Balancing on the Barstool

Alcohol is what makes a martini sing, beer buzz and wine fine. It’s also a poison and—along with nicotine—the only recreational drug legally available in most states to the American public, which consumes it in its various forms to the tune of an estimated $110 billion dollars a year.

ethyl moloculeEthyl alcohol (C2H5OH) is formed by the action of yeast upon sugar and starches. The yeasts that create alcohol are among the oldest cultivated plants in the history of civilization, and some archeological studies suggest that mankind may well have been brewers before they were bakers, probably as early as the Mesolithic period, some 7000 years ago. Bad pick-up lines, irresponsible sex and hangovers also date from this period. Drinking as a subject represents the prime example of a familiar topic that on closer examination becomes quite arcane. Drinking is steeped in tradition, exalted in verse, celebrated in song and provides pleasure to millions, yet to others it is a curse.

The devil on the rocks

Before there was a wild West, there was a wild Southwest, and Mississippi was its cornerstone. At that time, any city or town with a berth on a river (which most of them had in those days before rail) eventually found itself host to a riverfront district subject to laws that were either non-existent or non-enforced.

This sketch of Natchez-Under-The-Hill was drawn in 1866 by A. R. Waud, for Harpers Weekly.
This sketch of Natchez-Under-The-Hill was drawn in 1866 by A. R. Waud, for Harpers Weekly.

Natchez-Under-the-Hill is a prime example of such a red light district, but Jackson harbored a similar section during its early development. Audubon, who visited the area in the 1820s, said that the banks of the Pearl under LeFleur’s Bluff were filled with “low dives of the worst sort.” One of the most notorious dens of iniquity was located just below the corner of North and Amite Street, within spitting distance of the Old Capitol itself, now the site of the Winter Building housing the Mississippi Department of Archives and History. As fortified as these fiefs of John Barleycorn were, they soon found themselves inundated by the spirit of Protestant evangelism that was spilling its way down from the Northeast. The first churches were established here well before Mississippi became a state, but the nineteenth century revivals increased their numbers a thousand fold, and their influence on state laws regarding alcohol were (and still are) formidable.

Mississippi is still legally “dry” in that the state never has repealed Prohibition. According to the Mississippi Code of 1972, “The policy of this state is reannounced in favor of prohibition of the manufacture, sale, distribution, possession and transportation of intoxicating liquor; and the provisions against such manufacture, sale, distribution, possession and transportation of intoxicating liquor, as contained in Chapter 31 of Title 97, Mississippi Code of 1972 and elsewhere, are hereby redeclared the law of this state.” Instead, the state has granted counties and municipalities to “come out from under the dry law” in local option elections.

William F. Shughart II, an economist at the University of Mississippi, wrote in an article for the Independent Institute that “when national Prohibition was repealed in 1933, so that the federal government would be able to offset declining income-tax revenues by reintroducing selective excise taxes on distilled spirits, wine, and beer, the regulation of alcohol sales was left to the individual states. Mississippi finally went “wet” in 1966, choosing to become one of 18 jurisdictions operating state-owned wholesale liquor distribution systems. Other states, like Pennsylvania and Virginia, sell alcoholic beverages directly to consumers through state-run liquor stores, and still others, like California, simply tax liquor sales at retail.”

The ABCs of alcohol

In Mississippi, the Office of Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) of the Mississippi State Tax Commission is responsible for the purchasing and distribution of wines and spirits. The ABC buys about 3,000 brands and package sizes of wine and ardent spirits from vintners and distillers. As the enforcer of the state’s liquor laws, ABC is also responsible for maintaining fair and equitable enforcement of the Local Option ABC laws and the prohibition laws. Twenty-eight certified enforcement agents are stationed across the state, most of whom maintain offices at the Tax Commission District Offices. Since 1966, ABC agents have successfully prosecuted in excess of 36,000 liquor law violations and destroyed approximately 2,500 illicit whiskey stills. David Wilson, Chief of Enforcement for ABC, said, “We have much more of a problem with unlicensed sellers, but we still catch a lot of moonshiners. You might say that we have a lot of unlicensed distribution points, and that’s a continuing concern. If you’ll look at the map, you’ll see that almost half of the state is still dry, and if there’s drinking going on in those parts, there must be an unlicensed distributor.”

