ER study obscures facts about liquor privatization

The recent study on the impact of liquor privatization in Washington state, which has generated alarming headlines across the state (TNT, 5-29), should be viewed with skepticism. While the researchers attempt to paint a picture of Washington awash in liquor, a careful analysis shows that many of their claims are unsupported and misleading.

Contrary to the Centers for Disease Control’s wild prediction that privatization would lead to a 44 percent median increase in per capita sales of spirits, Washington state data shows only a very slight 2 percent to 3 percent increase in overall spirits sales. In fact, accounting for population growth, per capita consumption of all beverage alcohol – wine, beer and spirits – is up approximately one percent since privatization.

So what has happened since privatization? Here are a few important facts that the researchers failed to point out.

According to the Washington Healthy Youth Survey, the same data source cited by the researchers, underage drinking and binge drinking among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders are at historic lows. Moreover, levels of heavy drinking, problem drinking and experimental drinking among these same age groups also declined in 2012; the percentage of those who said they don’t drink at all increased.

While the researchers claim that youth now find alcohol “easy to get,” the survey actually shows the percentage of students who say it would be “very hard” to get alcohol continued to increase among all age groups surveyed.

Further, contrary to their claim 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 eighth-, 10th-, and 12th-graders. The only decline in perception was among sixth-graders.

In addition to this important progress in reducing underage drinking, continued progress also has been made on Washington’s roads. According to the Washington State Traffic Commission, in the year following the implementation of privatization, fatalities involving a drinking driver declined 21 percent and fatalities involving an alcohol-impaired driver declined 24.6 percent.

The data on emergency room visits merit closer review, and there are some key points to consider. Importantly, nowhere does the emergency room data identify what type of alcohol beverage these individuals had consumed.

There are also major confounding factors that the researchers failed to consider. While underage drinking continues to decline in Washington state, the Healthy Youth Survey shows there has been a significant increase in marijuana use among 10th- and 12th-graders over the past decade.

Did the emergency room question whether the individual smoked marijuana or took any other drugs or medication, in addition to consuming alcohol? How was it determined which substance resulted in the emergency room visit?

Additionally, the Legislature passed a widely publicized law in 2013 that allows minors in need of alcohol-related medical assistance to get the help they need without fear of getting arrested. These factors need to be accounted for if the analysis is to be viewed as credible.

As state residents, policy makers and legislators review the sensational findings in this study, it is important that they also take into account the agenda of the researchers and the study’s “Advisory Team,” many of whom opposed privatization or represent organizations that have a vested interest in maintaining a state-controlled liquor system.

To be clear, the Distilled Spirits Council is neutral on the issue of privatization. However, as other states across the country debate the merits of doing away with their government-run systems, it is imperative that research on the effects of privatization is scientifically sound and free of bias.

David Ozgo is the senior vice president of economic and strategic analysis with the Distilled Spirits Council in Washington, D.C. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.