The editor’s opinion from Marketplace, Northeast Wisconsin’s business magazine. (Obligatory disclaimer: Most hyperlinks go to outside sites, and we’re not responsible for their content. And like fresh watermelon, peaches, pineapple, grapefruit, tomatoes and sweet corn, hyperlinks can go bad after a while.)

July 9, 2008

Our “culture of drinking”

The six Gannett Wisconsin newspapers in Northeast Wisconsin — The Post~Crescent in Appleton, The Reporter in Fond du Lac, the Green Bay Press–Gazette, the Manitowoc Herald–Times–Reporter, The Northwestern in Oshkosh, and the Sheboygan Press — and Gannett’s four central Wisconsin newspapers have all decided to jump onto the same soapbox and condemn Wisconsin’s “culture of drinking” in a multiple-part series that began Sunday.

As the newspapers’ Web sites report, “In a series that began Sunday and continues every Sunday and Monday for the next month [thanks for the warning], Gannett Wisconsin Media explores in human terms the causes and effects and the costs and benefits of the state’s love affair with the bottle.”

How do we know this is important? The Post~Crescent says so; in fact, according to Sunday’s editorial headline, “It’s deadly serious.” (How do you know it’s important? Because we say it is!) This would seem to be an attempt to make sure that readers don’t think Gannett created a formula designed to have Wisconsin finish on top.

First, in a journalistic sense, one wonders why readers of the Herald–Times–Reporter or the Sheboygan Press would be very interested in a bar in New London, which was featured in part two of the series Monday. Readers not near New London might wonder why Gannett reporters couldn’t find more local examples of how “alcohol informs not only the culture but also the economy. Nowhere is that more evident than in the state’s small towns.”

Perhaps this will improve in future editions. Perhaps not, too, because Gannett uses such “special reports,” where the vast majority of reporting is done by its larger newspapers, to cover up the comparative lack of reporting by its smaller newspapers. Every time you see the words “Gannett Wisconsin Media” underneath a byline, that’s a hint that your local daily newspaper did not write that story.

Second, I am familiar with this game. Twenty years ago at my first post-college employer, I wrote this enormously long story with attached editorial about underage drinking (at a time when the drinking age had just been raised from 19 to 21), complete with statistics provided by anti-alcohol speakers the local school district had brought in about the scourge of underage drinking. And wind speeds increased locally with the collective yawns of the readers. That is because (1) most people do not have problems handling alcohol, and (2) many people are properly skeptical about the drinking age specifically and government efforts in general to control our behavior though the invented scourge of the day, whether it’s drunk driving, global warming, or whatever else.

Seven of the eight most drunk states — I mean, states that rank at the top in “prevalence of alcohol in residents’ lives” according to Gannett’s analysis of “binge and heavy drinking,” underage drinking, drunk driving fatalities, “rate of dependence or abuse,” “rate of needing but not receiving treatment,” gallons of alcohol sold per person, “alcohol-related health care costs,” beer taxes, alcohol-related arrest rates and on-premise liquor licenses per person — are in Wisconsin’s latitude — in order, Wisconsin, North Dakota, Montana, Wyoming, South Dakota, Colorado and Minnesota. Wisconsin is the most populous of those states, 18th. So already we have some statistical legerdemain in using some of the smallest states in the U.S. (Wyoming, the Dakotas, Montana and the one outlier of the top eight, Rhode Island) instead of basing it on actual numbers. One wonders if those seven states should be considered the Booze Belt, the Boredom Belt, or the Below Zero Belt. (I wonder what Gannett’s solution is for a sense of boredom or ridiculous winter weather.)

I fail to grasp the significance of alcohol tax rates to Gannett’s boozing list, other than that one can infer that, according to Gannett, higher taxes are better. And when you make a comparison based on “prevalence of alcohol in residents’ lives,” it’s pretty obvious where the series’ point of view will be. (A Gannett “prevalence of food in residents’ lives” comparison certainly would conclude that we’re too fat. Perhaps a Gannett “prevalence of air in residents’ lives” comparison might conclude that we breathe too much air too.) Given my observations of journalists and their predilections toward drinking and smoking, this strikes me as a potential case of the pot calling the kettle black.

