The Electric Commentary

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Drug Innovations

You may think that I’m going to go off on some screed about drug companies in this post. Nope. This is about the “other kind of drug.” You know. The kind that you take when you are not sick.

Fun drugs are heavily regulated. For the sake of this post, let’s talk about alcohol, a fairly benign naturally occurring substance that is widely consumed worldwide and familiar to everyone. Alcohol is actually not heavily regulated compared to most “controlled substances (note the terrible irony of the term “controlled substance” as the more we attempt to control a substance the less we actually do control it. This is the lesson of prohibition and the subject of a future post). However, it is still much more heavily regulated than your average consumer product.

The regulation of alcohol is focused on making it undesirable. Taxes make it more expensive. The drinking age makes criminals of those ages 18-20. Various blue laws force consumers to stock up before Sunday, or before 9 o’clock. “Bar time,” intended to reduce binge drinking and alcohol addiction, instead forces thousands of intoxicated people to drive home simultaneously at 2 in the morning (and provides a goal to shoot for. “We’ve got to make it ‘til bar time!” they say. This place made its entire reputation off of the concept). Truly this is a wonderful example of government omniscience in action.

And those are just the rules that you know about. Behind the scenes are various complicated restrictions on container size, alcohol content (which varies depending on whether something is an ale, lager, malt liquor, stout, wine, malt wine, liquor, or beer. That’s just off the top of my head), labeling, and price. Advertising is severely restricted. Shipping must, by law, take place through a distributor. And every single state has different laws.

The point is that there is a lot of wasted money in the production of alcohol, and severe restrictions on which desirable qualities of alcoholic products may be presented to the public. If you have ever wondered why Coors advertises their beer as “cold tasting” even though such a sensation does not in fact exist (at least without the aid of certain other controlled substances), the reason is that they can’t say very much. Beer is often sold as refreshing, something to enjoy on a hot summer day. This advertising has been surprisingly effective, but the fact is that beer is not refreshing and is in fact a diuretic.

Almost all beers advertise their taste. Miller is currently running an ad, which states that in a nationwide survey more people said that Miller Lite had “more taste” than Bud Light. If only we could develop a beer with “more cold taste.” I might never leave the house.

Hamm’s (“The Beer Refreshing”) used to advertise with cartoon characters, a definite taboo in the modern climate.

Michelob Ultra straddles the line of acceptable advertising with its recent ads of incredibly fit people participating in rigorous exercise (generally with the woman defeating the man by a substantial margin) and then enjoying a beer. It is implied that the low-carb nature of the beer was responsible for the above average athletic performance. Low carb beers are very hot. Miller Lite, which has been low-carb all along, has seen a huge increase in market share since the beginning of the low-carb fad. Still, I am always shocked that these commercials are still on the air.

Not that I personally have a problem with them, I think that they are perfectly fine. But all beer commercials are lies, and if they could tell the truth we would be a lot better off.

Beer companies are great at spreading rumors. One prevalent rumor that I’ve heard is that rice beers (like Budweiser, which undoubtedly started said rumor) cause less severe hangovers than wheat beers (like Miller). This is simply not true, but it is an excellent insight into what advertising would look like if companies could tell the truth. They would emphasize a less severe hangover, a more pleasant high, and a lower risk of other negative consequences like addiction and alcohol poisoning. You may be thinking that this would be irresponsible. After all, there is not that much of a difference (really no difference) between the alcohol in one product and the alcohol in another. (Note: Except for the tequila at Cesar’s on Clarke St. on Chicago’s north side which definitely contains formaldehyde, paint thinner, and monkey urine. Just trust me on this, you’ll be better off for it.)

There is not much of a difference between alcohols now, but there could be in the future. One of the reasons that recreational drugs are inherently unsafe is that there is no incentive to make them safer. A beer company could pump millions of dollars into researching a safer type of alcohol (if such a thing exists) or techniques to make existing alcohol consumption safer, but they could not advertise that fact to the public, so there is no point. “Drink more with no hangover,” and “Will not cause terrible Diarrhea or impotence” are slogans that will never be heard as things stand today. Recreational drug research has been restricted for basically all of human history, and as a result, recreational drugs still come with severe side effects. Technology has improved almost every free market product, but beer has had the terribly bad luck to suffer from the regulation of one of the very first European laws, the Reinheitsgebot, and it has not changed significantly for literally thousands of years.

H.L. Mencken once described Puritanism as “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.” This attitude has stunted the growth of the recreational drug industry for too long. The drug war (and the general negative sentiment against certain substances) is bad enough. Prohibition is prohibition; the effects are always the same. A black market will spring up, an underworld will develop, ancillary crime will increase, and the prohibited activity will continue largely unabated. There is a better way. Products are not inherently evil. All products have drawbacks, but those drawbacks are decreased, fixed, and debugged as the product is subjected to market forces.

In spite of ridiculously burdensome regulations the production of the American pharmaceutical industry is simply amazing. There is always room for improvement, but drug companies have improved the lives of millions of people who would otherwise live in horrible pain, discomfort, or not live at all.

Why not make a product that promotes enjoyment?

Update: Two carnival Instalanches in one day. Nice. Unfortunately blogger comments are down right now (and just convinced me to install Haloscan), but before they disappeared I read an anonymous comment that made some good points which I should address.

First, it is not that no strides have been made in drug development, I just feel that the wrong strides have been made. Legal drugs like alcohol focus on things like flavor (notice the proliferation of flavored vodkas, as well as the recent and mercifully over "flavored malt beverage" fad (Skyy Blue, Bacardi Silver, etc.)), calories, carbs, and other qualities unrelated to the intoxicating effect. "Street drugs" on the other hand tend to focus on addictiveness. They may make advancements in intoxicating effect, but usually the advancement is an extreme one, and most importantly, there is no incentive for street drug producers to focus on safety, as their product operates in close to monopoly conditions (so consumers have limited choices) and outside of the legal system (so product liability is not an issue).

Second, I am aware that alcohol is itself a chemical, and the idea of "improving alcohol" seems strange, but it is not impossible. Different types of alcohol already do exist (ethyl (drinking alcohol), methyl alcohol or wood alcohol, and isopropyl (rubbing) alcohol). It is at least possible that there exists an alcohol that is more pleasant to drink. Even if there is not, it is possible that other alcohol-like substances exist.


  • Alcohol is a single chemical. The differences between alcohols aren't the alcohol irself, but all the stuff that comes with it. And most of us are aware that drinking red wine is different from tequila is different from mead. Also there is plenty of innovation in the alcohol marketplace - there are thousands of types of wines, beers, hard liquors, brandies, etc. If you are bored with beer - try some palm or cashew wine - and find our what a real hangover is like.

    You were probably inspired to write this article because of all the innovations with other drugs - coffee, pot and opium. In each case, these drugs are really made up of dozens of alkaloids that affect brain chemistry. By changing the relative proportions, you get different effects. With alcohol, you can't change the alcohol and we're alreqady changing the other stuff that comes with it. Though I am anti-regulation, I don't think regulation has stopped mankind from innovating with it's favorite drug - or is a second to caffein?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:16 PM  

  • "Fun drugs are heavily regulated. For the sake of this post, let’s talk about alcohol, a fairly benign naturally occurring substance that is widely consumed worldwide and familiar to everyone."

    Sounds like Marijuana.

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 7:21 PM  

  • Here in Ohio, we recently had a woman blow up her house sniffing propane and a kid killed his grandmother after sniffing gasoline. In your area, people are drinking formaldehyde, paint thinner, and monkey urine.

    My biggest charge is a strong cup of coffee. It really makes me feel so uncool.


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