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Cheap Beer, Free Love, Expensive Gonorrhea

By Christopher Kemp · July 13th, 2000 · Science & Technology

Cheap Beer, Free Love, Expensive Gonorrhea

Gonorrhea. The Clap. VD. The Drip. This might sound like just another preview for wrestling on cable TV to many CityBeat readers.

... And Gonorrhea has the Drip in a half nelson. Oh, The Clap isn't going to like this one bit ...

But it's not. In fact, gonorrhea is the second most common sexually transmitted disease in the United States. More importantly, its incidence is on the rise, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is blaming it on beer.

Gonorrhea is caused by Neisseria gonorrhoeae, a bacterium that thrives in moist, warm areas of the body. There are a number of symptoms, all of which are rather unpleasant and should be avoided. Commonly, these include painful urination, penile or vaginal discharge, joint pain, fever and pain during sexual intercourse. Symptoms normally appear between two and 10 days following sexual contact with an infected partner.

If untreated, gonorrhea can result in gonococcal eye infections, systemic blood poisoning, infectious arthritis, kidney failure, impotence in men and infertility in women. Such complications should be rare, though, because gonorrhea can be treated successfully and routinely with antibiotics like ciprofloxacin.

But according to the CDC, the number of reported gonorrhea cases in the United States rose to 355,131 in 1998, an increase of almost 9 percent over the previous year. Some states are clearly leading the pack and pushing up the national average, most notably Mississippi, with an increase of 14 percent in gonorrhea cases. Boy, they must be proud.

Epidemiologists from the CDC stated in a June 22 press release that improved screening and reporting of the disease accounted for part of the increase, but they also believed it represented a very real increase in the actual number of cases.

Furthermore, experts believe the actual number of gonorrhea cases is likely double the reported number. Just to put these numbers into perspective: The nationwide gonorrhea rate for 1998 was 132.9 cases per 100,000 -- meaning one out of every 752 Americans is infected.

And if we double the rate to include unreported cases, one out of every 376 Americans is infected. Erm, yuck?

But all is OK, because the CDC is on the case. In April, the group released a study blaming cheap beer for the increase in gonorrhea cases. The report, titled Alcohol Policy and Sexually Transmitted Disease Rates: United States, 1981-1995, states that "young persons who drink alcohol may be more likely that those who abstain to participate in high-risk sexual activity." By studying the effects of a beer tax increase on gonorrhea rates, the report concluded, "Most beer tax increases were followed by a relative proportionate decrease in gonorrhea rates among young adults."

The CDC confirmed its findings by observing no change in the rate of gonorrhea in states that didn't increase beer taxes. In other words, young people are getting drunk on cheap beer, practicing free love and throwing in a little Neisseria gonorrhoeae for good measure.

Do the beer manufactures know their products are being blamed for the increase in gonorrhea cases?

I called Anheuser-Busch, makers of Budweiser, in St. Louis. They should know, right? The lady sounded nice, though a little hesitant when I mentioned gonorrhea. Maybe a little guarded. But who wouldn't be? We're talking about gonorrhea here.

She passed the baton over to Jeff Becker in Washington, D.C. He's the president of The Beer Institute, a trade association that represents American brewers, including Anheuser-Busch. He knew all about the CDC study.

" 'Study' is a little too much credit for what it is," Becker said. "A lot too much credit. We think the correlation is absolutely absurd."

I really wanted to ask Becker what it was like to work at The Beer Institute. I imagine there's lots of bunting and music and pretzels. Behind the drab exterior, brightly lit corridors must ring with the unchecked laughter of happy workers. Food fights erupt in the cafeteria as conga lines that wend their way through the building. Aah, The Beer Institute.


So, Jeff, you're sure beer isn't responsible for the increase in gonorrhea cases?

"It has nothing to do with beer consumption," he said. "When you compare apples to oranges, it's not surprising you could come up with some kind of association."

But the CDC disagrees. And from their Atlanta headquarters, CDC epidemiologists have concluded that a beer tax increase of 20 cents per six pack will be sufficient to control the rising numbers of gonorrhea.

Regardless, the "quasi-experimental analysis" carried out by the CDC raises more questions than it answers. It's inaccurate to compare two states that have different reporting and screening systems and don't share the same alcohol policies. Other studies that were referenced by the CDC don't observe the same decrease in beer consumption with increased beer taxes.

It would be more valuable to study one state over time than to compare different states. Even the CDC report states "the temporal relation between higher alcohol taxes and a decline in gonorrhea rates are consistent with, but do not provide a causal relation between, higher taxes and declining STD rates." In other words, it looks like increased beer taxes might reduce gonorrhea, but then again they might not. And that headline isn't quite as impressive.

Either way, 20 cents per six pack seems a small price to pay.

The beer won't be as cheap, the love won't be as free, the Neisseria gonorrhoeae won't be shared quite as frivolously and Mississippi will once again be a safe place to visit.

Maybe it's worth it.

SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY is a monthly look at where wonkdom and everyday life intersect. Contact Chris at CityBeat, 23 E. Seventh St., Suite 617, Cincinnati, OH 45202 or e-mail him at letters@citybeat.com


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