Abusing Substance Abuse Data

I haven’t covered the issue of alcohol for a while, but a recent set of headlines had a reek of moonshine about them. “Heavy social drinkers show brain damage” ran the Reuters headline in many news outlets. The UK press, as usual, was more creative. “Three glasses of wine a day ‘a health risk'”1 said the sober Scotsman, while the Glasgow Herald was more direct: “Boozers face brain damage.” 2 [Ed.- Canadian media uncritically reported on this study. The Ottawa Citizen reported, “Three drinks a day can cause brain damage”3, while the Calgary Herald more directly stated, “Heavy drinking bad for the brain.” 4] Yet the study actually told us little we didn’t know already. Social drinkers can continue their imbibing without worry.

The cause was a study by researchers from the San Francisco branches of the University of California and the Department of Veterans Affairs Medical Center. From MRI scans of 46 heavy drinkers and 52 light drinkers, they concluded that, “Community-dwelling heavy drinkers who are not in alcoholism treatment have brain metabolite changes that are associated with lower brain function and are likely of behavioral significance.”

Given the press coverage, one might assume that the “social drinkers” enjoyed two or three drinks two or three times a week. That was not the case. “Social drinkers” was a misinterpretation of the definition of the report’s subjects as “socially functioning,” in other words active in the community rather than seeking treatment for alcoholism. The minimum qualification to count as a heavy drinker for the study was 100 drinks per month over the past three years. This is not the generally accepted definition of a “social drinker” as someone who enjoys the odd drink in a social situation with friends but who rarely drinks otherwise.

In fact, the study went even further from the generally accepted use of the phrase. Of the 46 heavy drinkers, 41 met standard criteria to be classified as alcohol dependent, and the other 5 qualified as abusers of alcohol. In other words, the study looked at alcoholics, not “social drinkers.”

One might therefore conclude that the study simply showed that alcoholics in denial are as likely to get brain damage as alcoholics in treatment. That is true, to an extent, but there were some interesting side notes. For instance, it appears that a family history of alcoholism protects somewhat against the brain damage, possibly thereby proving some truth in the old joke, “Drinking kills brain cells, but only the weak ones.” Moreover, there were anomalous findings in that binge drinkers seemed to display less of one type of damage than steady drinkers, which the researchers found surprising.

Moreover, the “brain damage” the researchers found also does not fit the popular interpretation of that term, which implies noticeable impairment. As lead researcher Dr. Dieter Meyerhoff said, “Heavy drinking damages your brain ever so slightly, reducing your cognitive functioning in ways that may not be readily noticeable” (emphases added).

It was the journalists rather than the scientists who added the spin here. The researchers found that alcoholics not receiving treatment for their problem suffer from a variety of barely noticeable cognitive impairments. The story got written up as heavy (whatever that means) social drinkers getting brain damage. That may be literally true, but it is likely to conjure up a far different picture than the researchers intended.

Yet it is not just in alcohol research that non-stories get exaggerated. A recent report by the Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA) at Columbia University suggests that many more teens are in treatment for marijuana abuse than alcohol abuse, which might put the hysteria about teenage alcoholism in perspective if it is true. Yet confidence in the findings is not enhanced by this supposedly worrying suggestion:

Among youths aged 12 to 17 who have ever tried marijuana, the mean age of initiation is 13 and a half. The mean age of initiation among adults aged 18 to 25 who have ever tried marijuana is 16.

It should come as no surprise that the mean age of first use for a younger group is less than that for an older group. What about all those in the 12-17 group who haven’t tried marijuana yet but will do when aged 18 or older? This is a meaningless finding, yet it is advanced seemingly in support of CASA President James A Califano’s assertions about the dangers of the drug.

We know that alcohol — and marijuana for that matter — are dangerous when abused. Yet we also know that alcohol seems to confer a degree of health benefit when used in moderation. Suggesting that moderate use of alcohol — as implied by the use of the term “social drinker” — might damage the brain is therefore the height of journalistic irresponsibility. It’s enough to drive one to drink.

