about deceptive alcohol statistics than most people. And also how stats are distorted.