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To solve a problem, first understand its cause

by Jerry Ellig on September 25, 2013

in Economic Policy, Health policy, Regulation

A key principle of smart regulation is that regulators should first understand the nature, extent, and cause of the problem they are trying to solve before they write a regulation. (It’s even the first principle of regulation listed in Executive Order 12866, which governs regulatory analysis and review in the executive branch).

On the federal level, this principle is often honored more in the breach than in the observance. For a good example of what can happen on the state and local level when this principle is ignored, one need look no further than a recent study on the costs of excessive alcohol consumption funded by the Centers for Disease Control.

1655-barrel for drunk

Credit: Christy K. Robinson

The study estimates that binge drinking is responsible for about 76 percent of the social costs of excessive drinking, and underage drinking is responsible for another 11 percent. (“Binge drinking” was defined as 5 or more drinks on the same occasion for a man, and 4 or more on the same occasion for a woman. All underage drinking was classified as excessive since it’s illegal.)

Taking these findings at face value, the logical conclusion is that the most sensible policies to reduce the costs of excessive alcohol consumption would target binge drinkers and underage drinkers. Unfortunately, the authors recommend a grab-bag of policies that would penalize anyone who consumes alcohol — not just binge drinkers and underage drinkers.

They refer the reader to the Centers for Disease Control’s “Guide to Community Preventive Services,” which endorses policies like increased alcohol taxes, limitations on days alcohol can be sold, limiting sale hours, limiting the density of retail outlets, and government ownership of retail outlets. The only policies recommended that specifically target binge drinkers or underage drinkers are electronic screening and intervention, and enhanced enforcement of laws prohibiting sales to minors.

Two other initiatives mentioned in the Community Guide that sound like they might help — enhanced enforcement of “overservice” laws and responsible beverage service training — are not recommended because an insufficient number of studies have been done to test their effectiveness. If the CDC took the principles of sound regulatory analysis seriously, it would focus more resources on researching such targeted interventions and less on advocating broad-brush alcohol control policies that penalize citizens who have done no wrong.

Most readers can probably recall a bad experience with “group punishment” in grade school, when an entire classroom or grade got blamed for the misbehavior of a few miscreants. Many of the CDC’s preferred alcohol policies constitute group punishment on a massive scale, applied to adults. A careful focus on the root causes of the problem would help government avoid punishing everyone for the misdeeds of a few.

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