Iain Murray is a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and on the CANSTATS Board of Advisors

1 “Three glasses of wine a day ‘a health risk.” Scotsman, 16 April 2004

2 “Boozers face brain damage.” Glasgow Herald. 16 April 2004

3 “Three drinks a day can cause brain damage: study.” The Ottawa Citizen, 16 April 2004, sec. A, p. 12

4”Heavy drinking bad for the brain. “ Calgary Herald, 16 April 2004, sec. A, p. 9

[This article originally appeared on Tech Central Station on April 29th, and is reprinted here with the author’s permission]

The True State of the Environment

The Fraser Institute has found a strong disconnect between Canadian student perceptions of environmental trends (mostly negative) and the reality of environmental trends (mostly positive): 65 percent of the students attending Fraser Institute seminars believe that air quality is deteriorating. 58 percent of students are convinced that annual forest harvests exceed regrowth. 73 percent of students believe we need to expand recycling programs and further control waste to avoid a “trash crisis.”

When asked about the source of their information on environmental issues, 72 percent report getting most of their information from the media. Given the passing of the 34th annual Earth Day, CANSTATS believed it was important to survey the accuracy of environmental coverage on that day.

What the Media said:

Earth Day coverage continues to portray a deteriorating state of the environment. The Toronto Star reported a gloomy picture of the environment, claiming that “humanity faces an ecological crisis of cosmic proportions.” The Times-Colonist took an equally depressing take on British Columbia’s recent trends, claiming that the current government is only making our bad environment worse.

News coverage was not uniformly negative. Several outlets accurately portrayed our achievements since the first Earth Day. The Vancouver Sun reported not only on the cumulative impacts of many small acts such as removing trash from streams, but the larger scale improvements in air quality. The Calgary Herald noted that “any objective study of North America would find much to celebrate.”

What CANSTATS says:

A survey of key indicators of environmental quality in Canada shows that the vast majority — 84 percent — have improved relative to the 1970s, according to the Fraser Institute’s annual study Environmental Indicators (Sixth Edition).

The study looks at key environmental indicators, including air and water quality, in Canada, the United States, and Mexico, and shatters the common misconception that environmental quality is deteriorating.

“While we do still have some environmental challenges to face, such as ozone pollution, coastal water pollution, and fishery protection, we have made spectacular strides in protecting our environment over the last three decades. Canadians should be celebrating, not living their lives in fear of environmental apocalypse,” says Dr. Kenneth Green, director of the Fraser Institute’s Centre for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment.

One of the greatest success stories in environmental improvement is the increasing quality of the air Canadians breathe:

  • Ambient levels of sulphur dioxide, a pollutant produced by burning coal and oil which can cause breathing problems and aggravation of respiratory disease, decreased over 73 percent between 1974 and 2001. Many cities experienced similar reductions including Toronto (–69 percent), Montreal (–79 percent), and Vancouver (–73 percent). Every city in Canada now meets the strictest annual health standard for sulphur dioxide.
  • Ambient levels of particulate matter decreased 54 percent between 1974 and 2001.
  • Carbon monoxide levels decreased by 83 percent from 1974 to 2001 despite the fact that there has been a 30 percent increase in total vehicle registrations over the same period.
  • Ambient lead levels fell 94 percent in Canada from 1974 and 1998, a concentration so low that it is now measured only in a few areas adjacent to potentially concentrated sources of lead emissions.

Though the quality of the nation’s surface water is more difficult to assess, Canada’s water quality has also improved:

  • Levels of DDE (a breakdown product of DDT) decreased 86 percent in Lake Ontario; 89 percent in Lake Erie; 85 percent in Lake Michigan; 91 percent in Lake Superior, and 93 percent in Lake Huron from 1974 to 2002.
  • PCB levels showed similar trends, decreasing 89 percent in Lake Ontario; 82 percent in Lake Erie; 80 percent in Lake Michigan; 87 percent in Lake Superior, and 92 percent in Lake Huron relative to their levels in the mid 1970s.
  • The percentage of the municipal population with wastewater treatment increased to 97 percent in 1999 from 72 percent in 1983.