State law requires the ABC to mark up the wholesale price on alcohol by 27.5% over what it pays its suppliers. This markup generates about $32,500,000 in revenue for the state annually, not counting the sales taxes which are also collected on retail liquor sales. The actual mark-up for the general fund is 24.5; the other three percent, dictated by statute, goes to the Mental Health Association, purportedly for alcohol rehabilitation and treatment.

“As it sits now, the state of Mississippi itself controls what sort of beer, wine or spirits you might legally prefer to have at your dinner parties,” Shughart said. “Until any given alcoholic beverage has been included in the state list (ABC’s “Price Book” or on its monthly “Fine Wine List”), it is unavailable to the citizens of Mississippi.”

The alcoholic beverages purchased by the ABC are shipped to its 186,000 square-foot warehouse located in South Madison County’s Industrial Park, from which every year 2,000,000 cases of wine and distilled spirits are reshipped to the state’s 1,250 retailers who are licensed to sell alcoholic beverages for either on- or off-premise consumption where local-option laws permit. It is a massively complex operation. According to Joe Perkins, Deputy Director of the ABC, additions to the list are based on consumer demand, as well as demand from the retail stores and the industry. “This includes the venders, brokers, and companies that we buy from will present listings to us, submit lists to our purchasing department who decide, based on brand support and consumer demand whether we should list a particular brand or not. This decision is ultimately approved by the three commissioners, Commissioner Ed Buelow Jr. along with Associate Commissioners Terry Jordan and Donald Green, who oversee the ABC.”

“We add various sizes of products according to consumer needs and we work with the companies on these sizes, too. Sometimes the company will dictate when they want a product in a particular part of the country and in what size, so it’s a little more involved (to add a particular product) than people sometimes think. We do everything we can to give the consumers what they want,” Perkins added. “We do all the work of getting the pricing, getting the case or whatever ordered, getting it in here and getting it out to them.”

Mike Cashion, former executive director of the Mississippi Restaurant Association, said, “There are some aspects of the system that work well. The issue of being able to pick up the phone and order a product from one central location is pretty convenient. But overall with the system you just need to look at it and see if there’s a better way to do business. If you look at what happened a couple of months ago (October 17) when the ABC had to shut down (due to a problem with computer software), I think that’s indicative of the fact that there are some operational issues that need to be reviewed,” Cashion said. “There were several areas that needed to be fixed. From a business perspective you need to look at what caused those problems and see what those long-term fixes are.”

Cashion said that the ABC has made some inroads in procedures on how to special order and has made some progress on that, but he points out that when it comes to blanket availability there are a lot of factors involved. “It’s very, very complicated and there’s no easy fix and no easy answers to the questions that are out there,” Cashion said.

Incidentally, the spirit and wine law is separate from the beer and light wine law; beer and light wine permits are issued by the Miscellaneous Tax Division of the state tax commission. This division registers all beer and light wine labels and issues permits to wholesalers. The tax commission issues wholesale beer permits to distributors (wholesalers), and beer permits to retailers. The wholesalers distribute beers and light wines to retailers, which number about seven or eight thousand in the state, including bars, restaurants, retail groceries and convenience stores. The only direct dealing the ABC has to do with beer is that ABC agents enforce the beer laws.

Of booze and bods

The way the body disposes of alcohol has been on record since the nineteenth century, having first been described by the German chemist von Liebig. Before Liebig, it was generally assumed that alcohol simply passed through the body without change, only to be eventually excreted in its original form by the skin, lungs and kidneys.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Most foods (and alcohol is a food, albeit a poor one) need to be broken down and remodeled by various agents in the mouth and stomach in order to be oxidized in the body. But ethyl alcohol doesn’t need any sort of preparation; it is as naturally as digestible as water, and can be assimilated into the body by the stomach, the small intestine, or even the large intestine (yes, you can get drunk from a vodka enema). Since alcohol has no effect until it reaches the bloodstream, the key to the effects of alcohol on the central nervous system lies in what as known as the blood alcohol level (BAL). It is recorded in milligrams of alcohol per 100 milliliters of blood, or milligrams percent. For example, a BAL of .10 means that 1/10 of 1 percent (or 1/1000) of your total blood content is alcohol.

