23-May-2009 (Sat) Wherein I tell you all about the neo-prohibitionists.

I removed the Facebook Connect comment boxes on these entries (discussed last month) because they just didn't work very well. I could never get them to obey my color scheme, and they were amazingly slow to load: sometimes it took over 30 seconds for the box to open. But the real deal-breaker was that there is apparently no way for me to get an email notification when someone makes a new comment. Oh well, it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Here's some fun news, coming soon to a State budget crisis near you. From the SF Chronicle:

Here's a money-raising idea for our budget-challenged leaders. A 25-cent per-drink increase in California's alcohol tax. Yes, it's that dreaded TAX word, but the Marin Institute, San Rafael's self-styled "alcohol industry watchdog," says it would raise $3.4 billion.

A small recompense for the $38.4 billion the state lays out in connection with alcohol-related illnesses and lost productivity, according to the organization. Alcohol tax measures are floating around the Legislature, but their prospects are murky at best.

You may have noticed, however, that the Senate Finance Committee just voted for a federal excise tax on alcohol and "sugar-sweetened beverages" to help pay for President Obama's health care reforms.

Fun fact: a $0.25 tax per drink will result in most drink prices going up by a full dollar across the state. That's because (you may have noticed) most bars and almost all nightclubs price their drinks in dollar increments. The reason is simple: coins are a pain in the butt. They slow everything down, and at a high volume bar, speed of service directly affects the bottom line. (That's also why we have an ATM next to the bar instead of taking credit cards there.) So when the prices have to go up, they go up by a buck.

The Marin Institute, in case you aren't aware, are extremely well-funded prohibitionists who have a great deal of influence on lawmakers in the State and Federal governments. You might not know it yet, but you really hate these guys. Along with Mothers Against Drunk Driving (whom you also hate), these people have been screwing up your world for years.

It's no surprise that they are proposing yet another alcohol tax, since their entire agenda is to make alcohol harder to come by. The tail wags the dog on this one: "I have the solution! An alcohol tax! What was the problem you were trying to solve again?" "Funding the schools." "See? It makes perfect sense!"

Here's some background on these organizations:

Anti-Alcohol Industry 101: Overview of the Anti-Alcohol Industry in the U.S.

Most people are completely unaware that an enormous and well-funded anti-alcohol industry exists in the U.S. It consists of a large number of interrelated organizations, groups and individual activists who are opposed in some way to alcohol and its consumption. Some want to return to Prohibition whereas most want to continuously reduce average consumption to lower and lower levels: "Less alcohol is always too much alcohol."

A major strategy in reducing alcohol consumption is to make alcoholic beverages more expensive and more difficult to obtain. "Availability is the mother of abuse" insists Joe Califano of the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA).

The goal of the anti-alcohol industry as a whole is to establish cultural rather than strictly legal prohibition by making alcohol beverages less socially acceptable and marginalizing those who drink, no matter how moderately. Like the anti-alcohol activists who preceded them, the neo-prohibitionists of today often ignore the important distinction between the use and the abuse of alcohol. For the most part, they tend to view it as all bad.

The Marin Institute: A Temperance-Oriented Activist Organization

The Marin Institute is a massively endowed temperance-oriented organization that has picked up the anti-alcohol banner previously carried by earlier temperance groups. It is even recognized for its activities by the Prohibition Party. Yes, the Prohibition Party still exists and has thousands of members and millions of supporters.

The Institute is funded by the Buck Trust [whose] assets are reported to be about one billion dollars. In addition, the Marin Institute has received many millions of dollars of taxpayer's money at both state and federal levels. Millions of that have been channeled through the federal Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, a very controversial agency.

The Marin Institute repeatedly reports the often deceptive and misleading "research" and statistics produced by the other anti-alcohol groups. The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY), the Alcohol Policies Project of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), the Center for Substance Abuse and Addiction (CASA) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) all produce flawed and even pseudo-scientific reports to promote their agenda. Cooperation and interaction among groups in the anti-alcohol industry tends to be high.

