Alcohol: The True Gateway Drug?

Greggory Moore | Moore Lowdown

Generations of kids have been warned that marijuana is the gateway drug to more dangerous substances. It's a classic case of both logical fallacy and government misinforming the public—all while a likelier candidate has been pushed on kids with government sanction.

Latin will never be a completely dead language, if for no other reason than how well it provides us with timeless shorthand descriptions of human behavior. A classic example: Post hoc ergo propter hoc. Translating literally as, "After the fact, therefore because of the fact," it describes the logical fallacy of believing that when event B succeeds event A, event B was caused by event A.

The classic post hoc ergo propter hoc of contemporary American culture is the government-sponsored propaganda that marijuana is the "gateway drug." Even though since 1999 the federal government has, in the face of mounting evidence debunking the theory, tried to have its cake and eat it, too, by maintaining that marijuana "is indeed a 'gateway' drug" while simultaneously admitting that "[t]here is no conclusive evidence that the drug effects of marijuana are causally linked to the subsequent abuse of other illicit drugs," it remains what in 2010 Time magazine labeled "the myth that will not die," still taken seriously enough by the ignorant masses that today a presidential candidate can still spew such non-scientific nonsense and not get summarily laughed out of the race.

Sadly, as the Washington Post's Christopher Ingraham pointed out early this year, this may be a classic case of taking our eye off the ball and thereby letting an easy home-run pitch slide right by. There may indeed be a genuine gateway drug, he opines, but that drug is alcohol.

Ingraham refers us to the findings of researchers from Texas A&M and the University of Florida as part of an annual federal study on teen drug use. Culling data from interviews with 2,800 high-school seniors, the researchers found that "the vast majority of respondents reported using alcohol prior to either tobacco or marijuana initiation." Fifty-four percent of respondents reported alcohol as their first experience, while only 14 percent said marijuana was first, with 32 percent using tobacco first.

Of course, in and of itself labeling alcohol a gateway drug solely on the basis of such a finding runs the same risk of post hoc ergo propter hoc that plagues the marijuana-as-gateway-drug theory. Presumably mindful of such a potential pitfall, the researchers focus not so much on the link between a particular drug's primacy to the use of additional drugs, but on the question of how early adolescents use any drug. On this point, the findings are clear: "[E]arly initiation into substance use leads to deleterious consequences. The earlier one begins substance use, the more likely that he or she will develop a substance use disorder, experience dependence, or report academic problems and other delinquent behaviors including criminal and violent behavior."

Not surprisingly, researchers found that the age of initiation for alcohol use—i.e., the first time respondents used alcohol—was younger for alcohol than for tobacco or marijuana. Considering how American culture promulgates and celebrates alcohol usage, it could hardly be otherwise. Like tobacco, alcohol is legal nationwide for adult consumption; but unlike tobacco, alcohol advertising is ubiquitous.

While such ads may not run during the "educational and informative" (E/I) programming the Federal Communications Commission requires every full-service broadcast television outlet to provide, there are no such restrictions in primetime, which includes all of television's highest-rated programming. Rather, since 2003 associations representing alcohol makers and marketers have voluntarily to advertise only during programming when under 30 percent of the audience is believed to be under 21.

But as stated in a 2010 study by the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, "This threshold has been ineffective in reducing youth exposure on television, either in absolute or in relative terms." For example, the study found that in 2009 "13 percent of youth exposure came from advertising placed above the industry's voluntary 30 percent threshold," and "44 percent of youth exposure came from advertising that overexposed youth (i.e., was more likely to be seen per capita by youth ages 12 to 20 than by adults ages 21 and above) compared to persons of legal purchase age (21 and above)." All told, it is estimated that on average youth ages 12 to 20 see slightly more than one alcohol commercial every single day of the year.

As one would expect, alcohol advertising glamorizes alcohol consumption, often implementing relatively lowbrow humor—an approach more likely to appeal to children than sophisticated messaging—to do so. Consider the contemporary ad campaign by beer brand Dos Equis known as "the Most Interesting Man in the World." The message that beer makes you interesting, attractive, popular, etc., has been put forth by the company in dozens of ad since 2006. Of course, in one form or another has long been the text or subtext of many alcohol ads, while others focus on cutesy humor such as anthropomorphic animals (e.g., talking frogs, football-playing horses).

As happens every year, the prime example of such ad penetration is during the Super Bowl, regularly America's most-watched television broadcast. And as happens every year, beer ads were prominent during the broadcast. Anheuser-Busch InBev, which worked out a deal to be the exclusive beer advertiser for the Super Bowl, bought a total of five ads for four of its beer products, making alcohol the third-most advertised type of product (to cars and foodstuffs) during the year's biggest television broadcast.

To further the enticement of alcohol consumption, Peyton Manning, the Super Bowl 50-winning quarterback widely hailed as one of the sport's model citizens and best role models for children, shilled for Budweiser not once but twice during nationally televised postgame interviews when asked what he was going to do following the game. "I'm going to drink a lot of Budweiser tonight, Tracy, I promise you that" he said first. Then, later, "I'm going to drink a lot of beer tonight, Jim. Budweiser."

Reportedly Manning was not directly paid for these endorsements (for good measure, he made a similar plug the following day on CBS This Morning), but he owns stakes in two Budweiser distributors in his home state of Louisiana. So although Manning has an estimated net worth of nearly $200 million, obviously he feels increasing that net worth is a worthwhile tradeoff for broadcasting the message that consuming a lot of alcohol is the cool way to celebrate.

"To the extent that there is a gateway drug, […] it's alcohol," Christopher Ingraham writes. And considering that this is a drug that contributes to over 4,000 deaths and around 200,000 serious injuries annually among those 21 and under, when the G-word is invoked, alcohol shouldn't be overlooked in favor of reefer-madness mythology just because there's big business in booze.


About the Author:

Except for a four-month sojourn in Comoros (a small island nation near the northwest of Madagascar), Greggory Moore has lived his entire life in Southern California.  Currently he resides in Long Beach, CA, where he engages in a variety of activities, including playing in the band MOVE, performing as a member of RIOTstage, and, of course, writing. 

His work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, OC Weekly, Daily Kos, the Long Beach Post, Random Lengths News, The District Weekly,, and a variety of academic and literary journals.  HIs first novel, The Use of Regret, was published in 2011, and he is currently at work on his follow-up.  For more information:

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