adventures in craft beer and real food

Friday, July 13, 2007

Life's for livin'

Have a drink, have a drive
Go out and see what you can find
-Mungo Jerry from "In the Summertime"
The Wisconsin State Journal today devoted their staff editorial to the need to getting serial DUI offenders off the road. To recap... Shockingly, Thomas J. Dworak has been convicted a dozen times for drunken driving. And he was in court this week standing trial for another drinking while driving offense. William A. Skare has been convicted on fourteen counts of drinking and driving. Clearly, these two Wisconsin men should not be allowed behind the wheel. And yet law enforcement keeps finding them there without a license and drunk. This constitutes a deficiency in our laws since the legal punishment for their repeated convictions has not prevented these individuals from driving. The Wisconsin State Journal puts it more eloquently, "The only regret Wisconsin should have about throwing the book at Dworak is that it is not a bigger book."

Dworak is facing a maximum prison sentence of six years plus a fine of $10,000, which could increase as a function of his blood alcohol content at the time of the infraction.

Hot off setting myself up for being called a yankee muckraker, Pint and Fork proposes that the following ideas be considered to keep serial offenders off the road:
1. Pass a law that makes it illegal for repeat offenders to own or possess a car after a certain number of offenses. I mean if we can make laws that "infringe" upon a convicted felon's "second amendment right" to bear arms, we can make a law that restricts access to motor vehicles. Cars in the hands of the intoxicated are deadly weapons and killed nearly 17,000 people in 2005 alone (insert obligatory comment about the number of US soldiers killed in the Iraq War, or on September 11, 2001). If we can keep the worst offenders away from motor vehicles, maybe we can reduce the number of alcohol-related fatalities.

2. Impose criminal penalties for allowing a known repeat offender to operate a vehicle in your possession. In my mind, this is similar to laws that we have in place concerning the provision of alcohol to minors. Law enforcement doesn't just penalize the offending minors; they can also penalize those who provided the alcohol in the first place. And so it is with cars and repeat DUI offenders.

3. The Wisconsin State Journal cites South Dakota law that allows repeat offenders to drive if they submit to Breathalyzer tests twice daily with the sheriff. I'm not sure that the article makes it clear, but the South Dakota law is a so-called "24/7 sobriety" zero-tolerance law. That is, a person can get a special permit to operate a motor vehicle so long as they get tested, pay the expenses of the testing, and consume absolutely no ethanol. The detection of any amount of alcohol necessarily revokes that individual's right to operate a motor vehicle.

However unlikely, it may be possible to fool a Breathalyzer. Google helped me find all sorts of tricks for beating a Breathalyzer including breathing heavily before analysis, eating shit, and sucking on activated charcoal. My scientific training and an episode of Mythbusters has me doubting the effectiveness of any way to cheat the test. To obviate any technique for fooling a Breathalyzer analysis, blood samples should be randomly collected from program participants.

I'm not sure that measure three would stop Dworak from driving, seeing as how he wasn't deterred by having his license revoked by a preponderance of repeat offenses. So while this 24/7 sobriety program offers a legal road map to obtaining a driving permit, it is insufficient to keep the worst offenders from driving because they will do so with or without a permit. Still, I regard this as a significant step forward.

Friday, July 06, 2007

All my ex's

And that's why I hang my hat in Tennessee.

Some folks think I'm hidin',
It's been rumored that I died,
But I'm alive and well in Tennessee.

-George Straight from "All My Ex's Live in Texas"

The media never ceases to amaze me.

In case you haven't heard, Tennessee took a tough stand against underage drinking recently when it created a mandatory carding law at all grocery and liquor stores.

At least that's the impression one comes away with looking at the news coverage the new law has created. What they don't tell you is that this law will do virtually nothing to reduce the consumption of alcohol to minors. And secondly, it's an insult to beer drinkers.

