The first meeting of the new State Alcohol Regulation Task Force (created by the passage of HB 1316) was held in the Economic Matters Committee Hearing Room on September 12, 2018. I realize it has taken me a week to weigh in. In part I wanted to digest what transpired, but I also wanted to conduct a little more research. This provided some clarity as well as a bit more confusion with regard to the direction this task force is headed. It also forced me to speculate about an underlying, hidden agenda.
I was relieved to see members of all three tiers represented on the task force. The standard protocols were followed beginning with an historical jaunt through Maryland’s 3 tier system, followed by a breakdown of exactly how alcohol is regulated and by whom. A brief comparison of Maryland’s regulatory system with other states was also done and this was when things began to get interesting. Challenges to the methodology of the comparison came quickly from one panelist- David Jernigan PhD.
A little background research on Jernigan is quite revealing.
Jernigan is best known for his action-research approach to the issue of alcohol advertising, marketing, and promotion and its influence on young people…He testifies regularly at city, state, and national levels around alcohol availability and taxation. He trains advocates around the world using the best evidence.1
A quick glance at his list of publications and one quickly fathoms the purpose of his research- restructuring alcohol regulation with a goal to limit access through complete state control and high taxation. Yes this is called Temperance. He veers away from Prohibition…but not really. Jernigan was the architect of the increased alcohol tax in Maryland a few years back, and he is back now trying to go further. His acolytes are widespread including Raimee Eck, current President of the Maryland Public Health Association, who also testified and even chose to use the word ‘temperance’ in her slide presentation.
Eck also wrote an Op-Ed in the Baltimore Sun November 29, 2017 challenging Reform on Tap, while completely misconstruing its point…”Comptroller Franchot’s focus on increasing alcohol production, sales, and consumption without a review of the health consequences and costs is misguided.” Clearly she did not grasp the point of HB 518- which was not to increase consumption but replace the purchase of out of state beer with Maryland manufactured beer.
Some important points:
1) Is alcohol consumption increasing or decreasing? It depends upon who you ask. Jernigan says it’s up, while most other data sets suggest it’s down.
2) Jernigan chose not to weigh vital statistics from Maryland, but instead chose CDC statistics which enabled him to count far more deaths as ‘attributable’ to alcohol. Jernigan was challenged by Webster Ye of Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Ye noted that alcohol related deaths had not increased, but held steady. Ye also noted the decrease in deaths overall, whereas Jernigan said death rates were on the rise in Maryland.
3) Senator Conway also weighed in with questions on causation, particularly when Jernigan stated that the vast number of homicides in Baltimore City were attributable to alcohol. Jernigan stated it was difficult to disentangle gangs and illicit drugs from alcohol in homicides rates. Jernigan stated that 80% of homicides are committed while drinking. Conway recognized along with most of us that homicides have other causal factors that could be addressed- entirely unrelated to alcohol. It begins with job training and educational opportunities in economically disadvantaged areas to provide options other than gangs and criminal activity for people to not only survive but build a future. That discussion is for another day however. People commit crimes for a host of reasons and ignoring those other causal factors in deference to alcohol will not solve those problems.
4) Jernigan and Eck could not truly differentiate craft beer from other beer, spirits or wine. When he was asked by Shelby Watson of Robin Hill Winery what was the alcohol 12-20 years olds were drinking and where they were getting it, Jernigan answered that ‘cheap’ was what they targeted in straw purchases, while the younger ones were stealing only the ‘good stuff’ from home. Wine however wasn’t really a factor in this age group. ‘Cheap’ and craft beer are not synonymous and what Jernigan did not chose to point out was that the cheap beer is in large majority supplied by the monopolistic mega brewers- you know who I am referring to. They also made the obvious mistake of stating that craft beers are 7-9%, and consumers don’t seem to comprehend they are drinking higher ABV. All of this completely disregards a large segment of the craft beer market that produces session beers, and the exceptional labelling (as required by the TTB) of the ABV, coupled with the work craft breweries in educating the populace on the ABV. The paucity of authentic craft beer specific statistics and documentation was deeply concerning.
5) Jernigan also stated that the recent proliferation in retail outlets has been ignored and is responsible for a 4% increase in violent crime. President Mullikin asked if he had the statistical carve out for the breweries. He did not, and reverted to the stat that off-premise sales are responsible for twice the number of violent crimes as on-premise sales.
To quote Mark Twain, “Lies, damn lies and statistics…”
6) Jernigan’s testimony nearly word for word, could be taken from an article in The Lancet, titled “Alcohol use and burden for 195 countries and territories, 1990-2016: a systematic analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2016”. This article
a. Lays alcohol at the feet the most of society’s ills;
b. Completely disregards any health benefits of alcohol as negated by the harm;
c. And adds the best method to eradicate it:
“The most effective and cost-effective means to reduce alcohol-related harms are to reduce affordability through taxation or price regulation, including setting a minimum price per unit (MUP), closely followed by marketing regulation, and restrictions on the physical availability of alcohol.”
As a point of note, I too believe we should work constructively to educate young and old alike on the dangers of binge drinking, drinking and driving, and health and societal related complications of alcohol. I am also neither an epidemiologist, nor a statistician. I do however recognize cherry picking data to persuade an audience.
Jernigan and Eck certainly had a rapt audience in Miller and Kramer who both seemed to have pre-planned some of their questions and commentary. Kramer’s reference to the Governing article he read was one that Jernigan himself was a contributor to. Miller was eager for “simple fixes at the regulatory level” to stop the alcohol related deaths, which alluded to higher alcohol taxes and state control of production, distribution, and sales. Miller also commented, almost verbatim to Jernigan that he was extremely concerned with the whittling away of the alcohol regulatory framework each legislative session.
Folks, we have been down this road before. Nearly two centuries ago a Temperance movement began with a belief it would cure all of the ills of society. It took decades, but when it finally found support it quickly moved from Temperance to Prohibition. I don’t have to tell you how that turned out but I will remind you of a few key takeaways from the failed experiment. Prohibition did not solve society’s ills. Try as you might you cannot regulate morality. It has been tried- repeatedly and failed. You can legislate and make things illegal, but people will still act in the manner they choose. During Prohibition alcohol was still produced, distributed, and consumed- most of it at much greater potency than anything being consumed before the Volstead Act. The loss of state, local and federal revenues was catastrophic to the economies, coupled with incredible job loss. Closing the breweries, wineries, and distilleries put a fair percentage of people out of work but it also severely harmed the 200 affiliated industries that relied upon their business from glass manufacturers to painters, leaving many more without wages. This was supported in 1926 when the federal government completed its inquest into the causes of unemployment. It was directly attributable to Prohibition, not automation as the dry party proclaimed. If you think crime and unemployment are problematic now- enact Prohibition.
I am not suggesting this task force will currently push for Prohibition, but they are well on their way based upon week 1. For now I expect higher alcohol taxes and a move toward complete state control- only one of these will likely gain traction in the next few sessions. We will need to wait to see what happens next month.
Beer for thought…
Task Force Testimony
1. David H. Jernigan, PhD. Professor, Health Law, Policy & Management , “Biography”. accessed September 19, 2018 via Boston University School of Public Health https://www.bu.edu/sph/profile/david-jernigan/