The wages of sin taxes

I contributed a short article about new sin taxes and the recession to this week’s Lars Larson newsletter [pdf]. Jan from Cascade Cigar has a piece in there too. Since the newsletter is in pdf format, I’ve copied my submission below the break.

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The need to demystify drinking

Harold Pollack posts the following image from “The effect of alcohol consumption on mortality: Regression discontinuity evidence from the minimum drinking age,” a new paper by Christopher Carpenter and Carlos Dopkin:

Drinking age mortality

The red line represents days drinking per month. The black line represents the fatality rate. The horizontal axis is age. There’s a discontinuity at 21, suggesting that legalized drinking immediately increases deaths. I don’t have access to the paper, but here’s Pollack’s interpretation:

Young people’s alcohol consumption increases by over 20 percent as they hit their 21st birthday. Meanwhile, death rates increase by 9 percent exactly at age 21. Carpenter and Dobkin traced this further, finding that the mortality jump was largest for motor vehicle accidents, suicides, and other causes plausibly linked with alcohol use. The correlation isn’t a slam dunk, but it is close. The authors estimate that reducing the minimum drinking age by one year–as some propose–would cause 408 additional deaths every year among 20-year-olds.

That might be true, though I question the accuracy of self-reported drinking days among the under-21s. More importantly though, this graph strongly suggests that our current neoprohibitionist policies leave 21-year-olds woefully ill-equipped to enjoy alcohol safely. It’s likely the case there will be a increase in fatalities at any drinking age. That’s not surprising given that alcohol is a dangerous product when it’s abused. The question is how we teach young people to drink responsibly.

I don’t know that there’s an easy answer to that. A combination of lowering the drinking age so that teens can learn to imbibe with adult supervision and a greater emphasis on driving enforcement is one appealing alternative. That’s not going to change American drinking culture over night, but absent those changes it’s hard to envision better practices developing.

For more, here’s Radley Balko on the Amethyst Initiative and the case for lowering the drinking age.

Happy Repeal Day!

Hey everybody, I hope you’ve got some fun things planned for tonight. A long flight, a time change, and Reason magazine’s 40th anniversary party kept me far too busy yesterday to catch up on internet at happenings. I’m at Murky now, checking in briefly before heading over to Cato for what looks to be one of the most popular events ever held there. Jeff and I are going to have our hands full getting drinks to the thirsty libertarian masses.

There’s a lot of Repeal Day writing coming out today, including one op/ed from me in the American Spectator discussing the spiritual heirs of the Temperance movement (which, as Radley learned, is still active!).

I plan to post a more complete roundup soon, but in the meantime here are two excellent pieces from historian Maureen Ogle (author of Ambitious Brew, a book on the history of American beer that I’m currently enjoying). In the first she examines Prohibition’s legacy of regulations that hamper today’s boutique producers of spirits, beer, and wine. In the second she hopes we toast not alcohol itself, but rather our right to enjoy it. Read them both, and be sure to check out her weblog too.

More to come… Cheers!

Ban the Bacardi?

I’ve never been a fan of flair bartending. I’d much rather have an accurately measured, balanced cocktail than watch some jackass spill flavored vodka all over the floor, twirl bottles in the air, or set his customer on fire:

A bartender’s flaming drink stunt at a popular Upper West Side bar left a Manhattan woman “engulfed in flames” and horribly burned while “Great Balls of Fire” was playing on the jukebox, court papers charge.

Lauren Sclafani, 31, says she suffered second- and third-degree burns on her face, arms and hands thanks to the Bacardi 151 stunt at Brother Jimmy’s gone terribly wrong…

As “Great Balls of Fire” came on the jukebox, the bartender poured 151-proof rum across the bar and deliberately lit it on fire, according to a lawsuit she filed against the bar. The flame blew black into the bottle, turning it into a “flamethrower,” said Sclafani’s lawyer, Tom Moore.

“I was just about to leave, and the next thing you know, I’m lit on fire,” Sclafani said. “My face was burning, my hands were burning, my clothes were on fire. I was just praying to make it stop.”

It’s a horrible story and I hope the victim wins truckloads of money in her lawsuit against the restaurant. Yet my sympathy does not extend to this:

The bar pulled the drink off its shelves at all its locations the next day. Sclafani’s lawyer said they’re hoping to 86 the 151-proof drink everywhere.

“This is a product that has no value except for this kind of purpose,” Moore said. “One hundred proof is serious enough for anybody.”

Unlikely, I hope, but New York City’s not exactly known for its laissez-faire approach to regulating bars and restaurants.

[Via Behind the Stick.]

