Fear and Loathing of Liquor Privatization Leads to Cherry Picked Data

Mar 4 2014, 6:43pm CST | by

By Donald Rieck, March 4, 2014

In June of 2012, Washington State privatized its government-run liquor system, allowing the sale of distilled spirits in licensed private stores. The decision was part of a growing movement among states to undo legislation first crafted on the heels of the repeal of Prohibition in 1933 that sought to control and restrict alcohol sales as much as possible.

As such, Washington State has become a test case for other states debating privatization, namely Virginia, Pennsylvania, and neighboring Oregon. One focus is on whether privatization has had positive, negative, or no effect at all on such indicators of social welfare as youth consumption, drunk driving, and alcohol related emergency room visits.

So what has happened? According to a new “study” reported by the Oregonian, privatization has been disastrous for Oregon’s Pacific Northwest neighbor.

Emergency room visits in Washington went up “significantly,” thefts from liquor stores saw a “dramatic increase” (especially by youths), drinking not only was seen as more acceptable among kids high school age and younger but more 12th graders said, in a survey, that alcohol was easier to get.

The study authors allege that Washington State has turned into a veritable gin lane, a wasted state.  The implication: Why would any reasonable person want the same fate for Oregon?

But, as it turns out, the study was less a study–as in something published in a peer review journal– than a PowerPoint presentation of preliminary data by long-term opponents of privatization and members of organizations that have a vested interest in preventing privatization, such as the National Alcohol Beverage Control Association and the Washington Liquor Control Board.

And some of that preliminary data seem to show the heavy hand of their bias. The authors argue, for example, that privatization has increased access to alcohol, yet seem unaware that almost all of the private outlets (grocery stores primarily) that started to sell spirits after privatization were previously selling beer and wine, which of course are alcohol products.

Furthermore, the authors note that 18 percent of state/contract stores (which used to have the monopoly on selling liquor), went out of business. So while the number of outlets that sold liquor increased overall (by stocking liquor next to its brethren adult-beverages wine and beer), the overall number of outlets selling alcohol beverages of any kind decreased.

The most troubling aspect of the “study” is the Washington Health Youth Survey data the authors use to claim that there were significant increases in “pro-alcohol” attitudes and an increase in alcohol access among youth. The data the study cited sounded like a canary in the coal mine–an early warning about the negative effect of privatization. But the authors were highly selective in highlighting the survey’s findings. Consider that the Washington Health Youth Survey also found that:

  • Past month drinking is at historic lows from Grade 8, 10, 12  (pg 51-53)
  • Binge drinking is at historic lows for Grade 8,10, 12 (pg 51-53)
  • The levels of heavy drinking, problem drinking and experimental drinking among 8, 10, 12 graders declined in 2012.
  • The percentage of those who said they don’t drink at all increased in all age groups. (pg 63)
  • Despite their claims that alcohol is “easy to get,” the survey shows the percentage of students in grades 6, 8, 10 ,12 who say it would be very hard to get alcohol continues to increase (page 64)
  • Despite their claims that fewer students say alcohol use is “very wrong,” the survey shows there continues to be an increase in the perception of great risk of drinking alcohol every day among 8, 10, and 12th graders. The only decline was among 6th graders.

In other words, the preponderance of data on the effects of privatization on Washington State suggests the exact opposite of the meaning conveyed by the Oregonian. In fact, one could–using the same logic as the paper–conclude that privatization had driven down all forms of teenage drinking and that critical attitudes toward alcohol continued to grow among teens even as availability of liquor increased. Of course, we should be careful of making these kinds of correlations in either direction.

Another negative social indicator– fatal crashes involving drivers that were drinking–has, according to Washington Traffic Safety commission, continued to trend downward and is at a historic low–having gone from 184 in the quarter prior to privatization to 145, 18 months later (the third quarter of 2013).

The cherry picking on these issues also raises questions over how significantly emergency room visits went up after privatization and it is impossible to check the validity of the data the authors cite from the reference given in their PowerPoint.

But the larger issue is if privatization was disastrous for Washington State, how do you explain away all this inconvenient data? The Oregonian’s anxieties about alcohol are a reminder that the topic of alcohol availability has the ability to cloud journalistic minds, even when there is an abundance of clear, accessible fact.

Donald Rieck is Executive Director and Managing Editor of the Statistical Assessment Service (STATS) at George Mason University and its EconoSTATS project.

Source: Forbes Business


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