The study also notes these contributors to Canada’s overall environmental quality:

  • The amount of land set aside for parks, wilderness, and wildlife has increased in Canada by 163 percent since 1970.
  • Waste disposed per capita has declined in all provinces except Quebec and Alberta between 1994 and 2000. Nova Scotia’s decline was the sharpest, at 40 percent.
  • Forest harvests have remained below the Allowable Annual Cut (AAC) between 1970 and 1999.

“There is much cause for optimism about the state of Canada’s environment,” says Green. “Environmental trends across the board are improving, and should continue to improve in coming years. While environmental alarmists publish a steady stream of scary reports based on dubious science, all it takes is a quick look at the data to show that the reality of environmental progress is overwhelmingly positive.”

Resources spent to remedy one environmental problem are not available to address other, potentially more serious, problems. Given this reality, the most effective way to continue to achieve environmental improvement is to focus on the most serious remaining problems.


Canadians demand a clean environment, and will continue to do so. In order for individuals and policy makers to make informed decisions, they require an accurate picture of the environment. As the main conduit of public information on the state of the environment, the media has a duty to portray that picture based on sound scientific observations. The media should turn to the science and look at the actual trends rather than allowing simple conjecture to guide their reporting.

Jeremy Brown is a Policy Analyst in the Centre for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment at The Fraser Institute, and manages the Canadian Statistical Assessment Service.

Calgary Herald, “Earth pilgrims’ progress: Going green makes most sense when people are put first”, April 22, 2004. pg. A18

Science and the Mass Media: A Clash of Cultures

How many journalists does it take to change a light bulb?

Three. One to report it as an inspired government program to bring light to the people, one to report it as a diabolical government plot to deprive the poor of darkness, and one who aims for a Pulitzer prize, reporting that the electric company hired a light bulb assassin to break the bulb in the first place.

To put it another way, mass media content is “a socially created product, not a reflection of an objective reality.”1 In contrast, science is as close to an objective reality as we can muster. How the two interact is fascinating, and it’s not without tension: Researchers get frustrated when the media sensationalize science, and they often lack respect for journalists, while reporters regularly find scientists to be incomprehensible and opaque, poor communicators who wrap their message within layers of caveats.

A number of other factors influence the quality of science reporting. On the credit side, there currently exists a pool of trained and talented science reporters, the likes of which have never been seen before. However, this is more than canceled out by the single consideration that currently dominates the print and broadcast media: entertainment. The first target of any media organization is survival, and today that requires that they amuse and distract us. According to a survey of 300 US media professionals, conducted by The Columbia Journalism Review, 84% of journalists polled felt that a story would not be covered if it were “important but dull.” Remarked Peter Preston, editor of The Observer newspaper: “This is not dumbing down; it is dumbing out.”

Nonetheless, science coverage in the media is growing. For example, a recent analysis of Danish newspapers2 concluded that there was a “dramatic and accelerating sevenfold increase in the number of articles referring to researchers” between 1961 and 2001.

What rules apply to news selection? According to Pamela J. Shoemaker and Stephen D. Reese,1 news values fall into six categories: prominence/importance, human interest, conflict/controversy, the unusual, timeliness, and proximity. Some topics, such as biosecurity or the development of a new disease therapy, share many of these values. We begin to see, for instance, why the Raelians’ cloning claims got so much attention. On the face of it, the reporting was not poor journalism; on the contrary, every news value was realized, and it was entertaining. The difficulty, from the scientific vantage point, is that it was nonsense, purely a “socially created product.” Several of Shoemaker and Reese’s news values appear irrelevant or even antagonistic to straight coverage of mainstream science.

