Thursday, May 2, 2013

Former AMA Chair Calls Out CDC for Bad Science

Dr. Raymond Scalettar is a clinical professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center, a medical adviser to the Distilled Spirits Council, and a former chair of the American Medical Association.

In an op-ed to the Philadelphia Inquirer yesterday, Dr. Scalettar called out the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) for opposing privatization of liquor sales in Pennsylvania using as evidence studies that do not support their claim that privatization leads to unhealthy overconsumption of alcohol. The specific offender is Robert Brewer, who leads the alcohol program in the CDC's National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion.

The notion that privatizing liquor sales will have major negative health consequences is absurd on its face, which is probably why Brewer felt compelled to trump up evidence. Privatization is not deregulation. In the 33 'license states' in the U.S., private ownership of liquor retailers does not mean anything goes. Matters such as hours of operations, location of stores (e.g., near schools or churches), density of stores (how many in a given area) are all still determined by the state's Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) agency.

I'm sure the directors of those 33 ABCs will tell you that citizens in their state are just as well protected from alcohol abuses as are the citizens of Pennsylvania and the other 17 'control states.'

As Scalettar explains, Brewer cites a 44 percent median increase in per capita sales of alcoholic beverages within jurisdictions that switched from a state store system to private ownership. Brewer derived his figure by analyzing 17 studies, six of which showed no increase in consumption, and four of which showed only moderate increases. Brewer's own task force found no pattern of increased alcohol-related harms from privatization, though he implies the opposite.

In fact, the 44 percent figure is from studies of wine sales from 30 years ago. Between 1970 and 1981, six states privatized the sale of wine. The sale of wine increased significantly in those states but, guess what? The sale of wine increased significantly in the other 44 states too during that same period. Americans simply started to drink more wine in the '70s. It had nothing to do with privatization.

The privatization of wine sales was more likely the result of wine's increased popularity rather than the cause of it.

As Scalettar concludes, "The CDC has the imprimatur of a respected, science-based government organization. Brewer has the responsibility to honestly present research in an unbiased, forthright manner so the public and elected officials can make decisions based upon the best available evidence."


Rob K said...

The CDC seems to be a hotbed of politically motivated bad-science. They need to be drastically reigned-in and refocused on their core mission.

Anonymous said...

I would, in fact, expect the opposite to be true. Many studies have shown that "sin taxes" have a strong, negative correlation with consumption. When taxes and prices go up, consumption goes down. Since most state liquor authorities, in my experience, are less expensive then private stores in neighboring states, I would expect that consumption would actually be higher in states with state-run stores

The Bitter Fig said...

It's important to be specific about what "private" liquor sales means. Maine, for example, has privately run stores and a privately-run-but-state-granted monopoly distributor which sets statewide prices. Private is not necessarily synonymous with competitive.

Anonymous said...

Amen to Bitter Fig - I live in Maine and suffer the consequences of a restricted selection of beverage choices on a regular basis :-(