You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010


Friday, August 6, 2010

Moonshine Madness

When I was growing up, I used to read Al Capp’s classic comic strip, “Lil Abner.” The cartoon presented a cast of characters living in a fictional Dogpatch, Kentucky. They had all the unflattering stereotypes of Appalachian hillbillies: not too smart, lazy, quick to violence, and generally backward. Another one of the stereotypes was the presence in the shadows of the bootlegger distilling moonshine liquor, also known in Dogpatch as Kickapoo Joy Juice. These stereotypes are deeply resented by people living in Appalachian communities, and like all stereotypes, present as simple something that is complex and multi-layered.

Nevertheless, moonshine is a reality in many Appalachian communities, though it is also common in rural areas across the U.S. As a matter of fact, moonshine, by other names, is made in countries all over the world. It is estimated that about a million people in the U.S. make this illicit liquor, some for personal use and others to sell. There are some home producers who do this as a hobby or because of a mystique of doing something illegal. However, there are more basic structural reasons why moonshine exists.

Before the widespread regulation and subsidizing of farm products, farmers would resort to turning some of their grain crops into a mixture which could be boiled and distilled to make moonshine. It was economic insurance to hedge bets in an unstable agricultural marketplace. This is less of a motivator today because of government farm programs.

Another factor driving moonshine was the incentive of avoiding alcohol excise taxes. With distilled beverages sold legally, about half the purchase price is from the taxes included in the price. These “sin” taxes can be justified because of the social consequences driven by alcohol abuse: expenses in the criminal justice system, property damage, medical costs, welfare and family services, and so forth. Nevertheless, the tax is high enough to present a tempting option for entrepreneurs willing to take a chance. The moonshiners can significantly undercut the market and still make a tidy profit.

Remember that many counties in Kentucky, and about 15 other states have provisions for local option alcohol control. This means that a county can have a ballot referendum to decide whether alcohol will be sold. The so called “dry” counties usually will have slightly less per capita drinking, so health and social consequences of alcohol may be a little less. However, highway fatalities tend to be worse because people drive to the next county where they can purchase alcohol. Recent school drug surveys in Kentucky (the KIP Survey) show that among youth there is no difference in student drinking between wet and dry counties. Apparently dry county kids are more motivated to get alcohol, adults not so much.

So while the existence of dry county prohibition does not have much impact on alcohol consumption, the laws create a circumstance which supports moonshine production and bootleg sales. Government has some interest in this. For one thing, there are some extra risks associated with moonshine liquor. There is no quality assurance, since production methods and conditions are totally unregulated. Drinkers of this mountain dew may get a very high alcohol content and be exposed to toxins, including lead and methanol.

Moonshine is symbolic of many of our ill-conceived drug laws. It is legal to make beer and wine in your own home. However, if you build a still to make high concentration alcohol, you face a felony conviction and $15,000 fine. There is no obvious reason why government policy should try to dry up moonshine while giving the green light to home made beer and wine. This is similar to the penalty gap between powdered cocaine and crack.

National Prohibition was successful in decreasing (not eliminating) alcohol consumption by Americans. The policy was not a failure on that point, but many other factors made it not viable or constructive for the nation as a whole. Dry county policies have even less chance of being successful, especially at the present time. On the other hand, minimum purchase age laws do work, and have been proven to save lives. These laws only work where alcohol sales take place in the light of day; bootleggers don’t care how old you are as long as you have money.

A better approach is to focus on how to diminish the harmful effects of consumption, rather than directly going after consumption per se. It is really about evidence. What works, what doesn’t, what do we know, what don’t we know? Drug policy, as all public health policy should be based on substantial evidence, not Kickapoo Joy Juice.

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