Should Mormons be concerned about alcohol policy?

The Word of Wisdom is often interpreted as a code for healthy living motivated by the ‘evils and designs which do and will exist in the hearts of conspiring men in the last days’. Alcohol is major risk factor for many non-communicable diseases, which account for two-thirds of all deaths globally. Alcohol-attributable mortality is 2.5 million (4% of all deaths) every year, more than the number attributed to HIV/AIDS or Tuberculosis. Despite increased awareness of the health consequences of excessive alcohol, there has been little recent interest among Mormons in using public policy to control alcohol consumption.

In this they are surprisingly out-of-step with the public health community, where there has been much debate regarding the possibility of a Framework Convention on Alcohol. The World Health Organization (WHO) has the power to create legally binding conventions on all members states with only a two-thirds majority. This power has only been used twice in the history of the organization. Once to create International Health Regulations, which require countries to report disease outbreaks and public health events, and then in 2003 with the introduction of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This convention required members of the WHO to implement a series of laws which would aim to reduce tobacco consumption in both the short- and long-term. Recent estimates suggest that it has been incredibly successful. Between 2007 and 2010, 41 countries implemented at least one policy component of the convention at the highest recommended level, reducing the estimated number of smokers by 14.8 million and the total number of smoking-attributable deaths by 7.4 million.

While the absolute impact of a Convention on Alcohol Control would almost certainly be less, it would still, over time, potentially save the lives of millions. This convention might include the following policies :

1. Prevent drink driving
2. Restricting the availability and marketing of alcohol
3. Using price mechanisms to reduce consumption. These need to be large enough to felt by consumers, usually around ~20% of current prices.
4. Banning unlimited drink specials
5. Enforcing a minimum age limit

Some might be surprised that such policies are not already in place. Alcohol, like big tobacco, has powerful lobbyists who try to minimise such regulation.

And this is where the church comes in. They too are effective lobbyists and can mobilise members of the church to achieve political ends. If the church threw its weight behind such a convention it would only add to the groundswell of support in both the academic and public health communities. One area where our current religious practice can inform public debate is the issue of alcohol control.

A WHO Framework Convention on Alcohol Control could save the lives of millions while simultaneously contributing to economic growth in low- and middle-income countries. The church could potentially assist in moving such a convention forward. If they are not already, then I hope they will.

Comments

  1. The Other Clark says:

    After all the negative blowback from the Prop 8 fight, I don’t see the Church getting involved in any kind of political effort if it could possibly be avoided.

    BTW, the U.S. tried to reduce alcohol consumption through legal means 100 years ago, and look how that turned out.

  2. The Other Clark, the way in which the church gets involved could be very different in this instance; the mobilization point is primarily illustrative. As a public health policy prohibition was incredibly successful. However, prohibition is not and (in my opinion) should not be on the cards. Instead, the church could be involved in promoting a series of quite reasonable policies that would have large implications for population health but are far short of a complete ban.

  3. Glenstorm says:

    And you didn’t even mention anything about protecting the integrity of the family and how alcohol contributes hugely to familial abuse and /dis/integration…

  4. Glenstorm, very important dimension as well. For the purposes of implementing a Framework Convention on Alcohol Control the family argument may not be as central.

  5. TheOtherClark, nearly every level of government on the US in every state is currently involved in alcohol control in one way or another. A huge number of US counties are completely dry. Any policy (taxes, opening hours, distance from schools of outlets, maximum alcohol outlet density, limited permits etc) that makes alcohol even a little harder to get reduces alcohol consumption. This is a much more worthy cause than the Prop 8 sort of stuff.

  6. And lest anyone think this is an old-fashioned concern, you should know that the trend in a lot of places around the world is towards more regulation of alcohol, not less, since the costs on social systems are so high. Utah is a little unique in how one-side the debate on this is currently, with such a strong push towards reducing regulation.

  7. I’m guessing that you don’t live in Utah, where the Church is heavily involved in influencing alcohol policy.

  8. Perhaps Mormons could encourage the consumption of mild barley drinks, rather than wine or strong drink.

  9. The Other Clark says:

    In Utah, the church’s approach to reducing alcohol consumption (Hard liquor sold through Government-owned stores only, the “zion curtain” in restaurants, limited liquor licensers for eateries, etc.) has had mixed results.

    I recognize these laws are secular, but as Nate W. mentions, the LDS church and it’s lobbyists was heavily involved in crafting all of them.

