Fighting for Our Right to Party at WhiskeyFest

I recently attended WhiskeyFest 2017 in San Francisco with my colleague Amanda France (and former CEI president Lawson Bader), where we screened our film I, Whiskey: The Human Spirit, and participated in a panel discussion, along with Distilled Spirits Council Senior Vice President David Ozgo, on alcohol regulation and threats from the nanny state. The following is an approximate transcript of the remarks I delivered after the film was shown.  

Now that we’ve seen the positive, inspiring example of how whiskey and the drinks industry can bring people together, I’d like to offer something in the way of a warning about keeping it this way.

Last December Amanda and I were in Tampa, Florida, where we were honored to be guests of that city’s Bar Guild to celebrate the anniversary of the end of Prohibition. After 84 years, it’s tempting to think that that experiment in social control failed so spectacularly that we’ve all long since learned our lesson.

Unfortunately, the impulses and mentality that brought us Prohibition in the beginning of the 20th century are still very much with us today in the 21st. There are still all sorts of public campaigns, legislative efforts, and government regulations that have ban, tax, and restrict all sorts of ostensibly legal products that adults enjoy – alcohol especially.

A few years back the Consumer Product Safety Commission banned desk toys made with rare earth magnets because someone might swallow them, cities across the country are trying to jack up taxes on soda and snack foods, and putting pressure on vending machine operators, for example, to swap out Doritos and Mountain Dew for apple slices and bottled water, and, of course, in yet other places they’re trying to ban bottled water, because the bottles aren’t biodegradable.

And in the hospitality industry itself, as many of you here tonight no doubt know better than I, there’s a dizzying array of state and local requirements that are always changing on when you can be open, what you can serve, how late you can serve, and who is held legally responsible when there’s an allegation that these rules have been broken.

Much like Prohibition itself, these neo-prohibitionist efforts are advanced with supposedly the best of intentions of increasing public health and safety and cutting down on anti-social behavior. The original campaigners against alcohol from a century ago, many of whom invoked religious arguments for prying the cocktails out of the hands of their fellow Americans, told stories of irresponsible fathers drinking away the family paycheck, entire neighborhoods descending in chaos when a new tavern opened, and even God-fearing women being forced to do the unthinkable – get their own jobs – because all of the available men were too busy drinking to marry and support them.

The scare stories have changed, of course, but the goal is still largely the same. The people who support more government control of what we can drink, eat, and smoke today still think that their judgment is superior to ours (and our customers’ and guests’) and that government policies should enforce that judgment on everyone.

The anti-alcohol activists of today are less likely to be Bible-thumping Baptist ministers, and more likely to be government bureaucrats with a Master’s degree in public health. As my learned colleague Michelle Minton recently wrote, public health workers have, of course, brought us some very impressive gains over the last 100 years, when it comes to fighting communicable diseases and preventing epidemics of everything from malaria to diphtheria. But as some point, a significant portion of the public health industry decided that, for example, figuring out how to treat the small number of Americans diagnosed with tuberculosis every year was less interesting than micromanaging what everyone in society should be eating and drinking.

Now, the federal government in particular has a long history of issuing dietary and nutrition advice, so this impulse isn’t entirely new. But recent years have seen a new emphasis – rather than reviewing the latest research on human health and trying to communicate that knowledge to the general populace, some public health experts have decided that it’s their mission to stop people from doing certain things and engaging in certain behaviors – and they’re on a scavenger hunt to find any study that supports those goals. In other words, agenda first, evidence afterwards.

There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of this approach, especially when even the federal government’s original just-the-facts mentality has such a spotty record. Many of us grew up in an era in which saturated fat and cholesterol were the worst possible things to eat, and would lead straight to heart attacks, stokes, and cancer. Only to be told, in more recent years, that sugar and processed foods were the real danger. Butter used to clog your arteries – now people are putting in their coffee. My colleague Michelle, who I mentioned earlier, recently published an exhaustive study of what government experts have been saying about salt for the past 40 years, and how it now seems to be mostly BS, often generating counterproductive advice to people with real health problems.  

So even when you have scientists of good faith who are trying to find answers for the general public, it turns out human health is more complicated than can be easily boiled down to a waiting room wall chart. And popular conceptions – like that we all need to eat less salt – can guide funding and research decisions in a way that throws even experienced researchers down blind alleys. And it’s because of all of that, that we should be skeptical of new government policies that try to “steer” or “nudge” Americans toward the right diets and lifestyles. Even if you think there is a role for government policy to be doing that, the evidence that they’re nudging us in the right direction is a lot skimpier than those doing the nudging would like to admit.

And especially when it comes to things like whiskey and cigars and nightlife and nightclubs, the people who are trying to make the rules for everyone else are often not the same people who like to indulge and stay out late. When your job is to study potential health threats from alcohol, you don’t spend a lot of time collecting stories about how fun, relationships, and good times are part of the equation. When a government report on your favorite things comes out, it’s always full of bad news – because that was the point – to list all of the problems.

The same bias is often seen in the complaints and concerns that individuals bombard our government officials with. Politicians everywhere and subject to the same incentives. The people who make a ruckus are the ones who get heard, and if the only people complaining are the ones who think dance clubs and liquor stores are the tools of Satan, then there are going to be a lot fewer dance clubs and liquor stores open in the future. In politics, you have to fight for when you want, and if you want, for example, to live in a city where you can get dinner, go to a street festival, dance all night, and then have a jumbo slice of pizza on the sidewalk at 4am, we all need to stand up and say that yes – this is what we want.

There’s a tendency among some people – maybe not as many in this room, but a lot of people out there in the country – to me a little timid when it comes to standing up for their right to have fun. Sometimes they even feel embarrassed to make a big deal about rules that limit where you can go, and what you can do. But these things are important. Bars and clubs and house parties are places where we celebrate and mark our milestones in life. And they’re some of the first places where we learn to be adults, and enter the social world of dating and relationships.

So, in short, you have to fight for your right to party. And I really mean that. Because I assure you, the people who take a dim view of nightlife have plenty of time on their hands. The people who want to plug every state budget gap with more ever taxes on alcohol have all of their talking points typed up and ready to go. And in case you were wondering, they want to do it all for the children.

So, if you’re in the industry, definitely be active in your local bar guild and business association. And wherever you live, talk to people in your neighborhood, and if you see a notice for a public hearing on local liquor laws or zoning regulations, consider showing up and speaking your piece. Write those letters and make those phone calls to your representatives in the state legislature and Congress. They really do listen – every voter that’s unhappy is one less vote they might get next time around, and they don’t forget that. And, in general, don’t be afraid of sticking up for your favorite things – there’s always someone looking for the weakest target to tax, regulate, and restrict. If you don’t speak up, it might be you.