Think you drink a lot?

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Think you drink a lot? This chart will tell you:

These figures come from Philip J. Cook’s Paying the Tab, an economically-minded examination of the costs and benefits of alcohol control in the U.S. Specifically, they’re calculations made using the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (NESARC) data.

Drinks per Capita by Decile

“One consequence is that the heaviest drinkers are of greatly disproportionate importance to the sales and profitability of the alcoholic-beverage industry,” he writes writes. “If the top decile somehow could be induced to curb their consumption level to that of the next lower group (the ninth decile), then total ethanol sales would fall by 60 percent.”

(Hat tip to P.D. Mangan.)

Trevor Butterworth considers this data journalism gone wrong:

If we look at the section where he arrives at this calculation, and go to the footnote, we find that he used data from 2001-2002 from NESARC, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, which had a representative sample of 43,093 adults over the age of 18. But following this footnote, we find that Cook corrected these data for under-reporting by multiplying the number of drinks each respondent claimed they had drunk by 1.97 in order to comport with the previous year’s sales data for alcohol in the US. Why? It turns out that alcohol sales in the US in 2000 were double what NESARC’s respondents — a nationally representative sample, remember — claimed to have drunk.

While the mills of US dietary research rely on the great National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey to digest our diets and come up with numbers, we know, thanks to the recent work of Edward Archer, that recall-based survey data are highly unreliable: we misremember what we ate, we misjudge by how much; we lie. Were we to live on what we tell academics we eat, life for almost two thirds of Americans would be biologically implausible.

But Cook, who is trying to show that distribution is uneven, ends up trying to solve an apparent recall problem by creating an aggregate multiplier to plug the sales data gap. And the problem is that this requires us to believe that every drinker misremembered by a factor of almost two. This might not much of a stretch for moderate drinkers; but did everyone who drank, say, four or eight drinks per week systematically forget that they actually had eight or sixteen? That seems like a stretch.


  1. Ross says:

    Wow, was this crap peer-reviewed? While drunk?

    “…we find that Cook corrected these data for under-reporting by multiplying the number of drinks each respondent claimed they had drunk by 1.97..”

    Too hard to estimate under-age drinking? Just “multiply by two” and call it done?


  2. Kirk says:

    Why do these guys never “close the loop”, and go back to things like annual sales of alcohol and then work backwards to see if the results of their breathless mathamajiggering even begin to make sense?

    You see this all the time in “journalism”, which based on the intellectual rigor displayed by its practitioners, barely qualifies as a discipline. Don’t even get me started on the crapola that comes up with regard to military and defense issues. The innumeracy burns, it does, it does…

  3. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    “Wow, was this crap peer-reviewed? While drunk?”

    No self-respecting academic would review the work of his peers while sober.

    If reviewers were sober, they might start to question the paradigms of peer-reviewed research, and then they would be out of a job.

  4. James James says:

    If you hold the unadjusted top decile constant at 37.49, you have to multiply the others by 4.9 to keep the total the same. The ninth decile goes to 37.97, more than the top decile.

    The unadjusted top decile must be underreporting somewhat, because the other deciles are probably not underreporting by 5 times.

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