  10. I’m trying to see an upside of a WHO “framework” on booze control, but I don’t see the value. The sheer cost of implementing such a system even in a developed nation would outweigh the alleged benefits.

  11. Owen, while there is a trend toward more regulation in some places this is not universally true, hence the need for a robust response from a variety of international organizations.

    Nate W., you are right, hence my concern here in this post is a little more global than just a few million people in one US state.

    cordeiro, the cost-effectiveness of these interventions has been long established. They are already considered ‘best-buys’ by the WHO because of their health impact, cost-effectiveness, and low cost of implementation. Further, the long-term savings to most governments who provide private or public health insurance is huge and that is not including the increased productivity from fewer disabled life-years. In short, the economic case for these interventions is pretty well established.

  12. Aaron R., I’m no expert on prohibition, but I wonder what health outcomes you refer to when you state: “As a public health policy prohibition was incredibly successful.” From my (admittedly limited) reading, prohibition was a bit of a mess as far as public health policy was concerned because while people that drank in small quantities often stopped and there were decreases in overall consumption (especially at first), people that drank in larger quantities were drinking much cheaper, poor-quality alcohol made with toxic industrial chemicals, leading to quite a large mortality towards the end of the prohibition period. This policy also had a greater impact on individuals in lower income brackets setting up a class divide where wealthy people were still able to procure alcohol and people that couldn’t afford it were drinking poorly refined gasoline in a hole somewhere.

    I’m on board with some of your regulatory suggestions, though – policies to minimize drunk driving, banning unlimited drink specials, and greater enforcement of a minimum drinking age (although I would move it to 18). I wouldn’t hate to see the church giving some effort to these ideas, but I wonder if it’s just better for them to stay out of political issues all together.

  13. J. Stapley says:

    Unfortunately, commenting on a blog requires a body. Otherwise Heber J. Grant would be giving you props.

  14. Enna, I over-stated my case a little. While there is some evidence of those trends – however the data I have come across is mostly anecdotal, there is very little good data – this is my reading of the evidence. There is fairly good data that prohibition did reduce mortality. Rising alcohol related deaths at the end of prohibition are not necessarily linked with prohibition itself but are muddied by the Great Depression. Similar to what was seen in Russia post-1989, a huge depression mixed with poor quality alcohol kills you very quickly. The rises, then, are likely not just due to prohibition. Further, when prohibition was rescinded mortality rose again. Having said that, I am still not advocating for prohibition and neither should the church.

    J., I would gladly accept those props.

    Finally, let me say that I do not see these as necessarily political but rather as public health issues.

  15. I agree that over-consumption of alcohol has cultural, societal, and health consequences. So regulation and tightening of rules of over-consumption are okay for me. But those who participate in moderate casual and social drinking I have no problem with. Studies do show health benefits of occasional glasses of wine.

    It is an issue where something could turn addictive, but when consumed responsibly and moderately there is no inherent evil within the actual item. In all my language classes and interactions with other cultures where alcohol is not taboo, they don’t have the binge drinking problems we have here with high school/college age. Since it’s not taboo I remember talking to kids who would stop by and pick up a coke with a little bit of alcohol mixed in on their way home from school sometimes – because it wasn’t prohibited, but their families taught them how you can consume one or two glasses of champagne at age 15 or 16 just for certain celebrations, there was little of the taboo -> fetish with breaking the taboo psychology that we have in our culture.

    p.s. prohibition is directly responsible for the rise of US organized crime, as networks were needed to produce, distribute, and profit from that which was prohibited.

  16. I think this is a terrific idea. Anti-tobacco lobbying, and subsequent regulations, have had a substantial and positive influence on American health and culture. I would love to see similar efforts on alcohol (though I imagine that quite a few Mormons, who are staunch libertarians, would actually be against this sort of organization.)

  17. J. Stapley says:

    Kristine A., I’m not so sure about binge drinking rates. My understanding is that the UK/Europe has pretty high rates.

  18. davidferg says:

    One in five Germans have a drinking problem, and under-25s are particularly at risk
    http://www.thelocal.de/20140110/alcoholism-in-germany-rises-by-a-third
    http://www.thelocal.de/20110426/34631

  19. Peter LLC says:

    “BTW, the U.S. tried to reduce alcohol consumption through legal means 100 years ago, and look how that turned out.”

    On the other hand, California tried to reduce tobacco consumption through legal means 20 years ago, and look how that turned out–quite successfully.