Various factors influence the rate of alcohol absorption, the most crucial of which is the speed with which it is drunk. The effect on the body of a quick succession of high-proof drinks is shattering, and can even be fatal. With increasing alcohol consumption, unconsciousness and even a failure to breathe becomes more likely. In extreme instances, the alcohol level is so high that the sleep center in the brain becomes depressed, breathing stops and death may occur. Yet a mild degree of intoxication is the very reason why most people drink at all. The vast majority of people who drink do so because they find it enjoyable. Most people who drink choose to do so for at least partially hedonistic reasons. If fact, this may be the single most obvious reason that some anhedonic religious groups not only abstain from alcohol, but condemn drinking on the part of others. All over the world, people claim to drink because they like the taste, the sense of celebration and relaxation that comes with drinking, the mood alteration it provides, and the positive social aspects that surround it.

Alcohol is almost unique in that it has a dual effect on the central nervous system. Briefly, on the upswing curve the blood alcohol level, it acts as a stimulant. After the first drink or two, most drinkers feel animated and most can even perform better in tests of eye-hand coordination. But relaxation is another common reason for drinking, especially in the context of leisure time. Refreshment might also be an aspect of this: a cold beer on a hot summer day, for instance, or a warm toddy on a cold winter night. Then again, for most people, a drink or two is enough to cause an alteration in mood, and for most people this change is pleasurable. You’ll find people explaining that having a few drinks after a round of hectic activity—say a day at work—is a relaxing activity. Hence we have that institution with the blithe name of happy hour, during which for an hour or more during the afternoons you can drink at reduced prices, presumably with the result of becoming happy. Not so recently, since some critics have voiced the complaint that drinking should not be promoted as a key to happiness, some of the more progressive drinking establishments have instituted what is known as an “attitude adjustment hour.”

Yet however enjoyable or pleasurable a few drinks can be, a steady increase in the levels of alcohol in the blood has less fortunate effects. After several drinks, disorientation is followed by mental confusion, dizziness, and increased muscular incoordination. Further intoxication usually results in staggering gait and slurred speech, marked muscular incoordination, the inability to stand or walk, vomiting and incontinence, impaired consciousness and stupor.

When the party’s over

Drunkenness is condemned down through the ages. “At the first cup,” a Japanese poet wrote, man drinks wine. At the second cup, wine drinks wine. At the third cup, wine drinks man.” Genghis Khan recommended that a soldier not get drunk more than once a week. “It would be better if he did not get drunk at all,” he wrote, “but one should not expect the impossible.” The Jews filled the Old Testament with denunciations of drunkenness; the “strong drink” of the Old Testament is considered to be undiluted wine, since distilled spirits didn’t come about until around 800 A.D. The lyric poet Alcaeus wrote of habitual excess that “One that hath wine as a chain about his wits, such a one lives no life at all.”

Throughout history, it was obvious that no matter how much time someone spent in the gutter or in the stocks, or how often they were threatened with hellfire and brimstone, no matter how much their family begged and beseeched them to quit drinking, some people just kept getting drunk. Gradually the “problem” with alcohol became removed from the outward and everyday fact of drunkenness itself to a realization that there were some people who showed a propensity to get drunk whenever the opportunity presented itself. What made these drinkers stand out as different was that they easily lost control over their drinking and just got sloppy drunk again and again and again. The Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences estimates that alcoholism and alcohol abuse in the United States cost society from $40 to $60 billion annually, due to the lost production, health and medical care, motor vehicle accidents, violent crime, and social programs that respond to alcohol problems. One half of all traffic fatalities and one-third of all traffic injuries are related to the abuse of alcohol.

Alcoholism is a complex medical and psychological condition, and many theories have been put forward to explain the phenomenon. Initially, of course, alcoholics were simply dismissed as inveterate sinners, but as people began losing faith (so to speak) in sin as an all-embracing explanation of deviant behavior, they began to consider that perhaps something was constitutionally wrong with this sort of drinker. The concept of alcoholism as a disease finally congealed around the middle of the twentieth century in the studies of a researcher at the Yale Center for Alcohol Studies named E.M. Jellinek.