So far, there has been little in this series that constitutes “news,” though it is interesting to find out that taverns employed more than 14,000 people and generated $598 million in sales in 2002. (That is, by the way, about $110 per person, or $2.11 per week. Since, in many small towns in this state, the best food in town also is where the adult beverages are served, this statistic seems less than remarkable.) Does alcohol cause health problems in some people? Yes, but this is not exactly a revelation. (The same with smoking, eating too much food, and bad driving, whether or not alcohol is involved.)

What about “the attendant negative costs that stem from our state's love affair with alcohol?” What about, indeed. I’m looking forward to what the Gannetts will suggest as solutions, although their suggestions will be predictable — stiffer drunk driving penalties (with no realization that, as the Law of Unintended Consequences suggests, stiffer penalties may result in a number of unintended consequences such as increases in evading police), stiffer underage drinking penalties (police have nothing better to do than chase 20-year-old drinkers, right?), stiffer repeat drunk driving penalties (which would actually be a worthwhile law enforcement effort), higher alcohol taxes (another opportunity, like increased cigarette taxes, for government to discover that, well, the increased taxes didn’t generate enough money and so we need a general tax increase), better availability of alcohol treatment programs (which is supportable if there is evidence of insufficient supply for the demand), etc. It will be more notable if the Gannetts suggest impounding drunk drivers’ vehicles — which, evidence indicates, may be less effective but more troublesome than advocates think — or perhaps advocate (blatantly unconstitutional) sobriety checkpoints.

Since the series’ point of view has already been determined, here is what you won’t read: Any suggestion of a tenuous link between the legal intoxication level (now 0.08 in Wisconsin) and actual impaired driving. (I’ve noted this before: The average blood alcohol level of drivers stopped for drunk driving far exceeds the legal intoxication level, which means that legally drunk drivers sometimes can still drive well enough to not catch the police’s attention.) Nor will you read a suggestion that, since underage drinking is occurring with a 21-year-old drinking age as it did when the drinking age was set at 18 or 19, our approach to underage drinking isn’t working. Nor will you read a suggestion that drunk driving convictions should be based on acts of the driver and not numbers on a Breathalyzer. Nor will you read any analysis of the motives of groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, and certainly no suggestion that, contrary to their public statements, such groups want to get rid of alcohol entirely. Nor will you read that there are more common contributors to impaired driving, such as driver use of medications, cell phones, driver emotional stress, and passengers in your car. You might read suggestions of restricting alcohol advertising, but certainly not in print advertising, since that would cost the Gannetts money.

A Gannett study about addiction, whether to alcohol or anything else, would have been much more interesting reading. Twice during the early 1990s I encountered a substance abuse speaker who visited high schools to talk about the hazards of drinking, based on his own experience and his daughter’s experience. (He proposed an interesting theory that the health problem known at the time as “crack babies” were actually cases of fetal alcohol syndrome.) I got to one high school right when he arrived, and the first thing he requested was really strong black coffee. That made me think that he had traded one addiction for another, although obviously the latter “addiction” was less unhealthy for him than his previous addiction.

(By the way: The Post~Crescent also asked, both online and in print, about “the job losses left in the wreckage of addition?” I assume they meant “addiction,” but then again, no one at the Northwestern seems to know that, as they did in a headline in Sunday’s newspaper, one does not spell “Niagara” as in Niagara Falls like Viagra with an N replacing the V.)

Since the Gannetts aren’t able to identify the real problems and solutions, I’ll help. The drunk drivers who need to be gotten off the road first are the repeat offenders, preferably by long prison sentences. (The federal government, by the way, has no right, under the Constitution’s 10th Amendment, to set national drinking ages or drunk driving standards.) Actual intoxicated drivers — those who have used substances, including alcohol, that make them unable to safely drive — are criminals, not victims. Increasing the legal drinking age has not only made underage drinking more prevalent, it’s made it more popular, as anyone who has worked at a college can tell you. Prohibition didn’t work the first time (unless you consider fueling organized crime to be a success worth trumpeting). As with most other social problems, the fact that some people can’t handle alcohol doesn’t mean that draconian laws that negatively affect everyone is the answer to dealing with the problem people.

Most people do not have problems with alcohol. Period. (As a matter of fact, most people who may have drunk to excess in, say, college survived that too.) Killing trees to produce a multipart series that doesn’t really provide new information, or to suggest that Gannett readers are a bunch of drunks, isn’t going to change anything, other than to diminish the Gannett readers’ view of their newspaper.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

There is a group formed by a former College President to fight this problem. It is an interesting approach that deserves some discussion. The organization is called Choose Responsibility.