Why is the CDC Being Anti-Science on State Liquor Privatization?

When policymakers in any of the liquor “control” states—the 17 states (plus parts of Maryland) that still, puzzlingly, retain Prohibition-era, psuedo-Soviet state-run liquor stores and/or a state-run liquor wholesale business—broach the subject of liquor privatization, government unions and anti-alcohol activist opponents raise fears that privatization will bring an increase in alcohol-related societal malaise, including more drunk driving, more binge drinking and more underage drinking.

The academic evidence for these predictions are thin at best, and more recent research from Duquesne University scholars Antony Davies and John Pulito suggests quite the opposite.

That hasn’t stopped the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) from stepping in to muddy the waters on privatization. In fact, the CDC’s independent advisory board—the Community Preventative Services Task Force—has gone on the record officially opposing any further privatization of state liquor monopolies, a position now echoed by the CDC itself. (Forget for a moment that the cat’s already way out of the bag, as 32 states have never had state-run liquor monopolies to begin with, and Washington State voters opted to privatize their state-run wholesale and retail systems last year).

The primary justification for the CDC’s stance is an analysis the task force conducted reviewing 17 different studies on privatizing retail alcohol sales, which concluded that “[t]he evidence consistently showed that privatization of retail alcohol sales was associated with a substantial increase in per capita sales of the privatized beverages.” (p.425) The report and task force recommendation has been received by government unions and anti-liquor activists as manna from heaven and has been widely used in states like Pennsylvania to scare policymakers, media and citizens into believing that privatization will bring untold social horrors (again, despite the lack of said horrors in the 33 states already privatized).

However, two recent media articles call the CDC report’s analysis and findings into question. First, Forbes ran a lengthy article yesterday by contributor Trevor Butterworth that debunks several key aspects of the study. Here’s a teaser:

In examining 17 studies on the effect of privatization, the Task Force found that the median consumption of alcohol increased by 44.4 percent. Did this increase lead to an increase in harm? The two studies addressing the issue had mixed results and “methodological limitations;” but “Single Distribution Theory,” for which the Task Force said there is “extensive evidence,” shows that a mean increase in alcohol consumption leads to an increase in overall risk.

This all sounds quite persuasive — and why would anyone not trust an independent expert task force advising the CDC on the best scientific evidence? Well, the first problem is the extensive evidence that Single Distribution Theory does not explain the relationship between the availability and consumption of alcohol — so extensive, in fact, that the theory was largely abandoned in the early 1990s for its inability to explain, and in many cases, fit the empirical data on alcohol consumption.

Read the whole thing for a rich debunking of the CDC’s findings. Skipping to the punch line:

Of course, whatever way you parse the recommendations of the Task Force, and their adoption by the CDC, such reasoning is about as robust as Styrofoam. This is an astonishing abuse of data in the service of trying to sway legislation — and one which points to an agency being driven by politics and ideology, and not by science.

In addition to the Forbes article, The Inquirer in Philadelphia recently published an op-ed by a former chair of the American Medical Association, Dr. Raymond Scalettar, who is also a clinical professor of medicine at GWU Medical Center and a medical adviser to the Distilled Spirits Council. Dr. Scalettar writes that the studies reviewed by CDC do not support the claim that privatization would harm public health:

Robert Brewer, who leads the alcohol program in the CDC’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, has repeatedly pointed to a review by CDC’s Community Task Force. It found a 44 percent median increase in per capita sales of privatized alcoholic beverages within jurisdictions that underwent privatization of retail alcohol sales.

Unfortunately, Brewer has never explained what the 44 percent estimate really means. This data, which has been presented out of context, is misleading and useless in the Pennsylvania privatization discussions.

The 44 percent figure was derived by analyzing 17 studies that looked at the impact privatization had on the privatized beverage. The 44 percent growth estimate is not an estimate of total alcohol consumption, nor is it an estimate of alcohol-related harms.

Of the 17 studies analyzed, six showed no increase in consumption, and four showed only moderate increases. This fact alone would give most researchers pause with regard to any kind of sweeping conclusion.

Importantly, the Community Task Force’s review found no pattern of increased alcohol-related harms in the studies it analyzed, which ultimately is what the public is most concerned about.

Again, readers should review the whole article for Scalettar’s full critique. He 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.

Both articles provide ample evidence that policymakers and citizens in the 17 “control” states like Pennsylvania should take the CDC’s anti-privatization stance with a major grain of salt, as it rests on a dubious scientific foundation. But the big question that still remains unanswered is why is the CDC being so anti-science on liquor privatization? Could it, as Butterworth suggests, be driven more by political and ideological considerations? That would certainly be unfathomable in this day and age, right?

For more, see here for my recent writeup on developments on state liquor privatization from Reason Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2013.