Jellinek published influential research which appeared to confirm the disease status of alcoholism by showing that over time the condition was predictably progressive, with distinct and recognizable phases to its natural history. Jellinek’s masterwork, The Disease Concept of Alcoholism, was published in 1960. When he died in 1963, the disease concept, both as idea and work, was seen as his supreme accomplishment. Even though Jellinek invented a scientific doctorate for himself which no university ever awarded, the significance of his work remains profound. His recommendation of total abstinence remains the basis for the most effective treatments available today, including the programs at the Betty Ford Clinic and other treatment facilities and abstinence, along with the celebrated 12-step process, are the basic tenets of Alcoholics Anonymous, widely regarded as the most successful recovery program for alcoholics the world over.

Patsy Hillard, former associate director and outreach coordinator for the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of the Central Mississippi Area, states that according to the Diagnostic and Statistic Manual for Mental Health, “alcoholism is a disease.”

The, National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (NCADD) Inc. is a national non-profit organization combating alcoholism, other drug addictions and related problems through its National Office, 200 state and local affiliates and thousands of volunteers in communities throughout the nation. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence of the Central Mississippi Area was established in 1949. Hugh Barkley, executive director of the NCADD of Central Mississippi said, “The treatment programs that we deal with are based on the 12-step programs that have been used by Alcoholics Anonymous for over sixty years. An alcoholic is an alcoholic; one drink is just going to trigger his mind to going back to start drinking rather than coping with life on a regular basis.”

Barkley said that one of the most significant pieces of legislation involving alcohol in Mississippi was the lowering of blood alcohol levels for the conviction of DUI cases in 2002. The law lowered the legal blood alcohol limit for drivers in the state from 0.10 percent to 0.08 percent. This law brought Mississippi into compliance with federal requirements passed in 2000. States that fail to lower their blood-alcohol levels risked losing millions of dollars in federal highway funds in the year 2003.

“That’s just the way we do things in Mississippi,” Barkley said. “We wait until the last or the next to the last year before the government threatens to take away funds, then we pass the law. We always procrastinate. But according to a recent report, our DUI rates have decreased, whereas in other states, such as South Carolina, they have increased. And that’s directly attributable to the new DUI law and its enforcement.”

Barkley also said that the state’s allocation of tax monies for treatment has also undergone revisions. “Back in the 70s, the legislature put a tax on hard liquor that was to be used for alcohol and drug treatment. That was true for a few years, but then the state got into a budget crunch and the Legislature saw fit to say, ‘Okay, we don’t want to earmark that money for alcohol and drug treatment, we’ll put it into the general fund along with the other funds, and we’ll allocate funds to the Mississippi Department of Mental Health, and they can decide how much they’re going to put into treatment.’”

“Basically, one out of ten people who drink in this country will become alcoholics,” Hillard said. “That’s probably world-wide as well. But the one thing that’s interesting about traffic accidents and traffic fatalities (involving alcohol) is that they are not caused by alcoholics but by people who might go out and drink more than they’re accustomed to. Most alcohol-related traffic fatalities are caused by people who are not alcoholics, not regular drinkers. One of the things we address in our prevention programs is to talk about risk factors,” Hillard explained. “Risk factors are those factors which might make a person more likely to become addicted to alcohol or any other drug. They include a family history of alcoholism or addiction or living in a place where drugs and alcohol are readily available. You can’t always move a child out of a neighborhood, but you can alert him or her to the risk factors they face.”

Barkley said that many people who are addicted to alcohol are abusive, not only to themselves, but to their family members, and this abuse is often more subtle than physical or verbal: such elements as the erosion of family finances, the upkeep of homes and compassion for others are problems spread across every social and economic level, every race and every gender.

“Alcoholism has so many facets that you can compare with other diseases,” Hillard said. “It’s treatable. The recovery rate is not what we’d like for it to be, but just because a person goes through treatment many times does not mean that we don’t hope that they might make it one day.”

Bottom line

During the holidays, law enforcement agencies across the state conduct “You Drink and Drive, You Lose” campaigns. Given the adjustment in the DUI laws that are now in accordance to federal standards, the state will have about a quarter of a million dollars at their disposal to put additional officers on the roads and to enhance patrols that are already in place, and while these efforts have reduced alcohol-related highway fatalities considerably, drinking and driving still leads to tragic consequences on a periodic basis. Drink responsibly, and always drive safely.