CASA de Tonter�­a

Neoprohibitionists try to vindicate a bogus number.


A year ago, the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse announced that "children drink 25 percent of [the] alcohol consumed in the U.S." It turned out that many of these "children" were actually adults (18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds) and that the true number was more like 11 percent, meaning that CASA was off by a factor of more than two. In response to intense criticism and embarrassing publicity, CASA refused to apologize. The organization conceded "an oversight" but insisted it was basically right, no matter what the data showed.

Now CASA has some new data. Actually, they're old data, but CASA has fiddled with them so they fit its prejudices better. In this week's Journal of the American Medical Association, CASA's researchers declare that in 1999 "individuals aged 12 to 20 years consumed 19.7%…of all the alcohol consumed in the United States." They got this number by combining a past-month drinking rate from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey with data on drinking frequency and quantity from the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse.

Why combine data from two surveys that used different samples and methods? Because it was the only way to get a figure close to CASA's original claim of 25 percent, which was based on a misreading of data from the household survey.

But CASA's desperate attempt to vindicate itself has prompted new criticism. Yesterday an official at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention told The New York Times CASA had "inappropriately" applied data from the CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which covers high school students, to 12-to-20-year-olds in the household survey.

More important, CASA's estimate for the share of alcohol consumed by Americans under the age of 21 seems wildly implausible when applied to sales data. If 12-to-20-year-olds really do consume one in five drinks, and the overall drinking rate for this group is 50 percent (the figure CASA uses), that means each underage drinker—i.e., every other teenager—is putting away about 100 drinks a month, more than three every day. The Distilled Spirits Council calls this result "simply absurd," and it's hard to disagree.

The council understands CASA's game: It is trying to delegitimize the industry by arguing that its profitability depends on teenagers and alcoholics. To shore up the second part of the argument, CASA estimates that "adult excessive drinking accounted for 30.4% of the alcohol consumed" in 1999. It gets this number by defining excessive drinking as anything more than two drinks a day.

According to CASA's definition, you're an excessive drinker if you have a beer with lunch, a cocktail when you get home from work, and a glass of wine with dinner. You're also an excessive drinker if you stick to two drinks every day but Saturday. It doesn't matter when you drink, how big you are, whether you're male or female, how alcohol affects you, or whether drinking causes you any problems.

That definition may seem overbroad, but CASA considers it conservative. After all, it could have picked a limit of one drink a day. As it is, CASA can still claim that "underage drinking and adult excessive drinking account for 50.1% of all the alcohol consumed." Conveniently, that percentage is just high enough for neoprohibitionists to start asserting that most of the alcohol industry's profits are illegitimate.

"These analyses show that it is not in the alcohol industry's financial interest to voluntarily enact strategies to reduce underage or adult excessive drinking," the CASA researchers conclude. "These findings signal the need for…government action at the federal, state and local levels." For starters, they suggest "aggressive public health campaigns similar to those that address smoking and illegal drug use," "increasing taxes on alcohol," and "tougher penalties on those who help minors obtain alcohol."

Do you object to being hectored by taxpayer-funded propaganda, fined for the sin of drinking, or threatened with jail should you dare to let your own children have a sip of beer or wine? Then you're probably one of those "excessive drinkers." Get help before it's too late.