It’s not exactly diet-related, but how’s this for a classic case of confusing correlation with causation? An article on the NBC News site reported on a study of what people were drinking before ending up in an emergency room:
Many people who end their Friday or Saturday nights in a hospital emergency room have been drinking alcohol. In fact, public health experts estimate that about one-third of all injury-related ER visits involved alcohol consumption.
I consider that good news. It means if you avoid getting @#$%-faced, you’re less likely to end up in an emergency room. Better choices, better results.
But what, exactly, are people drinking? What types of alcohol and even what brands? Is there a direct link between advertising and marketing and later injury?
I’m already convinced there’s a direct link between advertising and marketing and later injury. I can’t tell you how many drunk people I’ve seen collide with billboards. Good thing most of them were walking.
Until now, those questions have been unanswerable, frustrating alcohol epidemiology researchers.
Sounds to me as if those alcohol epidemiology researchers are easily frustrated.
“Honey, what’s wrong? Why are you slamming the drawers in your file cabinet so hard?”
“Because, dangit, I can’t determine if there’s a direct link between alcohol advertising and later injury! It’s driving me nuts! Make me a martini, will you?”
But if results of a pilot study conducted by researchers from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health hold up, there may soon be a way to connect the dots.
Whenever media health reporters write about connecting the dots, I brace myself for a head-bang-on-desk moment. You may want to get out the desk pad before we continue.
When the Hopkins researchers surveyed ER patients who’d been drinking, they found that Budweiser was the number one brand consumed, followed Steel Reserve Malt Liquor, Colt 45 malt liquor, Bud Ice (another malt liquor), Bud Light, and a discount-priced vodka called Barton’s.
Wait a minute … they went to an emergency room and surveyed drunk people who had injured themselves? I’m surprised they didn’t report the number one brand of alcohol consumed by injured drunks is called @#$% Off!
Though Budweiser has 9.1 percent of the national beer market, it represented 15 percent of the of the E.R. “market.” The disparity was even more pronounced for Steel Reserve. It has only .8 percent of the market nationally, but accounted for 14.7 percent of the E.R. market. In all, Steel Reserve, Colt 45, Bud Ice, and another malt liquor, King Cobra, account for only 2.4 percent of the U.S. beer market, but accounted for 46 percent of the beer consumed by E.R. patients.
Before we continue, I feel obligated to remind you I suggested getting out the desk pad. This is your last warning.
“Some products are marketed to certain groups of people in our society,” explained Traci Toomey, the director of the University of Minnesota’s alcohol epidemiology program, who was not involved in the study. Higher-alcohol malt liquor, for example, is heavily advertised in African-American neighborhoods. “So we might want to put some controls on certain products if we find they are tied to greater risk.”
Head. Bang. On. Desk.
We might want to put controls on certain products if they’re tied to higher risk? As if that will mean fewer drunk-person injuries? Genius. Pure genius.
I don’t doubt that Budweiser, Colt 45 and Steel Reserve are tied to greater risk of ending up in the emergency room in poor communities. But it’s not because of the marketing or the higher alcohol content. The reporter (and perhaps the researchers) apparently thinks it works like this:
1. Evil distributors of high-alcohol malt liquors decide to target poor communities with irresistible advertising and marketing campaigns.
2. Swayed by the irresistible marketing, poor people buy malt liquor.
3. Because the malt liquor has a higher alcohol content, poor people accidentally get @#$%-faced.
4. After accidentally getting @#$%-faced, the poor injure themselves because they’re @#$%-faced.
Boy, if only we had some controls on those products. Take away the cheap malt liquor, those people would stay home and play pinochle … perhaps while sipping a fine white wine with a subtle hint of citrus and a color reminiscent of an Autumn sunrise.
Now here’s how it actually works:
1. Poor people decide to get @#$%-faced.
2. Wanting to spend as little of their limited funds as possible to get @#$%-faced, poor people choose cheap beer, cheap malt liquor and cheap vodka, thus getting more bang for their buck.
3. Recognizing that the biggest market for cheap alcohol is in poor neighborhoods, distributors advertise in those neighborhoods, hoping to sway people who have already decided to get @#$%-faced to drink their particular brand when getting @#$%-faced.
Now here’s how it will work if we put some controls on those products:
1. Poor people decide to get @#$%-faced.
2. Thanks to controls instituted by do-gooders, the cheaper alcohols are no longer available.
3. Poor people buy just as much alcohol and get just as @#$%-faced as before, but have less money to spend on things like food, clothes, shoes, gas, entertainment, etc.
I don’t drink beer very often, but when I do, it’s usually Guinness Extra Stout. (Did I sound like the guy in those Dos Equis commercials just now?) The alcohol content (7.5%) is higher than the alcohol content in Colt 45 malt liquor (6%). So why isn’t Guinness Extra Stout tied to more emergency-room visits in urban hospitals? I’m sure you can guess: The stuff isn’t cheap, so it’s not a big seller in poor communities. If Guinness were as cheap as Colt 45, we’d see more poor people getting @#$%-faced on Guinness.
According to the article, the study was conducted at a hospital in Baltimore in a poor, mostly-black neighborhood. The results were predictable and ultimately meaningless. It would have been more interesting if the researchers had gone to an emergency room in Beverly Hills or Martha’s Vineyard and asked injured people what they were drinking. Then the headline would have been something like Martinis, Single-Malt Scotch and White Wine With a Subtle Hint of Citrus Most Popular Among E.R. Injured.
Then we’d need some controls on those products.