Friday, January 9, 2009

A Comment on Kathleen Falk's Alcohol Initiative

Lew Bryson calls them the "New Drys", a reference to the tea-totalers who brought on the days of prohibition. Kathleen Falk calls it an "Alcohol Initiative" and has put together a government-sanctioned and paid-for commission of like-minded prohibitionists to tackle Wisconsin's "alcohol" problem.

I'm not sure what's worse. The fact that the commission exists at all. Or, maybe it's the fact that the commission consists entirely of "nurses, teachers, alcohol and drug counselors, school counselors, administrators, local officials, religious leaders, business people, activists and community organizers." Or, maybe it's the fact that the opinion of these people actually means anything. In any event, it's soon about to get much more difficult to get a drink in this town.

I don't know about you, but I need a drink.

I've said it before, and I'll say it again (though, I suspect it's sort of like banging my head against the wall, or Stockholm Syndrome - if the abuse continues long enough maybe I'll come to like it) the problem isn't the weapon, it's the user. Guns don't fire themselves. The weapon itself, without a moron to pick it up, load it, turn off the safety, point it at someone else, and pull the trigger, is not a particularly good bludgeon.

Likewise, alcohol, in and of itself, is not a societal ill. Or rather, the discussion that alcohol is, in and of itself, a societal ill, is a completely separate discussion. For now, we operate under the idea that, absent abuse, we have no problems with alcohol. So, we start from the premise that there is no need to ban alcohol. While we tolerate its regulation (don't want any funny stuff going on) we don't ban it completely. Any of it. Beer. Wine. Malt Liquor. Malternatives. MD 20/20. Colt 45. Grain alcohol. Bourbon. Whiskey. Rye. Vodka. Brandy. None of it, in and of itself, is harmful (remember the caveat: absent abuse).

So, the question then, is: how do we prevent abuse?
I would then ask: How do we define "abuse"?

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders:
  1. A maladaptive pattern of alcohol abuse leading to clinically significant impairment or distress, as manifested by one or more of the following, occurring within a 12-month period:

    • Recurrent alcohol use resulting in failure to fulfil major role obligations at work, school, or home (e.g., repeated absences or poor work performance related to substance use; substance-related absences, suspensions or expulsions from school; or neglect of children or household).[this looks at performance]
    • Recurrent alcohol use in situations in which it is physically hazardous (e.g., driving an automobile or operating a machine). [this also looks at performance in the context of hazardous activities]
    • Recurrent alcohol-related legal problems (e.g., arrests for alcohol-related disorderly conduct).[now we see "improper" as defined by our legal norms]
    • Continued alcohol use despite persistent or recurrent social or interpersonal problems caused or exacerbated by the effects of the alcohol (e.g., arguments with spouse about consequences of intoxication or physical fights).["improper" as defined by social and cultural norms]
"Alcohol abuse" is a largely subjective issue that is comprised of personal internalities (health), personal externalities (performance both in everyday and hazardous activities), and some sense that the conduct of the abuser is "improper" either legally, culturally, or socially.

We can use laws to regulate use of alcohol in the performance of hazardous activities, but all of these other issues fall outside of the realm, or even possibility, of legislation.

Let's explore the legal scope briefly. The theory is that the performance of hazardous activities poses inherent dangers to others; we must perform these tasks as diligently to our abilities to prevent destruction to others. Primarily, we are concerned with vehicles here. Even assuming deterrence as a valid reason for regulation we are faced with a problem of enforcement. And, really, does this require a commission of "nurses, teachers, alcohol and drug counselors, school counselors, administrators, local officials, religious leaders, business people, activists and community organizers." No. It requires a meeting between Kathleen Falk, Governor Jim Doyle, and policemen to actually get out and enforce the laws that we have. It requires providing proper funding and the tools to enforce these laws. It requires something other than a near-moronic reading of the Wisconsin Constitution to allow random sobriety checkpoints.