    “In all my language classes and interactions with other cultures where alcohol is not taboo, they don’t have the binge drinking problems we have here with high school/college age”

    The US and its publicly puritanical approach to various vices is surely problematic, but I attended university in a Western European country where alcohol is anything but taboo, and I can assure you that while much of the drinking may be social and casual it is hardly moderate. Statistics bear out my anecdotal observations. At 12.9 liters per capita this country has the third highest rate of consumption in Europe (recent OECD average = 9 l per capita). Furthermore, between 18-25% of the male and 4-17% of the female population (varying by age from 15 to 70) engages in binge drinking at least once a week. Meanwhile, over the last twenty years, overall consumption is down, the number of those who (almost) abstain has nearly doubled but the number of those with an alcohol problem has remained pretty constant near 20%. So that’s what you get when you de-stigmatize alcohol consumption–a pretty big problem.

  20. Geoff - A says:

    The various governments in Australia are all attempting to reduce alchol consumption, and particularly binge drinking, as a health issue.

    It would be good to see the church support such an effort, so long as they did not make it a moral issue, as they have a tendency to do.

  21. The Other Clark says:

    Geoff– because of US tax laws, the Church won’t get involved with political efforts UNLESS they can claim it’s a moral issue. To to otherwise, they’d lose their tax-exempt status.

  22. Interesting – I’m not claiming personal experience, but those of non-members I’ve known who lived in those cultures for extended periods of time. Maybe I’m basing my opinion on an outdated perception.

    Also, I don’t mind sin taxes at all – jack up the rates by all means . . . it certainly has worked with tobacco and smoking rates. I just don’t believe in 100% prohibition, keep it accessible, but discourage overuse.

  23. Kristine A. exactly: “keep it accessible, but discourage overuse”.

  24. I agree with the OP in sentiment and direction, but I don’t see the Church-as-institution getting involved. This is likely to fall into the “anxiously engaged” category for church-as-members to take care of.

    As noted, the institution isn’t likely to take it on unless it’s a moral issue, and notwithstanding the early 20th century history of the Word of Wisdom, in the last 20 or 30 years at least the Word of Wisdom is presented mostly as a matter of commitment/covenant/obedience rather than health. (FWIW, I think that’s wise. Given the disparate effects, costs, and sometimes benefits, it is difficult to present a unified health code that is consistent with complete abstinence for all of alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea (and also explain the lack of attention to meats and grains and moderation). The efforts to do so that I heard in Sunday School never made sense.)

  25. Whether the church takes this on in the US is a very different question from whether they take this on at an international level. They already have missionaries lobbying politicians in Brussels and could get more involved in these debates in Geneva as well.

  26. Why are Mormons such busy bodies? I really do not understand why you people feel the need to control other people’s (non-Mormons) lives based on your own particular set of religious beliefs. Your god does not want you drinking alcohol…good for you. But if you think the backlash against Prop h8 was rough…try restricting people’s right to enjoy spirits and you will find out what true and righteous anger is.

    At the time of Prop h8 half the country agreed with you…but I assure you that will not be the case with this new proposed initiative. I drink wine, and I assure you I am a lot healtheir than the significantly obese section of the Utah population that only sips on hot chocolate and milk.

    Not to mention that for many Christians there is no true communion with drinking wine as Jesus instructed in the bible. Sipping on water or fruit juice is seen as bogus. But to each his own. Take care of your own religious business and leave the rest of us to our own devices. Kay?

  27. Why are Mormons such busy bodies? I really do not understand why you people feel the need to control other people’s (non-Mormons) lives based on your own particular set of religious beliefs. Your god does not want you drinking alcohol…good for you. But if you think the backlash against Prop h8 was rough…try restricting people’s right to enjoy spirits and you will find out what true and righteous anger is.

    At the time of Prop h8 half the country agreed with you…but I assure you that will not be the case with this new proposed initiative. I drink wine, and I assure you I am a lot healtheir than the significantly obese section of the Utah population that only sips on hot chocolate and milk. Oh, and sugar-laden sodas.

    Not to mention that for many Christians there is no true communion without drinking wine as Jesus instructed in the bible. Sipping on water or fruit juice is seen as bogus. But to each his own. Take care of your own religious business and leave the rest of us to our own devices. Kay?

  28. June, while I cannot speak for the other religious busy-bodies, I am motivated by the millions of people who are prematurely dying throughout the world because of dangerous alcohol consumption (note: not all alcohol consumption is dangerous). Moreover, this post is primarily directed to those countries where the regulations I mentioned are not currently in place. For the most part, the US is doing OK. Your comment sounds suspiciously like something I would expect from someone who did not actually read the post.