Overcoming blend bias

What, no election day post? Yeah, sorry. I was in the middle of writing something when I got an invitation from my friend Lance to join him at a Scotch tasting. Drinking Scotch at 2:30 in the afternoon pretty much killed my productivity, but sometimes you’ve got to make sacrifices. Maybe I’ll get it up tomorrow or maybe this blog will just go straight into some food and drink posts. We’re due for some after all the politics of the past few weeks. Don’t like it? Blame Lance.

The tasting was hosted by Dewar’s. I’m your stereotypical elitist single malt guy, so I was a little wary of the blends. Dewar’s wanted to fight that prejudice and educate us about how blending works and why we should appreciate a good blended whisky. So after warming us up with glasses of their 12-year-old offering, they lined up samples of six different components that go into a blend: single malts from the 4 recognized regions, an Island malt, and the simple grain Scotch that forms the base. We sampled their aromas and went over a quick course about what sets them apart from each other. Our challenge? To create our own individual blend, with each team choosing their favorite for the final judging.

My McDivot blend (named after the cute terrier you sometimes see at the top of the page) took home first place. This was due to luck more than skill, but the Scotch did turn out the way I hoped it would, with a healthy dose of peat and smoke. I’m sipping the remnants now, and it really is the kind of Scotch I like to drink. It’s striking how large an effect a tiny bit of Islay and Island has on the blend; just a few milliliters from a pipette into a 100 mL sample are all it takes to radically change the flavor profile.

The prize was a bottle of the Dewar’s 12. It packs a little bit of heat and is well-balanced with just the right amount of smoky depth. It’s something I probably never would have picked up on my own, but it’s actually a nice Scotch and much easier on the wallet than a high-end single malt. I’d love to enjoy it with a strong maduro cigar. Now that I’ve given it a fair shake I could easily see keeping a bottle on hand.

The finale to the tasting was a glass of the Dewar’s Signature blend. Twenty-seven-year-old whisky from the company’s Aberfeldy distillery makes up the heart of this one and the extra aging does seem to come through in a stronger vanilla flavor. It’s definitely a good drink, but at $160-200 a bottle it’s well past the point where I’d consider the expense worthwhile. For that kind of money I’d rather get two excellent single malts.

Today’s tasting didn’t convert me away from my love of big, peaty single malts, but it did leave me with a deeper education about Scotch and a much greater appreciation for blends. If you’re looking for an affordable whisky with depth and character, the Dewar’s 12 is certainly worth checking out.

Drinking up baby

This blog has touched before on the disapproval pregnant women face when they choose to have an occasional drink. This 2006 New York Times article written by a woman who chose to drink wine during her pregnancy provides a good background on the issue, one that’s become heated in England and as the government there considers revising its health guidelines. That’s where some new research suggests that moderate alcohol in the second and third trimesters isn’t dangerous for the child:

Boys born to mothers who drank lightly were 40% less likely to have conduct problems and 30% less likely to be hyperactive, even when the differences between social and economic circumstances were taken into account. They also scored more highly in vocabulary tests and were better able to identify shapes, colours, letters and numbers.

The research has the authority of a large study – it involved 12,495 children – but is likely to further fuel the controversy over alcohol in pregnancy.

The study also found that girls born to light drinkers were 30% less likely to have emotional and peer problems, compared with abstainers, but in their case this could not be extricated from their family backgrounds.

Although allowances had been made for social circumstances, Dr Yvonne Kelly, the lead researcher, said they could not be completely certain that the children’s better performance was not linked to their family background.

It’s possible that women who drink are more relaxed in general and that might be what accounts for the better behavior of their children, but it’s still striking that the study found no harm associated with moderate intake. Reasonable women may still prefer not to consume while pregnant, but this at least is one reason for laying off the ones who do.

Sex on the beach is…

a) a lame mixed drink with way too much fruit juice in it

b) an offense punishable by several years in prison in Dubai

c) an illegal cocktail in Britain

d) all of the above

If you answered “d,” you may soon be right! Proposed regulations in Britain will ban the sale of drinks that could be seen as enhancing “social, sexual, physical, mental, financial or sporting performance,” which could presumably forbid names like “Sex on the Beach” from appearing on bar menus. Other potential changes include banning free drink giveaways to women, restricting free samples, putting an end to drinking games, displaying warning labels about the dangers of excessive consumption, imposing a floor price for drinks, and, most tackily, requiring that wine glasses bear volume markers.

In other news, Orkney MP Alistair Carmichael has stood up in Parliament for Skull Splitter, the deliciously heavy Scottish ale under fire for its “violent” viking connotations. Its fate remains undecided, but it’s safe to say that if Thorfinn were in charge we wouldn’t have to deal with all this nonsense. The beer would flow plentifully and no one would bother with a Sex on the Beach anyway.