At the heart of the issue is the Responsible Vendor Act of 2006, which was sponsored by State Senator Joe Haynes (SB3316) and State Representative Gary Moore (HB3210). What it does is make carding mandatory for all beer sales at grocery and liquor stores in Tennessee starting July 1, 2007. It's the first law of its kind in the union and is on a trial basis until July 1, 2008, when the law is set to sunset. It is widely believed that, if successful, the sunset provision will be removed (pdf, 20 kb). This law does accomplish some noble goals, including eliminating carding discrimination and reducing the positivity bias noted by McCall and Nattrass. A complete copy of the act is available here (pdf, 48 kb).

It's like creating a law that says that you can't buy alcohol for home consumption after 9 PM (in Wisconsin), it just means that people who drink will buy their beverages earlier in the day, having a presumably negligible influence upon drinking habits. If minors aren't able to buy beer themselves, they'll just have other people buy it for them in greater numbers.

Without increasing the penalty for providing alcohol to a minor and stepping up enforcement efforts, this loop-hole will drain the Responsible Vendor Act of any effectiveness beyond encouraging the responsible sale of beer. What happens to beer after its sale is less controlled and even less controllable. I don't know how to prevent the provision of alcohol to minors; I do know that the lack of effective and suitable preventative measures means that this act will accomplish little.

Moreover, the act merely raises the street value and prevalence of having fake forms of identification. Fake identification documents are already ubiquitous as illustrated by an article in the Christian Science Monitor that describes just one of many sources minors turn to to obtain a fake id. I mean, look. I'm not CNN and I'm not going to harp about how this is going to aid terrorist groups, but it does expose a fundamental flaw in the bill and in state-issued forms of identification. So long as identification cards can be counterfeited, this act will have little impact.

In fact, I'm curious to see in what percent of cases underage drinking was due to the failure to card in the first place. Based upon my personal, anecdotal experience, I never tried to buy alcohol before I turned 21. And yet, I had absolutely no problems sourcing any kind of alcohol I wanted. Go figure.

One thing I find most curious is that the bill only addresses the sale of beer for off-premise consumption. Not wine coolers, not wine, not liquor. It doesn't affect bars either. A study put together by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (part of the NIH) determined the prevalence of consumption of beer, liquor, wine, and wine coolers among 18 - 20 year old individuals. Interestingly, only 26.8% of individuals drank beer at home while 62.0% of individuals said they consumed beer in the homes of friends or family. In comparison, 31.1% said they consumed wine coolers at home while 59.1% consumed wine coolers in the homes of friend or family. Similarly, 22.3% said they consumed liquor at home while 61.8% said they consumed liquor at the homes of friend or family. It is clear that beer consumption is only one piece of a larger puzzle. As a result, even if this act reduces the sale of beer to minors, it is unlikely to affect wine coolers, wine, or liquor consumption as the bill doesn't apply to these forms of alcohol.

The same study broke down consumption habits by gender and race. I am not a statistician and could not tell you what a significant difference is between values presented in Table 3. However, upon an uneducated glance, it strikes me that the type of beverage is related to both gender and race. If the act will reduce consumption among men and women, American-Indians and Alaska natives, the hispanic, and college students most of all, it does little to curb consumption among other groups. For example, 5.0% more women drank wine coolers at home than men. Liquor consumption is prevalent among all groups in the homes of friends or family. But this act: no impact. This could be especially hurtful to asians who have the highest rates of out-of-home liquor consumption (70.7%), for example.

In an ideal world, I wish we would instead teach our children to respect beer the way they do in many other parts of the world. Our "alcohol is bad" approach just reinforces the notion that alcoholic beverages only have value in proportion to their ethanol content (I also suspect it undermines our much needed "crystal meth is bad" message). Beer is a wonderful beverage with a rich tradition extending back thousands of years. Why aren't we instead teaching children to appreciate it, within reasonable limits? Abstinence only sex-education may be best in theory, but certainly not in practice. It's the same with alcohol-education.