The Magazine

The New Prohibitionists

The taxpayer-funded Obamacare temperance league.

Jul 8, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 41 • By MARK HEMINGWAY
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When Prohibition ended in 1933, Pennsylvania governor Gifford Pinchot promised to make purchasing alcohol “as inconvenient and expensive as possible.” To this day, Pennsylvania has some of the most stringent—and absurd—liquor laws in the country. Beer and wine can’t be sold in grocery stores, and you can only purchase six-packs of beer at delis or under the counter at bars and taverns, and no more than two six-packs can be purchased at a time. If you want to buy either wine or liquor outside of a bar or restaurant you have to get it through a state-owned “wine and spirits” store. Nowhere in the state is it possible to purchase beer, wine, and liquor from the same establishment. 

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Many frustrated Pennsylvanians were thus relieved last year when Governor Tom Corbett and the commonwealth’s House majority leader Mike Turzai unveiled a plan to privatize liquor sales in the state. They hope to issue some 1,600 new liquor licenses, most of which would go to existing privately owned beer distributors, finally making it possible to do some one-stop shopping for adult beverages.

But as the state’s liquor privatization plan continued to wend its way through the legislature, a powerful and well-funded opponent emerged earlier this year—the federal Centers for Disease Control. The fact that federal tax dollars are being used to lobby for state regulations is problematic to begin with. Even more troubling is that the CDC’s public health warnings about privatizing liquor sales are knowingly based on junk science. The agency is also underwriting the forces of neo-prohibitionism by doling out grants from a $12.5 billion slush fund created by the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare.

In April, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a story with the headline, “If Pennsylvania privatizes alcohol, will drinking increase?” The article reported on “strong evidence” from the CDC’s Community Preventive Services Task Force—described as “an independent group appointed by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention”—that privatization of liquor sales would cause consumption to skyrocket. 

“In a review of 17 studies on the subject, the task force found that limiting government’s role in sales of beer, wine, and spirits was associated with a median increase of 44.4 percent in per-capita sales for the alcoholic beverage that had been privatized without a corresponding decrease in consumption for other types of booze,” reported the Inquirer. 

If it seems unbelievable that eliminating a state liquor monopoly will cause a 44 percent increase in liquor sales, that’s because it is. The next week, Raymond Scalettar, a clinical professor of medicine at the George Washington University Medical Center and a former chairman of the American Medical Association, wrote in the Inquirer that the CDC task force was grossly misleading. 

“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,” Scalettar wrote. He further pointed out that figures were skewed by a cultural change that occurred in the 1970s—Americans started enthusiastically growing grapes and drinking wine as never before. Between 1970 and 1980, a decade in which six states also privatized wine sales, per capita wine consumption increased by 66 percent. This historical correlation skews the CDC task force’s results more than enough to make their figures appear alarming but tells us very little about what effect Pennsylvania’s current plans will have on liquor consumption, let alone corresponding public health threats. 

The CDC’s Community Preventive Services Task Force does not actually have any hard evidence that liberalizing liquor laws is harmful—and until very recently, it admitted as much. This is the task force’s third pronouncement on the matter in less than a decade. In its 2006-07 review of alcohol policy, it concluded that “there is insufficient evidence to determine the effects of privatization on excessive alcohol consumption and related harms.” In February 2011, the task force noted it had reviewed three studies on privatization of alcohol sales. Two of those studies “yielded mixed, statistically non-significant results.” The report also noted that there were some “statistically non-significant decreases” in alcohol-related hospitalizations in Sweden following the state reassuming control of alcohol sales.

But in March 2012, the task force produced its third recommendation. In a year, the tenor of its conclusions had changed dramatically—the task force was suddenly pushing the bogus 44 percent figure. And even though the CDC had previously admitted most of the findings were “statistically non-significant,” the alcohol-related hospitalization data from Sweden were being prominently touted. (Both of these questionable data points were mentioned in the Philadelphia Inquirer article.) The task force has also put together a website, “The Guide to Community Preventative Services,” compiling its recommendations for “preventing excessive alcohol consumption,” almost all of which are legislative. These include raising alcohol taxes, maintaining blue laws limiting the days and hours of sale, stricter zoning laws to prohibit alcohol sales, tougher anti-alcohol activity among law enforcement officers, and, yes, combating liquor privatization proposals.

