Alcohol policy doesn’t get nearly as much attention as it should. Federal estimates are that excessive alcohol consumption costs us $223 billion a year, not to mention the 79,000 deaths nationally. And yet on the rare occasion a political leader tries to even talk about the need to stem the tide of alcohol-related harm, all hell can break loose. This is true especially in New York, where the governor can be found hosting summits pledging to help promote beer and wine produced in the state. No wonder that New York State, at a mere 30 cents per gallon, has one of the lowest rates of wine excise taxes in the nation and at only 14 cents a gallon, one of the lowest on beer.
So when the New York Health State Department of Health recently released its “prevention agenda” for the next five years, perhaps it should come as no surprise that politics once again trumped public health. And yet, the way it happened is still shameful and alarming.
The action plan, written by a committee of health professionals, is intended to “serve as the blueprint for state and local community action to improve the health of New Yorkers and address health disparities.” In the draft version released in November, in the section to “promote mental health and prevent substance abuse” was the following language (page 10):
Increase evidence-based environmental strategies that prevent and reduce underage drinking, such as:
- Increase taxation on alcohol sales.
- Decrease alcohol outlet density.
- Increase motor vehicle sobriety checkpoints.
- Alcohol outlet compliance checks; alcohol outlet server/seller training.
Nothing too radical here: just a few policy ideas stemming from decades of scientific research on the most effective ways to reduce alcohol harm.
Enter the New York Post. In an alarmist December 3 article, Carl Campanile wrote:
Critics are furious with the proposals, which they said are another example of health zealots run amok. “It’s one gigantic nanny state we’re dealing with here,” fumed New York Conservative Party Chairman Mike Long, a former Brooklyn liquor-store owner.
The very next day, the Post ran a celebratory article taking credit for how Governor Cuomo “shot down” the state health department’s proposals. “The governor doesn’t support raising this tax, or the other measures,” state Health Department spokesman Bill Schwarz told the Post, which also boasted:
The rejection from Cuomo’s office came hours after The Post reported the state Public Health and Health Planning Council was pushing the proposal in its five-year “Prevention Agenda” for 2013-2017. But state Health Commissioner Dr. Nirav Shah will request that the anti-booze provisions be dropped from the plan in a vote Thursday because they are “contrary” to Cuomo’s position.
Sure enough, the health commissioner played the good soldier and caved to his boss’s political will. In the final version of the document released this month is this more vague and tepid language (p. 11):
Consider evidence based strategies to reduce underage drinking such as those promulgated by the U.S. Surgeon General and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
To recap: A panel of independent health professionals made scientifically-sound policy recommendations in a planning document only meant to guide local decision-making, not even close to being an actual policy agenda. A local rag got wind of it, blew it out of proportion, got the governor’s office to place a phone call to the health commissioner, who in turn, scrubbed the document.
And this isn’t the first time the Rupert Murdoch-owned Post has influenced alcohol-related public health. Last January, the same “reporter” Carl Campanile wrote this incendiary article about alcohol policy in New York City, where Mayor Bloomberg is a constant butt of jokes over his willingness to put public health over profits. Same outrage, same result. The city quickly backed off its alcohol prevention agenda.
So the question is when did the New York Post become a de facto arm of the alcohol lobby?
Nicholas Freudenberg is Distinguished Professor of Urban Public Health at Hunter College, City University of New York. He told me this episode is “an ominous reminder of how often profit trumps health.” He added:
That a Governor with political ambitions thinks it’s more important to placate the alcohol industry than take action to reduce a leading cause of premature death and preventable illness and injury is disturbing. That a health commissioner accepts this policy interference is equally disappointing.
No wonder we can’t get anywhere on alcohol policy in New York, or anywhere else for that matter.