Although claims of human cloning stick in the mind (and the throat), they are the exception in science news. Regular reporting of research papers on the day of publication dominate, not surprising since news needs defined events. What is surprising is the predictability of story selection. A recent analysis3 of coverage by newspapers on research published in four elite journals concluded: “Journalists depict themselves as keen–at times even ruthless–competitors with one another, but this finding suggests a different view: When it comes to breaking news about scientific research, newspapers try to make sure that they cover the stories that other newspapers cover. The goal is not to be different, but to be the same.”

It is not clear whether science journalists run in packs because they all have good news judgment, because their employers constrain them, or because they are lazy. Whatever the cause, the opening joke appears not to apply.

Richard Gallagher is the editor of The Scientist


1 P.J. Shoemaker, S.D. Reese, “Mediating the message,” In: Theories of Influences on Mass Media Content, 2nd ed., White Plains, NY: Longman, 1996, p. 261.

2 E. Albaek et al., J Mass Comm Quart, 80:937, 2003.

3 V. Kiernan, J Mass Comm Quart, 80:903, 2003.

This article was reproduced with permission from The Scientist, Issue: May 10, 2004, Volume 18, Issue 9, Page 6, Copyright 2004, The Scientist LLC. All rights reserved.

Is Asthma Caused by Global Warming?

The Globe and Mail began an article on purported links between asthma and climate change with the following sentence. “America’s cities, blanketed with smog and climate-altering carbon dioxide, have become cradles of ill health and are fostering an epidemic of asthma.” Is this really the case?

According to the media, the conclusive results were in. Global warming is linked to higher asthma rates. “Global warming linked to high asthma rates,” (Globe and Mail, April 30) “Asthma linked to global warming, experts say,” (CTV News, April 30) and “Report Predicts Asthma Epidemic from Pollution.” (Reuters UK, April 29) The Canadian media chose to focus on the supposed link between climate change and asthma rates in preschool-age children.

Media reports were based on “Inside the Greenhouse- The Impacts of CO2 and Climate Change on Public Health in the Inner City,” by Paul R. Epstein and Christine Rogers of the Center for Health and Global Environment and Harvard Medical School.

What the Harvard Report Says:

The focus of the Harvard report is not the relationship between asthma rates (in children or adults) and increased levels of CO2 or global warming. It had a larger purpose. “This report examines the direct impacts of CO2, as well as climate change, focusing on urban centers; examining synergies between air pollution and climate change and connections between climate change and emerging infectious diseases – in particular, West Nile virus, a disease carried by urban-dwelling mosquitoes that presents new problems for public health and mosquito control authorities.” (Epstein, pg. 4)

The authors list 17 “key points.” These points combine a tremendous range of environmental factors and possible implications. Four are cited here to give the reader a better sense of the report.

  • Point four: “Fungal growth inside houses can affect respiratory health and insurance coverage.”
  • Point five: “Floods can drive rodents from their natural burrows into developed areas.”
  • Point 11: “West Nile virus in the U.S. is a new phenomenon — a mosquito-borne disease in urban areas; one not previously faced by public health and mosquito control agencies,” and
  • Point 13: “Severe and erratic weather – early and late snowstorms, ice storms and dense fog – present hazards for automotive drivers and pedestrians.”

The report concludes that rising carbon dioxide levels “in themselves” pose health hazards and suggests that local initiatives on individual, organizational, city, state and regional levels “can go a long way towards improving energy efficiency.”

The authors also suggest that a “clean energy transition” can become the “engine of growth for the 21st century, helping to alleviate poverty and initiate a more equitable, healthy and sustainable form of development.”

What the Media Say:

CTV reported that “The health of millions of children worldwide is threatened by global warming and air pollution,” and that there is a “health crisis” as a result of increased CO2 combined with pollution in the air. No conflicting viewpoint was offered for possible causes of increased asthma rates.

The Globe and Mail wrote of climate change fostering an “asthma epidemic.” This article cited one doctor with a conflicting view, who said that climate change may “play a part” in rising asthma rates, but indicated that other factors are also involved.