What changed between 2006 and 2012 such that the CDC would suddenly be abusing its scientific credibility to aggressively influence the political process? The most obvious development is that in that time span a number of states—including Washington, Georgia, Connecticut, and Virginia, in addition to Pennsylvania—suddenly began considering proposals to privatize their liquor monopolies or otherwise loosen liquor laws. The second notable development is that the stimulus and Obamacare bills were passed. The stimulus bill contained a $373 million Prevention and Wellness Fund to dole out grants to community organizations to “create healthier communities across the nation through innovative and proven approaches.” But that’s chump change compared with the billions allocated to Obamacare’s Prevention and Public Health fund. Initially, the fund was given $12.5 billion, but starting in 2022 the fund will be given $2 billion a year. “It’s totally crazy to give the executive branch $2 billion a year ad infinitum to spend as they wish,” American Enterprise Institute health policy expert Jim Capretta, also of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, recently told Forbes.

These funds are being used to dole out grants to organizations that are pushing the CDC’s questionable political agenda. For instance, the CDC’s Community Transformation Grant program fact sheet states the program is “funded by the Affordable Care Act’s Prevention and Public Health Fund.” According to the CDC’s website, grants are available to “spread community-wide change” by “support[ing] state, local and Tribal Nation implementation and enforcement of alcohol control policies.” According to the CDC, “examples may include .  .  . reducing the density of retail alcohol outlets.” In plain English, the CDC’s model grant recipient is someone who wants to lobby for stricter local zoning laws for alcohol sales, never mind that federal grant monies are not supposed to be used for lobbying. 

The abuse of these grant programs isn’t just confined to alcohol, either. The CDC has a broad agenda involving obesity, tobacco, nutrition, and other politically correct health issues that the agency is trying to implement with tax dollars. The nonpartisan government accountability watchdog Cause of Action recently completed a 19-month investigation into the CDC’s use of the stimulus’s Prevention and Wellness Fund, and it concluded that there were numerous apparent violations of the law and that the program “became a front for lobbying, government propaganda, and cronyism.” 

The Health and Human Services inspector general last year issued a warning that these grant payments might be running afoul of federal antilobbying law. Last year, members of Congress wrote a pointed letter to HHS secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who oversees the CDC, asking whether these grant programs were illegally using tax dollars to lobby for state and local restrictions. In April, House majority leader Eric Cantor (R-Va.) led an unsuccessful charge to kill Obamacare’s slush fund.  

Meanwhile, the Community Preventive Services Task Force has been putting together “webinars” and otherwise distributing its community guides pushing its prohibitionist political agenda and urging community groups to launch media campaigns in support of tougher liquor laws. In part, they get away with this because they claim to be “independent” of the CDC. One of the PowerPoint presentations distributed by the task force contains the disclaimer that “the findings and conclusions in this presentation have not been formally disseminated by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and should not be construed to represent any agency determination or policy.” And yet, the Department of Health and Human Services and CDC logos appear prominently on the page below this disclaimer and on every other page of the presentation. 

While the task force supposedly comprises 15 independent public health experts, it is buttressed by 41 support staff who are employed by the CDC. The task force manages to churn out detailed policy recommendations on everything from asthma to sexually transmitted diseases to motor vehicle injuries, even though the board members only meet three times a year. The CDC insists that the task force’s recommendations are independent of the agency, but the impressive level of output suggests CDC’s paid, full-time support staff are the ones behind the task force’s aggressive political push. 

Despite the numerous laws and regulations barring the use of federal dollars to fund lobbying efforts, there’s a very fine legal line between lobbying and “public education campaigns.” The Obama administration seems determined to skirt the intent of the law and continue abusing its authority to promote its narrow public health agenda. Prohibition may have ended 80 years ago, but the CDC is determined to make sure that buying alcohol in Pennsylvania and the rest of the country remains “as inconvenient and expensive as possible.”

Mark Hemingway is a senior writer at The Weekly Standard.

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