CDC Funds Faulty Anti-Alcohol Study That Targets Budweiser

Media misinterpret Hopkins analysis of tiny number of emergency patients.

If you end up in the emergency room for a serious injury after a night out, it might be because you were drinking Budweiser.

Or at least that’s the claim of a questionable new study, conducted by The Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (CAMY) at The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Medical Health. Among emergency room patients with alcohol-related injuries, the most likely culprit of beers turned out to be the King of Beers, Budweiser.

Well at least that’s what the media said about the study.

In reality, the tiny report was only intended to find out what information could be obtained from patients with injuries related to alcohol overconsumption. An additional caveat to this story was that it was just a pilot study, funded by The Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which raised ethical issues. And then there were the ethical concerns about how the study was actually done.

Online and print media ran with the story anyway, however. This seemingly insignificant study got a lot of attention from sources all over the internet and newspapers like The Washington Post, to  The New York Times along with The Atlantic Wire, The New York Post, Time Magazine and The Daily Mail, as well as networks CBS News, NBC News, local newspapers, and finance blogs.

Journalists jumped to focus on the misleading results. As The Incidental Economist pointed out, journalists missed the whole point of the study entirely, which was to find out the feasibility of collecting alcohol brand consumption data from injured patients who drank within six hours of presentation.” Not only that, but many did not report that this was a pilot study, or that were only 105 people sampled, or that it was conducted in a single urban hospital E.R. in Baltimore.

Hardly conclusive data.

That didn’t stop the Post from running a story with the headline: “Study: Budweiser, Colt 45 most popular beers among ER patients.” As if the study had some statistical validity.

The article mainly appeared in online news blogs, but it was in print on Aug. 20 in The New York Times. The version was duller but still ridiculous, claiming that the analysis “found that five beer brands were consumed most often by people who ended up in the emergency room.” The Times managed to hide several important details of the story:

  • The tiny sample size of just 105 people;
  • The singular location of where the study took place;
  • The fact that the study was conducted by the anti-alcohol CAMY;
  • The fact that participants were reluctant to give information until CAMY researchers put on white coats – in a questionable maneuver that could have made them appear as medical professionals;
  • They mislead in their lede claiming that “roughly a third of all visits to emergency rooms for injuries are alcohol related” when in fact that number is related to Friday and Saturdays alone.

Ethical Concerns Raised Over Nature of Study

The most questionable part of the study was the fact that CAMY researchers had to don white lab coats to gain the trust of interviewed patients. Such potentially deceptive behavior naturally raised ethical concerns.

The Business and Media Institute contacted Johns Hopkins for a statement regarding the ethics of its study. Spokesman Tim Parsons had this to say:

“The ER staff granted permission to conduct the study as was stated in the research article. The researchers were not attempting to portray themselves as physicians, but rather to portray themselves as belonging in the ER environment so as to distinguish themselves from other individuals who were not affiliated with the ER but who may have had other reasons for wanting to approach patients. The consent form used in this research specified that it was conducted by an individual who were not physicians and that the goal was to understand how drinking behaviors may precede arrival at an ER with an injury.” 

However, according to prominent medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, head of the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University’s Langone Medical Center, wearing white lab coats was misleading to patients.

“Putting on white coats is not acceptable.  It conveys the appearance of being caregivers—not researchers. The researchers should absolutely be crystal clear in approaching potential subjects that they are doing research/surveys that have nothing to do with clinical care.”

The Origin of the Attack

The media drew their own conclusions to attack the alcohol industry. Johns Hopkins didn’t try to refute the media’s analysis, but digging into the background of who funded and conducted the story might explain why.

In 2009, The CDC gave a $4 million grant to the anti-alcohol advocacy group, CAMY. CAMY was previously funded by the liberal activist groups Pew Charitable Trusts and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which have also funded  “green” iniatives, Obamacare, amidst other, anti-business research like the study in question.

Also not surprising was the fact that the director of this study, and an associate professor at Hopkins, David H. Jernigan, has conducted anti-alcohol industry studies in the past. Those include examining and drawing silly conclusions about which brands of alcohol were frequently referenced in pop music and alcohol brand advertisements in magazines.

According to Jernigan’s bio at Hopkins, this pilot study was a step in regulating certain alcohol brands that are associated with youth drinking behavior.

“Alcohol brand preference data is the missing link in establishing relationships between levels of alcohol advertising and youth drinking behavior,” it stated.

In a press release Jernigan said:

“Understanding the relationship between alcohol brands and their connection to injury may help guide policy makers in considering taxation and physical availability of different types of alcohol given the harms associated with them."

Clearly the study had an ulterior motive of regulating the alcohol industry. That wasn’t unusual since the CDC and CAMY have attacked the alcohol industry for its advertisements, which they say are linked to underage drinking. They have also pushed for more regulation and monitoring of what a company can and can’t do in their advertising.

Even the left wing The Atlantic Wire admited the Hopkins study aimed to punish certain businesses.

“It could help public health experts see if there's a group that's more at risk for injury that others, or if there's a correlation between who’s being targeted and who's getting injured. For example, if Budweiser is actively targeting young people and there's a sudden uptick in young people going to the emergency room because of Budweiser, studies like this could tell us a lot about the power of marketing.”