Are Tax Dollars Paying for Anti-Alcohol Advocacy?

This month, Maryland banned high-proof liquors like Everclear and other inexpensive tipples. Self-proclaimed public health activists claimed such "high octane" liquors increased the likelihood of binge-drinking and sexual assaults on college campuses. While the merits of the ban are debatable, one aspect of it is not: the use of taxpayer money to support a political agenda.  

The "grain alcohol ban" was backed by the Maryland Collaborative to Reduce College Drinking and Related Problems, a coalition of researchers and administrators at 10 Maryland colleges and universities. The group's "off campus strategies" include efforts to limit the amount of retail alcohol outlets, limit the days and hours of sales, prevent privatization of alcohol sales, increase the price of alcohol through taxation and to restrict price promotions, discounts and happy hours. If the collaborative has its way, Marylanders will face even greater restrictions on buying alcohol on Sundays or in grocery stores, and we will pay more for it when we do.

Worse, the research used to back up the collaborative's neo-prohibitionist agenda is little more than propaganda. And even worse yet, we're all paying for it.

David H. Jernigan, the director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth project (CAMY) at Johns Hopkins University (formerly at Georgetown University), is a leader of the collaborative. Mr. Jernigan, who also co-founded The Marin Institute for the Prevention of Alcohol and Other Drug Problems, a neo-temperance organization now known as Alcohol Justice, is a longtime outspoken critic of the alcohol industry. His work has been funded by nearly $8 million in grants from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, part of the National Institutes of Health, since 2009.

Mr. Jernigan's research, as he himself admits, isn't purely objective. In a 2011 podcast produced by the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Mr. Jernigan said outright that he was an "advocate" and that his research questions "have always been driven by what the policy opportunities are in the moment or what policy opportunities I can promote by doing research that will support people being able to make change." Mr. Jernigan also spins the promotion of his research for political purposes. For example, a 2012 CAMY study found that African American children (ages 12-20) saw more alcohol in TV and magazine ads than kids of other races, which led Mr. Jernigan to assert that alcohol marketers should "cut exposure to this high-risk population," but the research makes no causal link between exposure and consumption (a link many studies have debunked). In fact, the long standing evidence (such as the annual National Survey on Drug Use and Health) suggests that African American kids drink less alcohol than their peers.

Then there was Mr. Jernigan's questionable 2013 study in which his team donned white lab coats and asked 105 patients at Johns Hopkins Hospital Emergency Department in East Baltimore about their alcohol consumption. The fact that the study was too limited to draw broad conclusions didn't deter media outlets from running with headlines like, "Budweiser Drinkers Are Most Likely to End Up in Emergency Room." The media isn't entirely to blame since it was CAMY that pushed this conclusion in its press release.

CAMY's unscholarly behavior has raised eyebrows in the past. In 2006, the Statistical Assessment Service at George Mason University gave CAMY the dubious honor of "Worst Press Release of 2006." Penn State professor emeritus Jon Nelson, who has done much of his own research on alcohol advertising, noted that CAMY's articles are often just data collection, and "the authors can do little more than suggest possible relationships, rather than provide scientific evidence of causal connections."

David J. Hanson, professor emeritus of sociology of the State University of New York at Potsdam, minced fewer words, saying, "CAMY begins with an assumption which it then sets out to prove. In doing so it is clearly an activist group rather than an objective scientific organization seeking to learn the truth."

From all apparent evidence, Mr. Jernigan is a passionate man who sincerely wants to improve public health. There's nothing wrong with being an advocate, but using millions of taxpayer dollars to advance a political agenda is wrong, no matter who does it. 

Moreover, CAMY's goal of making alcohol as expensive, hard to get and invisible as possible in our society will do nothing to curb problem drinking. If college students want to get drunk or high, they will find a way. Tax increases and happy hour bans won't discourage excessive drinkers but will simply increase what all consumers pay for alcohol.

Personally, I don't like being treated like a child who is too irresponsible to make her own choices about what to drink. And I dislike even more that my tax dollars are funding the fight to take away that right. 

Michelle Minton is a fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank in Washington, D.C. Her email is [email protected].