  29. Should Mormons be concerned about alcohol policy? Yes. We should also be concerned about clean water, clean milk, vaccinations, public sanitation, seat belts, infant car seats, professional standards in medicine and nursing, and all those other modern innovations that make our lives so much better.

    It’s Public Health Week in the United States, and if you’ve never seen or experienced a case of cholera, cholera infantum, milk sickness, dysentery, small pox, diphtheria, or typhoid, thank the under-appreciated but heroic group of men and women who helped develop laws and policies and technologies to improve our everyday lives.

    Many advances in public health happened in the United States during the Progressive Era, and the Church supported many of those movements and continues to support certain of them now. If the spreading of the gospel can provoke a progressive response to public health in developing areas of the world, whether that consists of clean water or vaccination or alcohol regulation or access to safe health care, that would be a great service to humanity.

  30. Thomas_C says:

    Amen, June. Leave it to Mormons to attempt to criminalize something they don’t participate in and don’t have any understanding of. Any further regulation of alcohol (which in Utah is already onerously taxed and regulated) would lead me directly to home brewing, which is just a form of cookery, after all. Right now I’m willing to pay a premium for convenience, but a 20% hike in prices? Further restrictions in sales? No way. There’d be a revolt.

  31. More personally, Thomas_C, one of my close childhood friends lost her entire family, father, mother, and older sister, to a drunk driver. From one day to the next she was an orphan. She was whisked away to live elsewhere and I didn’t have any more contact with her, so I don’t know how life has treated her, assuming she ever recovered from the trauma of surviving that horrific crash and seeing her entire family dead.

    Alcohol and some of its immediate effects, including drunk driving, is very much a public health issue — it is an overwhelming societal health issue that we cannot control or solve individually — and as such needs to be regulated and taxed, and throwing accusations of religious bigotry into the mix simply reveals your own bias and lack of understanding of the political process.

  32. Once again, Thomas_C, please read the post. Plus, I am not from Utah and have very little knowledge of Utah’s laws. This is not about Utah.

    Amy T., amen and amen.

  33. Thomas_C says:

    Amy T, in this way, alcohol consumption is very much like firearm ownership. Very many people own firearms, and very few go on school shootings or public massacres. And yet, still, many of us would like to better regulate firearms because the horror of such shootings is so awful.

    I have never heard the church take a stand on such issues, because firearm ownership is not a part of their belief system. Consumption of alcohol is. If I am making an accusation of religious bigotry it is because the Mormon church is not neutral about what political issues it takes on. If they were to ask their own member to abandon, to use the previous example, firearm ownership, or to participate in vaccination campaigns that would be one thing. To ask “gentiles” to give up their glass of wine for dinner, on the other hand, because all such consumption must necessarily lead to impaired driving is something else again. (Incidentally, can you see how insulting it is to even paint everyone who drinks alcohol with the brush of “murderer of families”?)

    In the end, I think we probably share the same goals: a healthier and safer community. But food and drink are part of culture and everyone is sensitive about their culture. Sorry to have imposed here.

  34. Thomas_C, you raise a very good point about firearms and vaccinations. They should be my next two posts because I would like to see Mormon leaders address these issues as well, if only because public health seems critical to Mormon’s views of Zion.

  35. Sooner or later The Church and its members need to learn that you can’t legislate your version of morality or commandments. You want to stop things like drunk driving and underage drinking, or even diseases related alcohol consumption? Then mobilize yourself and spread awareness about the dangers of driving while drunk, drinking underage, and the diseases that can come from alcoholism. But when we as a church start to think that we enforce our commandments on others through use of the law then we’ve crossed over from faithful members to zealots.

    You want to stop the bad things that can happen as a result of someone’s free agency, talk to your friends, talk to you children, but please stop trying to legislate our beliefs onto others. And after Prop 8, if the church tries to “mobilise members of the church to achieve political ends” I suspect you’ll see an exodus of membership like never before.

  36. J. Stapley says:

    Actually, the Church has made its buildings gun free, if I am not mistaken. Amy T., just wanted to say that I agree with your comments. Good stuff.

  37. Thomas_C: “(Incidentally, can you see how insulting it is to even paint everyone who drinks alcohol with the brush of “murderer of families”?)”

    Seriously? Did anyone say that in this discussion? I certainly didn’t.

