Opponents arguments debunked

 by Robert Morrison, president & CEO, Randolph Hospital

I learned many years ago that lack of knowledge could lead me to wrong conclusions. One thing that is even more dangerous than what I do not know is what I believe I know that turns out to be wrong. I expect that we have all had the experience of finding out too late that something we strongly believed was not true.

When the question of an alcohol referendum was raised, I resolved to learn what I could from real research, not opinion. I am rejecting arguments that begin with phrases like, "It’s obvious that…" or "Everybody knows…" I have provided copies of some interesting research to the Committee for the Future of Asheboro which has placed it on their website. Here is a summary of what I have learned so far.

  1. I find no evidence to support the argument that legalizing the sale of alcohol will result in an increase in drunk driving, or alcohol related accidents and deaths. The Commonwealth of Kentucky has a great many dry counties. Faculty at the University of Kentucky conducted very well designed research which demonstrated no greater rate of accidents in "wet" vs. "dry" counties. In their study, "Consideration of driver home county prohibition and alcohol-related vehicle crashes" the authors stated, "In conclusion, by considering crash location and driver residence, these findings indicate that county-level prohibition is not necessarily effective in improving highway safety. In fact it may be counter productive in that individuals are driving farther under the influence of alcohol, thus, increasing their exposure to crashes." Alcohol related auto accidents and the injuries and deaths that they produce are tragic, and we need to reduce them. Banning the sale of alcohol appears to have the opposite effect.
  2. Those who favor "dry" status often claim that legalizing the sale of alcohol will result in more alcohol related illnesses and health care costs. I have found plenty of research to demonstrate that alcoholism and overindulgence in alcohol are health hazards. I have not found evidence that moderate consumption is hazardous. Some research indicates that moderate consumption may even improve health, but that is not yet clear. I have learned that obesity and tobacco use have ill effects on health and costs that dramatically exceed those associated with even overindulgence in alcohol. In the study "The Effects Of Obesity, Smoking, And Drinking On Medical Problems And Costs", the authors demonstrate that "Obesity is associated with a 36 percent increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 77 percent increase in medications, compared with a 21 percent increase in inpatient and outpatient spending and a 28 percent increase in medications for current smokers and smaller effects for problem drinkers. Nevertheless, the latter two groups have received more consistent attention in recent decades in clinical practice and public health policy." If we are truly interested in using the law to ban the sale of products that harm health and increase health care costs the evidence should guide us. There is plenty of evidence that any use of tobacco harms health. High calorie foods are hazardous to most of us. I found no evidence that moderate use of alcohol is a problem.
  3. The ill effects of alcoholism and problem drinking are already present in our "dry" community. Opponents of legalization infer that if local sales go up, then alcohol related problems would also increase. I could find no evidence of this. One leading opponent of legalization has cited the "Ensuring Solutions to Alcohol Problems" website at George Washington University which has a calculator that can be used to estimate the costs of alcohol related illnesses. This website was promoted publicly before the City Council and in other forums as offering evidence that legalizing the sale of alcohol would increase our health problems and costs. Since I could not find research to confirm this conclusion, I contacted an alcohol researcher at George Washington University who is also in charge of the website. He affirms that he is not aware of evidence that legalizing the sale of alcohol will increase alcohol related health problems and costs. His observation is that residents of "dry" communities are just as likely as those in "wet" communities to drink too much and to become alcoholics. The purpose of the website and the calculator is to demonstrate the benefits of proper and early diagnosis and treatment of those with alcohol related illnesses, not to promote "dry" status. The researcher’s e-mail to me on the subject includes the following quotation, "The most likely reality is that people in Asheboro drink about as much now as they would if the town were wet. Having to drive 5 or 20 minutes is not, in my estimation, a significant barrier to alcohol consumption. If anything, being dry may contribute to more alcohol-related accidents because people are driving further to go to bars and restaurants that serve alcohol. Asheboro might be better off allowing alcohol sales while at the same time implementing effective regulations and prevention and treatment programs.".

My conclusion is that there is no benefit to public health and safety in banning the controlled sale of alcohol. If anything, it is dangerous to ban the sale because it encourages those who will drink too much to drive further to do it. If you want to see some solid research, please look at the website. I invite anyone else who has found genuine research (pro or con) on the subject to send it to the Committee for the future of Asheboro so that we can read and consider each other’s research.

It seems clear to me that tragic accidents and behavior associated with abuse of alcohol happen in both "wet" and "dry" communities. I find no evidence that legalizing the controlled sale of alcohol brings more such tragedies. My plea to opponents of legalization is this: If you have proof that legalizing the sale of alcohol will jeopardize our health, please put it out in a public forum so that we can all see it. If you do not have evidence then I hope that you will quit making the claim.

Finally, I hope that fair-minded voters will demand evidence before making up their minds about how to vote. The evidence should be in the form of peer reviewed scientific research, not opinion published by self-improvement writers or religion advocates who have decided what they believe then made up data to support their opinions. When you hear someone make a claim about the ill effect of legalizing the sale of alcohol, ask to see the evidence. Whether the speaker is a pastor in the pulpit or a friend or neighbor, do not accept someone else’s conclusion and be very skeptical of sentences that begin with, "It’s obvious…" or "Everybody knows…" I have learned that it is not obvious, and that everybody does not know and that believing something just because many people repeated it does not make it true.

I look forward to continuation of the debate and to seeing any additional research that others put forward. Let’s study the question carefully and make an informed decision in the best interest of our whole community.