There are inaccuracies in the Harvard report itself:

  • The report says that CO2 levels are rising. This statement in itself is debatable.1
  • No data is given on the purported link between rising asthma rates and climate change or increases in CO2. No numbers of asthmatic children from different cities are given. There is no attempt in the report to account for other reasons for the increase, such as better diagnostic techniques in younger children.
  • The report uses numbers without footnoting the source. In a case study on the European Heatwave of 2003 the report notes that “35,000 people died from the direct results of heat.” No source is given for this highly questionable number.

There are inaccuracies in the way the media presented the Harvard report:

  • The amount of time explicitly devoted in the Harvard report to rising levels of asthma in children is miniscule and yet the media presented this aspect almost exclusively. The Harvard report is by no means devoted to exploring causes of asthma in children. It states only that the largest increase in asthma occurred in preschool-aged children (an increase between 1980 and 1994 of 160 percent). It is indeed worth asking whether the researchers ever intended to explain the causes of asthma in children, or whether they used this point to draw the media in. Television reportage was accompanied by photos of preschoolers in doctors’ offices using inhalers- certainly a more riveting audience hook than a general item on climate change.
  • Where the Harvard report frequently uses the words “may” “might” or “potential” to indicate the possible effects of climate change, the media did not. Media reports are therefore fundamentally inaccurate: “The following categories of diseases and other health impacts may (emphasis added) be affected by climatic conditions (Epstein, pg. 12) ” is a very different statement from “The following categories of diseases and other health impacts are (emphasis added) affected by climatic conditions.” The report said the former, while the media published the latter.
  • The Harvard report refers only to American cities, the media reported on a “worldwide crisis.”
  • The report is in fact a summary of other studies. The media reported it as if it were a set of new scientific findings, specifically on the relationship between asthma rates and climate.

Unrelated stories later in the same week on rising asthma rates will solidify a link between cities, pollution and asthma in Canadians’ minds that may or may not exist.

The media made no attempt to offer balanced articles on an already unbalanced report, in which many political and economic, as opposed to health or environmental, recommendations were made. It is not clear how changes in the economy toward using different energy sources will alleviate respiratory problems, nor is it clear how a “clean energy transition” will “help to alleviate poverty and initiate a more equitable, healthy and sustainable form of development.” Yet these are the conclusions of the report.

Readers should be aware of the inaccuracies and misrepresentation in the initial report, and the subsequent multiplication of inaccuracies in media reports.

Andrea Mrozek is a freelance writer and a former intern in the Toronto office of the Fraser Institute.


1“CO2 emissions have been pretty much stable over the past 30 years. From 1950 to 1974, CO2 emissions increased by a factor of 2.4 in Canada. But per capita CO2 emissions peaked in 1979 and have held steady ever since, despite economic growth. (Source: Marland, G., T.A. Boden, R. J. Andres (2000) “Global, Regional, and National CO2 Emissions.” In Trends: A Compendium of Data on Global Change. Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center, Oak Ridge National Laboratory, U.S. Department of Energy, Oak Ridge, Tenn.)” From “Is Canada the World’s Biggest (per capita) Emitter of CO2?” CANSTATS, January 11 2003. Found online at Canstats

Are Women Being “Gouged” by a “Gender Tax?

“‘Gender tax’ gouging women,” reads the headline of a recent article published by the CanWest News Service. “Companies get away with overcharging customers with extra X-chromosome,” continues the sub-header. The article raises three dubious issues relating to women’s ability to purchase goods in free and competitive markets.