    Kyle: “you can’t legislate your version of morality”

    Sure you can. Governments do it every day.

    Kyle: “You want to stop the bad things that can happen as a result of someone’s free agency, talk to your friends, talk to you children, but please stop trying to legislate our beliefs onto others.”

    Yeah, if you don’t like slavery, talk to your friends, talk to your children, but don’t you dare try and legislate against someone’s ability to practice slavery as they please. (After all, it is in the Bible.) (And the Constitution.)

    Thanks, J., but I should probably sit on my hands now and let someone else carry on the debate. : )

  38. The church’s history with regards to vaccinations is pretty interesting, especially around the year 1900 or so. One of the members of the 12 was very anti-vaccination–a decision which resulted in his death. I’ve posted information about vaccinations and the early history of the church at http://poetsinc.blogspot.com/2011/06/vaccines-and-lds-church-early-years.html. Jared* has also written about the issue. http://ldsscience.blogspot.com/search/label/vaccination.

    I really don’t see the church addressing this issue (other than providing vaccinations for deadly diseases in developing countries). It’s too controversial among many members, some who still believe the tripe about a link between autism and vaccines, and although there have been some recent outbreaks in the U.S., it’s not nearly as much of a health risk in developed countries as tobacco and alcohol addictions are.

  39. I live in a wonderful city that has become essentially smoke-free–smoking is not allowed in offices, restaurants, indoor sports arenas, and even bars. Quite a change from 35 years ago when I first came here. And, since the population of New York City is less than half a percent LDS, I don’t think we had anything to do with it.

    As Amy T. and others have pointed out, there are all sorts of public health reasons for regulating alcohol use–not a single one of those reasons rests on a religious prohibition on alcohol use.

  40. John Mansfield says:

    SO, it’s time for an update of Leon’s Truck? About 30 years back in Argentina, the LDS church had a television public service spot encouraging children to brush their teeth.

  41. Reading and comprehension skills are important in any discussion.

    Also, extreme comments decrying extremism in a setting where extremism isn’t being proposed always are entertaining.

    Great thoughts, Aaron. This absolutely is a public health issue and should be treated properly in that context.

  42. To Amy T’s response to Kyle’s comment about the inadvisability of legislating morality. I once heard a wise person say, those who insist you can’t legislate morality know little about legislation and even less about morality.

  43. fenevadka says:

    I’d caution against interpreting the decline in tobacco usage as a consequence of legal restrictions. If anything, legal restrictions were a lagging indicator of a much broader social shift away from tobacco that enabled the legal restrictions to succeed. Tobacco usage was in a downhill slide before many of the regulations went into effect because it came to be seen as a dirty habit. Had you tried to enact many of the current smoke-free ordinances in 1975, for instance, they would have been voted down and, even if they were enacted, would have been widely ignored. Most laws require the willing participation of the populace to succeed, and we now have a few generations of people who mostly see smoking as a dirty, low-class habit, so it’s easy to legislate against the despised minority. But that doesn’t mean that the legislation is responsible for the declines.

    With alcohol consumption, however, people in general don’t see it as a problem (they see *excessive* consumption as the problem) and the historical evidence of the effectiveness of anti-alcohol measures is pretty mixed at best. There is actually increasing pressure to reduce the drinking age in the U.S. and loosen some of the restrictions because many of the problems seen in young drinkers are (at least partially) rooted in the illegality and consequent lack of proper socialization of drinking. I live in Germany right now and drinking is much more accepted, but I see far less drunkenness than in the U.S. Children learn to drink responsibly in their families rather than with a bottle of high-test rot gut at secret parties.

    Other commenters are right to notice that the government is tied up in alcohol. It has been since the founding of the U.S. (anyone heard of the Whiskey Rebellion?), but most of the regulation has to do with maintaining revenue streams (three-tier distribution, for instance, is all about business relationships, not public health).

    If you want to lower the problems with drinking, you have to persuade people first and then the legislation will have a chance at succeeding.

  44. Arch Stanton says:

    The church’s understanding of the WOW is broken. The number of members who actually live the WOW is few and far between. A profound spiritual principle has been reduced to 5 Old-Testament-style rules and that’s never what it was meant to be. There is no official revelation anywhere which redefines the WOW as being a letter-of-the-law commandment, and there is also no official revelation anywhere which defines the interpretation of such a commandment. Taking steps towards legal prohibition would be yet another step in the wrong direction. What happened to free agency and living the spirit of the law? I thought that was the whole point of all this?

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