Thursday, January 20, 2011

Follow the Money, Alcohol Edition

Both 24 Hours and The Province published stories yesterday about the rise of alcohol-related deaths caused by private liquor stores. The Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. has released a study which links the two. In particular, they find "a 27.5 per cent increase in alcohol-related deaths for every extra private liquor store per 1,000 British Columbians."

The Province has some concrete numbers for us (emphasis mine):
The number of government stores dropped from 222 in 2003 to 199 in 2008 while the number of private stores increased from 727 in 2003 to 977 in 2008. Restaurants (3,849 in 2003 to 4,163 in 2008) and bars (1,833 in 2003 to 1,812 in 2008) remained relatively stable.

Meanwhile, the number of alcohol-related deaths rose. There were 1,937 in 2003; 1,983 in 2004; 2,016 in 2005; 2,086 in 2006; 2,074 in 2007; and 2,011 in 2008.
But those numbers don't account for population growth. In 2003, the population of BC was 4,122,396; it grew steadily to 4,383,860 in 2008. That's a 6.3% increase, meaning deaths per capita actually fell over these five years. So the number of private liquor stores per capita rose, the number of alcohol deaths per capita fell, and the study concludes that more private liquor stores leads to more alcohol deaths? What's going on here?
Adjusting for population growth
YearPopulationPrivate stores per 100kDeaths per 100k

According to the paper's abstract, the authors reached their conclusions by studying BC's 89 local health areas. To be fair, there could be an effect at the local level. But when the overall death rate is going down, what made the authors think such a study would be necessary?

It helps to ask who exactly the Centre for Addictions Research of B.C. is. According to their website, they were started in 2003 as a joint venture between the B.C. Addiction Foundation and the University of Victoria. In turn, the Addiction Foundation was founded in 2001 by the Provincial Government.

Why is this relevant? In a nutshell, we have an organization established by an arm of the Provincial Government, funded in large part by that Provincial Government, performing research into ways to raise more revenue for that Provincial Government. Does anyone else see a possible conflict of interest?

The BC Provincial Government is facing a $1.7 billion deficit (PDF) this year, and the BC Liquor Distribution Branch is estimated to bring in about $1 billion per year. With almost five times as many private liquor stores as government-run stores in 2008, taking over a sizable chunk of those private stores would go a long way towards eliminating the deficit. All they need is a plausible-sounding reason (private stores are killing people!), supported by "independent" researchers. Coincidence?