“Apple liqueur isn’t lime green”

The Denver Post has a really nice profile this week of Todd and Scott Leopold’s Leopold Brothers distillery, recently transplanted from Ann Arbor to Denver:

The Leopolds are among the more rarefied of the microdistillers in the country, winning numerous awards for their line of spirits in the seven years they have been operating.

They make nearly everything from scratch — their whiskey from corn, rye and barley; their rum from sugar cane; their cherry liqueur from northern Michigan montmorencies.

For now, they produce 14 spirits.

“It’s like the brewing industry back in the 1980s,” says Todd on another day as he makes gin, pouring pails of juniper berries and Leopold Bros. Silver Tree vodka into the company’s tall, copper German still. “Nobody is really sure what they are doing. Everybody is learning from scratch.”

I’m down to just a few ounces of their wonderful gin, which I’m hoping I can find again in Oregon without too much trouble. I enjoyed their new absinthe too, and managed to snag a bottle of their French press coffee liqueur before hitting the road. I’ll crack that one open when I get to Portland.

Previously:
Michigan’s loss is Colorado’s gain
Say yes to Michigan distilleries

“Scotch, barkeep, and make it a 1.5″

There are some changes afoot for Utah’s notoriously backwards alcohol laws:

On Wednesday, Utah will be the only state to ban the sale of fruity alcoholic drinks at grocery stores and convenience stores in an effort to keep them from minors. Those drinks also must have new state-approved labels on the front of the product that contain capitalized letters in bold type telling consumers the drinks contain alcohol and at what percentage.

So far, no new labels have been approved. Utah Department of Alcholic Beverage Control spokeswoman Sharon Mackay said the state’s limited supply of those drinks will likely be gone in a few weeks…

Some manufacturers have already decided it’s not worth it to produce new labels just for Utah…

Republican Gov. Jon Huntsman said banning products like Zima, Smirnoff Ice and Seagram’s Fuzzy Navel from grocery stores would harm Utah’s image, but agreed to it in exchange for increasing the amount of liquor allowed in shots and standard cocktails to 1.5 ounces, up from 1 ounce.

Trading away Zima for the ability to almost serve a proper mixed drink is, arguably, a victory for good taste. But a victory for individual rights? Not so much.

More on alcohol and genetics

As a follow-up to George Will’s column on selection for genetic adaptation to alcohol, here’s a report on a new study:

As many as one in four Britons have a much-reduced risk of developing alcohol-related cancer thanks to their genetic make-up, scientists have discovered. Researchers have identified two genes that quickly flush alcohol out of the system, thus reducing its carcinogenic effect. People carrying one or both of the genes may have only half the chance of developing mouth, throat and oesophageal cancers that are strongly associated with drinking.

Also:

Health experts welcomed the findings, but warned that they should not be interpreted as a green light to drink heavily. ‘This shouldn’t have any direct effect on people’s drinking behaviour. Those people with one or both of these rare gene variants are lucky in that they are at lesser risk of developing these cancers. Having up to half the risk is significant,’ said Wiseman. ‘But they still face some risk. So the advice to them wouldn’t be, “Go away and drink”. It would be, “For cancer prevention, avoid alcohol entirely if you can and, if you do drink, limit it to one drink a day for a woman and two drinks a day for a man”.’

Given that moderate alcohol consumption is also linked to reduced risk of heart disease (and high levels of fun), avoiding alcohol entirely doesn’t sound like good advice.

L’heure malheureuse

Whatever happened to that French joie de vivre? The Guardian Reuters reports:

France is considering a ban on happy hours in bars and on the sale of bottles of vodka and other strong liquor in nightclubs as part of efforts to curb binge drinking among young people, an official said on Monday.

Not that things are free and easy here in Virginia. Among other restrictions, establishments here can’t extend happy hour beyond 9 pm, advertise their specials, or sell mixed drinks in pitchers. I believe a few bars get around the time restriction by offering one low-priced beer only on certain nights; thus its price is never discounted, it’s just always low when it happens to be available. I wonder if French legislation would allow a similar loophole.

Getting on the wagon

I think this cure would leave me unfit to consume anything, not just alcohol, but it’s worth a shot if you’re desperate:

c. 1500 According to J.D. Rolleston, a British medical historian, a medieval Russian cure for drunkenness consisted in “taking a piece of pork, putting it secretly in a Jew’s bed for nine days, and then giving it to the drunkard in a pulverized form, who will turn away from drinking as a Jew would from pork.” [Quoted in Roueche, op. cit. p. 144]

The rest of the drug timeline is here.