First, the article discusses the fact that women, reportedly, pay more for certain goods and services than do men – ostensibly for the very similar services, such as the dry-cleaning of a shirt, or a haircut of comparable complexity. One woman in the CanWest article even put the theory to the test, going to her husband’s hair stylist for a similar type of haircut, and was shocked to be handed a bigger bill than her husband usually gets. That may all be true. But as author Jacob Sullum points out, the idea that the only fair price for a good or service is the cost of producing it stems from a medieval Christian ethic, not an economic perspective (Sullum, 1998). Sullum observes that modern economists would hold a quite different view, that “Given choice and competition, it’s generally accepted that buyers and sellers should be free to determine prices: If you think the convenience store on the corner charges too much for Diet Coke, you can go somewhere else.” Sullum also observes that many times there are differences between men’s and women’s services that justify differential pricing: “Many salon owners and dry cleaners say there are sound business reasons for such disparities. Women tend to have longer hair, and their styles take more time. Women’s clothing often has pleats, ruffles, lace, decorative buttons, or other doodads that require special care. Their shirts may be too small to fit old presses designed for men’s clothing, so they have to be ironed by hand.” Activists against gender-based pricing argue that such differences should be accounted for by pricing based on effort. But the fact that business owners (female as well as male) have chosen gender-based pricing over item-based pricing would seem to imply that they find it more efficient, and more profitable in a competitive market.

Second, the CanWest article raises the arguments of certain activists who claim that women shouldn’t have to pay tax on items that they require because they are biologically female, such as feminine hygiene products, brassieres, and pantyhose. The clothing and hair styling are included because, the article explains, “But the reality, as countless studies have shown, is that attractive, well-groomed people are the ones who get ahead. That means personal-care expenses are not necessarily optional.” The implications of this idea are fairly breathtaking. If we stipulate that people shouldn’t be taxed on things they require because of biological necessity and the need to be competitive in the workplace, and we apply that principle uniformly, it’s not only women’s products that should be tax-exempt – we would have to eliminate the taxes on shaving supplies for men, ties, suits, condoms, items related to prostate health, products related to male-pattern baldness, cologne, fancy cars for the male mid-life crisis, and shoe lifts, as short men are paid less than taller men (or women). Virtually all children’s products would have to be tax exempt, as children’s products are, by definition, only needed by virtue of the person’s childhood. For that matter, under the “biology dictates taxation” philosophy, wouldn’t all drugs, and all foods have to be tax exempt? After all, we all must eat, and take medications due to biological reasons, and to remain competitive in the workplace.

Finally, the CanWest article raises the old, repeatedly de-bunked statistic that “the average Canadian woman makes only 64 cents for every dollar a man makes.” As we observed in a previous bulletin:

Women earn the same as men in traditional, male-dominated areas. When women do take high-paying jobs in fields that are dominated by men, such as computers, engineering, medicine, law, and biochemistry, women earn virtually the same as what men earn. The supposed gender wage gap is due mainly to occupational segregation than to discrimination.

The difference between male and female earning power melts away when one controls for experience, market qualifications and work patterns. The statistic that Canadian women earn 64 cents for every dollar earned by a man does not take these factors into account. Among single, never-married men and women, the gender pay gap does not, for all intents and purposes, exist.

To the extent that any wage gap exists, it is a product of individual choice, not workplace discrimination. Canadian men tend to have higher preferences for risk than do women, which translates into less stable but higher-paying jobs. People – single, married, young, and old – have different preferences for educational attainment, type of work, risk, and long hours.

Should women choose to enter higher-wage professions, they have the educational background to do so. According to the latest census data, more than 60 per cent of Canadians who earned more than $100,000 in 2000 had a university degree. Almost 60 per cent of those who earned less than $20,000 never went beyond high school. Where does this leave Canadian women? Women make up precisely half of all university graduates in Canada; they accounted for 59% of the growth in new graduates in the 1990s. What’s more, Canadians are the most highly educated population in the world, in terms of university graduates.

The biggest factor in the earnings differential between women and men is child-rearing, not discrimination. Women who take time off to give birth and raise children have a different relationship with the labour market than do men and childless women. For any number of reasons, Canadian women often opt for part-time employment or choose work in child-care or clerical because they can exit and re-enter such jobs with relative ease. This, in turn, increases the supply of workers in these areas and pushes down salaries.

Kenneth Green directs the Centre for Studies in Risk, Regulation, and Environment at The Fraser Institute.


Joanne Sasvari (2004). “‘Gender tax gouging women’” The Vancouver Province Sunday, May 23, 2004.