Like the $10 billion dollar Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, a major financier of temperance in the U.S., the Marin Institute is very aggressive in promoting its temperance-oriented agenda across the country both publicly and clandestinely.

A Crash Course in MADD

The founding president of MADD, Candy Lightner, left in disgust from the organization that she herself created because of its change in goals. "It has become far more neo-prohibitionist than I ever wanted or envisioned," she says. "I didn't start MADD to deal with alcohol. I started MADD to deal with the issue of drunk driving." Ms. Lightner has emphasized the importance of distinguishing between alcohol and drinking on one hand and drunk driving on the other.

Ms. Lightner has apparently put her finger on the problem when she says that if MADD really wants to save lives, it will go after the real problem drivers. Instead, it has become temperance-oriented.

These people have such enormous influence not only because they are so well funded by prohibitionists and fundamentalists, but because it's very hard for politicians to oppose them without looking like monsters who eat children. Politicians are all about saving face, and all these people have to do is trot out their propaganda photos of dead children and say, "but if we can save just one child, wouldn't it all have been worth it?"

That line almost always works. That's what killed the attempt to let San Francisco have a later last call five years ago:

In addition, testimony from a mother of a person killed by a drunk driver clearly made the legislators uncomfortable in voting for the legislation. [...] Many democratic legislators left the room after the Mother Against Drunk Drivers testimony and did not vote, so there were not enough votes to move the bill out of committee.

(See also the fantastically expensive and ineffective Amber Alert system, which has had a 0.01% success rate, at 34 out of 262,100. But I digress.)

Surprisingly, the Wikipedia articles on these various organizations mostly fail to call them out as neo-prohibitionists. The Criticisms section of the MADD article is ok, but the articles on The Marin Institute, CASA, CSAP, CAMY, CSPI, and CPAP don't mention any of the controversy surrounding them at all.

Those of you who care about Wikipedia probably ought to get on that.

10 Responses:

  1. heresiarch says:

    apparently, i used to work upstairs from the Marin Institute. had no idea what they did, though.

  2. allartburns says:

    At what point do you pack it in and find a new hometown? I heard the Portland scene is pretty happening, but I suspect they're overrun with ex-Cali regulatory nutjobs.

    • blech says:

      Doesn't the whole of the US have a puritan / prohibitionist history, though? The minimum drinking age is 21 everywhere, after all. (Apparently Louisiana held out until the federal government tied the roads budget to changing the legal drinking age. That was the end of that.)

    • pavel_lishin says:

      At what point do you realize that you're all out of new hometowns?

    • jwz says:

      That post was all about national organizations, dude.

  3. mc_kingfish says:

    "a massively endowed temperance-oriented organization"

    Hmm... I don't like the temperance part, but I have to admit I'm intrigued by the other thing...

  4. dasht says:

    Follow the money to the Buck Trust and its history to see what you are up against and get some hints as to why. Also note the academic studies about Buck Trust as an example of a poorly formed trust gone wrong.


    • sheilagh says:


      They sound like a piece of work :(

      • dasht says:

        The legal action of the San Francisco Foundation described in that old book reached a conclusion: the foundation lost. Control was given to the "Marin Community Foundation" which gives about $250MM to the Marin Institute who advocate for higher alcohol taxes. The Marin Institute also reports funding from the "California Endowment" and unnamed private donors. Board membership on the Marin Institute is interesting in a lot of ways but I won't editorialize beyond that. The professional (presumably paid) staff are mostly NPO/advocacy-group careerists.

        Reading from the news links that Marin Institute puts up they apparently get a lot of political mileage from a perception in Marin that a lot of the teens in the county spend large parts of most days drinking, sometimes Ma or Pa will rent out a beach house for an alcohol party for the kids, etc. All of this, we are asked to understand, is mainly the result of the alcoholic beverage industry targeting these kids.

        JWZ summed it up well: "You don't like them."


  5. amonkeyboy says:

    There several parallels to the positions and tactics used to discourage/ban smoking.

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