A Call for Banning Bans on Alcohol and Other Poisons of Choice

2010-11-21 | |
Last updated: 2010-11-21

When it relates to health, we often look to our governments to protect our well being as part of the overall package of services that they offer us. For the most part, we allow these government bodies to protect us at the expense of some small reduction in our personal freedoms. The concept for these forms of regulation is that the greater good is served by such government control in that the levels of risk that we will face individually are limited.

Controls on food quality, drug testing, transportation safety and product safety are all areas where such government regulation generally serves the public interests well. In most of these cases, governments are protecting their citizens from businesses that are run poorly or would choose to cut corners in order to maximize profits. Given the natural power imbalance of individuals versus companies, government regulation seeks to restore some of that balance.

Though much of this regulation works to protect us, other forms of regulation have proven less effective. In particular, the control of individual consumption of mood altering substances is an area where governments continue to stay involved, but tend not to operate in ways that address the problem. In particular, they choose to ban the sale or consumption of such products.

Regardless of the rational, the same story has played out since ancient times with governing bodies attempting to limit the consumption of alcohol and other drugs through various controls. One of the earliest known bans of alcohol was in the Zhou Dynasty of China around 1100 BC and such bans have continued across cultures and religions to this very day.

When we observe the damaging behaviors and negative consequences that occur because of such substance abuse, it is not hard to understand why people would wish to impose bans. Unfortunately attempts to control personal use of these substances in this indirect manner make no attempt to address the reasons why individuals choose to consume these substances in the first place. By not attempting to fix the root of the problem, these attempts to control access and use only change the ways in which people will get their drug of choice, not whether they will consume it.

This is why the recent enactment of laws by the states of Michigan, Oklahoma and Washington to ban the sale of caffeinated alcohol drinks once again shows that “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” With the United States spending roughly $40 billion annually for the “War on Drugs”, there is no need to look far to see that such bans can have only limited success, but will have great costs.

By imposing these bans, these states have only managed to push the use of such beverage consumption underground. For those who really want these drinks, there will be runs across state and national borders. Bootleggers with questionable quality standards will bring varieties of these products to those who desire them. At the same time, individuals will spike their own drinks using recipes found on the Internet if they want to create that “special buzz”. With neither alcohol nor energy drinks banned, “home brew” may well fill the void.

In addition to creating these problems, the lawmakers have also limited the opportunity for government to present a message to those who indulge in these sorts of drinks. There is little argument that these drinks can be dangerous due to the unique altered state that they cause, but that is, more often than not, what people are seeking in purchasing such drinks. Therefore, it is in the public interest to ensure those acquiring these products are warned about the risks. Such messages are much easier to present on the packaging of the very products themselves than through less direct means.

Though highlighting these problems is by no means a call for a reduction in “big government” or an attempt to tell the government to “back off”, it does point to the ineffectiveness of always trying to be the nanny in protecting individual health. When governments consider such controls, the regulations be measured against the ability to enforce individuals to comply as well as the unintended consequences that will result.

Ultimately, successfully managing substance abuse involves intensive prevention education promoting moderate use while building awareness of the potential for destructive behaviors. With there being no realistic way to ban the use of alcohol and the recent report from Imperial College London indicating that alcohol is the most harmful drug in common use, education is crucially important.

Beyond education, there is also a need to address the causes of substance abuse. A recent study by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that roughly 15% of US adults suffered from some form of mental illness within the last year and that almost 20% of these people had a substance abuse problem. Of those with mental illness, less than 40% had access to treatment and this offers yet another opportunity to combat substance abuse by tackling one of the roots of the problem.

Meanwhile, the FDA looks to be pushing hard to ban the use of caffeine in alcoholic energy drinks…

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