Wisconsin is one of 11 states that constitutionally prohibits one of the most effective means of deterring drunk driving: sobriety checkpoints. The 11 states are: Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Texas, Alaska and Rhode Island. What are the states with highest incidence of DUI? Oh! Shock: Wisconsin, Rhode Island, Minnesota, Wyoming, Michigan. Among others. Admittedly, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Texas and Alaska are all relatively low on the list. Also, there are states that allow DUI checkpoints that are relatively high on the list.

But, look at the list of who is on the list : 4 of the "top" 10 don't allow DUI checkpoints; 7 of the top 10 are grain belt states. Which leads me, and others, to believe that in addition to having large expanses with small rural centers that contain clusters of activity (and bars) (in other words, people have to drive to get to where they are going), that there may be cultural and social issues that simply can't be legislated. Cultural problems require cultural solutions. And, in this regard, perhaps there is something that can be done by a commission of "nurses, teachers, alcohol and drug counselors, school counselors, administrators, local officials, religious leaders, business people, activists and community organizers."

Can this commission develop cultural changes that erase a German and Northern European heritage that practically worships at the feet of beer and socializing? Not likely .

And certainly nothing is going to be accomplished by fiat of Kathleen Falk. Nothing is going to be accomplished without changing, or circumventing, the underlying social or cultural issues.

"The culture of smoking has become unattractive. I don't know how we get this culture to become unattractive," said one of the participants at the first meeting of this commission. But smoking didn't become "uncool", people didn't just wake up one day and go "holy shit! this stuff'll kill ya!" The reality is, smoking just became a pain in the ass. So, if we want to apply the lessons learned about smoking, we can make people drink outside. We can tax the hell out of it. We can sue the makers of alcohol for putting out a product and actively advertising it in the face of reams of data that shows that it's bad for you. Oh. Right. We already did that and it didn't work.

So, what's the goal? Lower levels of underage drinking as some in the commission have suggested? Well. You can get rid of the drinking age, that'll solve that problem. No. Underage drinking is not the problem. Read that again, underline it, bold it, cut it out and mail it to your alder-critter. Underage drinking is not the problem. Irresponsible, excessive drinking, regardless of age, is the problem. In that regard, I don't care what the "underage drinking studies" show, age is irrelevant.
Caldwell and Bettin recommend getting messages to children as early as K-6, or even preschool. It is important to target developmental transitions, utilize multiple strategies across multiple levels and settings, and deliver consistent, community-wide messages, they said. What does not work, they said: scare tactics, messages to "drink responsibly" and confrontational interventions. Instead, they advised focusing on increasing a young person's perception of risk for alcohol effects, addressing alcohol accessibility and alcohol marketing to youths, and involving parents and families.
I'm not concerned about the accessibility issue. The advertising issue is a bit of red herring, so I'll ignore that, too. But teaching children from a young age that alcohol, in all forms, is not exactly good for you certainly isn't a problem. I think adults could probably use a little education, too. I'm more than a little concerned about the content and form of getting that message across, though; it is very easy to overstate the dangers of alcohol. Rather, it's far too easy to preach abstinence when intelligence is the better lesson (just look at the Evangelical/Sex Education debate) - know when to say when, take public transport, encourage bars to cut patrons off quicker, etc.
Getting parents and families involved in the teaching of responsible consumption of alcohol is the key. But, how can you teach someone who is not allowed to perform a task how to do it responsibly? And, if you do, eventually, allow them to perform the activity, why would you possibly do it at a time when the student is away from the teacher?And what if the parent themselves are not responsible drinkers?

One last question to ponder while you're sitting in your car stalled out in rush-hour traffic down the Monroe Street Corridor, East Washington, or on the Beltline: What is Kathleen Falk going to do if/when the commission comes back and tells her that one of the best things that can be done to eliminate the dangers of irresponsible drinking is to have a competent public transportation system that implements not just a feasible bus line, but light rail, and even passenger train service? 


  1. If you haven't already, I would suggest that you send these comments to Kathleen Falk. Your comments are well thought out and address looking at where it all starts ... with education in the home and schools.

  2. Daaaamn (this comment is going to skew the results)!

  3. Great post man. This issue gets my dander up as well.

  4. I suggest we pass the hat and get Kathleen into therapy. She needs to forgive her alcoholic father and move on...


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