Outside View: Carry Nation rides again

By MATTHEW VADUM, A UPI Outside view commentary  |  April 26, 2003 at 6:25 PM
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WASHINGTON, April 26 (UPI) -- The spirit of Carry Nation, the legendary hatchet-wielding anti-alcohol campaigner who smashed up saloons in the early 1900s and became a hero of the Prohibition movement, is alive and well at the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University.

Like Nation, an early Prohibitionist who believed God stood by her while she wrecked drinking establishments, the discredited activist group is once again taking aim at alcoholic beverages. But this group, unlike Nation, uses intimidation instead of sledgehammers to accomplish its goals.

In its latest project, CASA attempts to shake down the industry to the tune of $1 billion to endow a foundation that it says will have "no ties to the alcohol industry to work exclusively to curb underage drinking and adult excessive drinking."

Major contributors to CASA include private groups such as the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. But what ought to be especially galling to American taxpayers is that tax dollars are also being used to underwrite CASA's misguided anti-drinking crusade.

The Department of Health and Human Services, New York City's Human Resources Administration, and the National Institutes of Health are among government donors to CASA, according to CASA's 2001 annual report.

CASA's modus operandi is to assert that inadequate regulation, low prices and advertising by the beverage alcohol industry force people to drink. It concludes that individuals don't decide for themselves whether or not to raise a glass. The group says it hopes "that the industry would prefer to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem," and demands higher taxes on alcohol, along with anti-drinking publicity campaigns, and stiffer sentences for those peddling alcohol to minors.

To back up its demand for cash, the advocacy group rolled out "Alcohol Consumption and Expenditures for Underage Drinking and Adult Excessive Drinking," a report carrying the endorsement of former first lady Betty Ford, to give it a bit of public relations sex appeal.

According to the report, underage drinkers aged from 12 to 20 and "adult excessive drinkers are responsible for 50.1 percent of alcohol consumption and 48.9 percent of consumer expenditure."

The study, which the New York Times notes "is couched more as a political statement than as a dry recitation of numbers." was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. But it has already come under fire from an official at the National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who said the study's authors took a CDC survey and "inappropriately" assumed that all 12- to 20-year-olds had the same drinking habits.

As far as CASA is concerned, there is no significant difference

between use and abuse. The authors gloss over the exhaustively documented health benefits of moderate alcohol consumption to arrive by statistical sleight-of-hand at their headline-grabbing figures. Their data transforms a couple sharing a bottle of wine over dinner into alcohol abusers. More than two drinks a day, and you're a drunkard.

A once-respected organization, CASA became a focus for controversy last year when its chairman and president, Joseph A. Califano Jr., unveiled the flawed report, which grossly overstated the portion of the nation's alcohol that is consumed by underage drinkers. The now-debunked study claimed that 25 percent of all alcohol consumed in the United States was consumed by those too young to take a legal drink.

When the New York Times and other media outlets realized they had been duped, they ran corrected stories showing the correct figure, which was closer to 11 percent. But an unrepentant CASA vice president defended her group's efforts, saying the correct percentage had to be "way too low, since there's so much underreporting."

The incident in 2002 is not the first time CASA stretched the truth: even one of its financial contributors, the Department of Health and Human Services, denounced a 1994 CASA study that claimed 28 percent of adults on welfare were strung out on drugs or alcohol. The department called the report "seriously flawed" and said the true figure was more like 4.5 percent.

"Neo-Prohibitionist" groups like CASA have an unstated goal: They want to drive up the price of alcohol so few can afford it and stigmatize alcohol consumption so no one will want to drink.

If CASA can get lawmakers to impose more taxes and costly regulations, the industry will have to raise its prices. Bullying the industry into setting up a $1 billion foundation is another effective way to force prices up and make legal alcohol products unaffordable. In the age of the Internet, call it "virtual" Prohibition.

But unlike Carry Nation, who earned infamy by trashing a few bars, CASA aims to destroy the entire beverage alcohol industry which generates $116 billion in annual sales.

The famous temperance activist would be proud.

-- Matthew Vadum is a research fellow at the Washington-based Capital Research Center.

-- Outside view commentaries are written for UPI by outside writers who specialize in a variety of important global issues.

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