Health “Advocates”: Tax And Regulate Responsible Drinkers

no_alcohol “Don’t just lean in, barge in,” said Rebecca Ramirez of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health at the opening of the Alcohol Policy 16 conference in Arlington,Virginia (April 3-5, 2013). In one short sentence, Ramirez summed up the entire purpose of this 16th annual event: mobilize nanny-state activists to push taxes and regulations that limit access to alcohol, targeting those of us who just might take one too many sips of Merlot.

A collaboration of numerous health-related groups, the theme of this partially taxpayer-funded event was “Building Blocks for Sound Alcohol Policy.” Surely, there is a role for public health advocacy when it comes to addressing issues related to serious alcohol abuse. But rather than focus on real problems, there was way too much focus on how to control the behavior of people like me.

My crime stems from the fact that I like to share a bottle of wine with my husband at dinner. My consumption of 2.5 standard-drinks-a-day exceeds the two-drinks a day maximum for women — placing me in the “excessive” drinker category.

Mind you, a standard drink really isn’t that much alcohol, especially when consumed with food over many hours. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, a standard drink is one that contains 14 grams of alcohol — one small, 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer, or a 1.5 shot of spirits (40 percent alcohol). Many people can handle several of such drinks over a 24 hour period without getting “drunk” or abusing these products.

Calling two glasses plus one sip of wine “excessive” may sound ridiculous to moderate drinkers, but that doesn’t seem to matter to many of the AP16 participants. In fact, one presenter placed the phrase “responsible drinker” in quotes, an approach with which no-one took issue. Apparently, to many of the participants, no level of drinking is responsible.

The solutions participants presented for such “excessive” drinkers emphasized the heavy hand of government. Presenters honed in on how to effectively lobby and advocate for alcohol regulations of any kind, including preventing alcohol at public events, taxing as much as politically possible, and limiting alcohol retail licenses.

Speakers largely dismissed the idea that health policy related to alcohol should focus on promoting individual responsibility, and one mocked industry efforts to do so. They forget, we are supposed to live in a free society — one that abolished alcohol prohibition, which proved a miserable failure. Ultimately, individuals need to be responsible. After all, a host of lifestyle choices affect our health — from diets to dental hygiene, to activity levels. No level of taxes and regulations will change that reality.

For anyone who legitimately wants to address real alcohol abuse and health issues, the AP16 Alcohol Policy Conference should be viewed as  a lost opportunity. If these groups want to be taken seriously, they should be looking at real problems and offering serious solutions, rather than trying to punish responsible drinkers.

More posts to come on this topic.