Archive for October, 2006

It’s a culture thing

Wednesday, October 25th, 2006

Recent research, summarized in this Irish Times Online article, showed some interesting statistics about rates of binge drinking among students world wide:

“The analysis of the alcohol drinking habits of 17,738 students, aged 17 to 30, found 33% of English and 27% of American women were heavy drinkers. In comparison, only 3% of females from Germany, Italy, South Africa and 4% of Greek women drank heavily. ”

“Almost half (49%) of Irish men said they had drunk heavily in the past two weeks. In America, 43% of men were classified as heavy drinkers with 26% of Englishmen falling into that category. Heavy drinking was infrequent among male students from Germany (2%), Greece (4%) and Italy (6%).”

Drinking age in Germany? 16. In Italy? 16. In Greece? 18. In South Africa? 18. The US, alone among nations studied with a drinking age of 21, had some of the highest rates of heavy drinking among students.

Why 18

Tuesday, October 17th, 2006

Besides the fact that much evidence cited in favor of the 21 year-old drinking age is exaggerated or misinterpreted (see previous post), there are several arguments against it:

  • The 21 year-old drinking age is an abridgment of the age of majority. By 18, Americans are legally adults and are entitled to all the rights and responsibilities that come with that role but one: the freedom to choose whether or not to consume alcohol.
  • The 21 year-old drinking age marginalizes the role of parents in the process of teaching and encouraging responsible decisions about alcohol use. There is near-consensus cross culturally that parents play an indispensable role in introducing their children to responsible alcohol use. The 21 year-old drinking age effectively eliminates this important parental role, forcing parents to either break the law by serving their under 21 year-old sons and daughters alcohol at home or to risk having their children’s first exposure to alcohol be at an unsupervised college or high-school keg party.
  • Under the 21 year-old drinking age, fewer young people are drinking, but those who choose to are drinking more. This alarming rise in the rates of binge drinking on campuses and in communities around the nation has caused a major, national public health problem. Almost daily, we are bombarded with horrific stories of heavy drinking teens and young adults. Between 1993 and 2001, 18-20 year olds showed a 56% increase in episodes of heavy drinking, the largest increase among American adults. The recent media barrage could not be more clear: the 21 year-old drinking age does not keep young people under 21 from drinking, and drinking dangerously.
  • The 21 year-old drinking age breeds disrespect for law and ethical compromises. The vast majority of people who drink in the United States began drinking before age 21, testament both to the inefficacy of the current law and of the rampant disrespect for its provisions. Because the law is inconsistently enforced and easily circumvented by underage drinkers and those who provide them with alcohol, it has created a climate that makes it all too easy for young adults to obtain and consume alcohol without realizing the legal and ethical consequences of their actions.

Ever wonder why we have a 21 year-old drinking age?

Monday, October 16th, 2006

The primary reasons cited by supporters of the law:

  • It saves lives by preventing alcohol-related traffic fatalities among 18-20 year-olds and the rest of the population.
  • Since the developing adolescent brain is affected differently by alcohol than the adult brain, the 21 year-old drinking age protects adolescents and young adults from its potentially negative consequences.
  • It prevents adolescents from gaining access to alcohol. Some research has found that the earlier one starts to drink, the more likely he or she will experience alcohol dependence and related problems later in life.

Seem bold? We thought so too! Our research has shown that the arguments above are overstated:

  • There is no demonstrable cause and effect relationship between the 21 year-old drinking age and the decline in alcohol-related fatalities. While its proponents may claim that the 21 year-old drinking age is solely responsible, we found that many factors–increased seat belt use, development of airbag and anti-lock brake technologies, advent of the “designated driver,” and stigmatization of drunk driving to name just a few–had the effect of making our roads and vehicles safer over the past two and a half decades.
  • The claims of neurological research on alcohol and the adolescent brain have, in many cases, been overstated. Statements like MADD’s “teenagers who drink too much may lose as much as 10 percent of their brainpower” often exaggerate the findings of research findings based on data gathered from rat populations, leading to an oversimplified and alarmist approach to very complicated neurological research. Stay tuned here for more information on alcohol and the brain…
  • The context in which one first consumes alcohol is as, if not more, important as the age of initiation. Age is just a number. Scientific and anthropological data from around the world have shown that the context in which alcohol is first consumed cultural attitudes towards drinking are much more important in determining whether or not an individual will have alcohol-related problems later in life.

The Liability of Liquid Bread

Wednesday, October 11th, 2006

An interesting article in the Washington Post a couple of weeks ago does a beautiful job describing the dilemma facing college administrators around the country. For many, the 21 year-old drinking age makes little sense. Thus, when you ask many of the deans, presidents, and professors on campuses around the country for their opinions about drinking, rarely will they extol the benefits of the present drinking age. More often, they will tell of a time while they were in college, when drinking was not stigmatized, and in the open. As much as these individuals may now disagree with the law, they must enforce the drinking age for risk-management purposes:

“One out of three colleges and universities now bans alcohol on campus for any student, including those 21 and older, according to an ongoing study by the Harvard School of Public Health. Two out of five forbid it in any university housing. Half of small colleges restrict alcohol at football games, tailgate parties, concerts and alumni events.
“Georgetown University is considering a campus ban on kegs. At the University of Oklahoma, no alcohol is allowed for students of any age in residence halls, fraternity houses, sorority houses or on the surrounding grounds. No more three strikes and you’re out for students at the University of Colorado at Boulder who violate drinking laws on or off campus — two times will send you packing. At the University of Maryland at College Park, a school employee now lives in each fraternity house on campus to keep an eye on parties and alcohol.”

Making these policies work is all too often left to campus security officers. But when drinking is occurring everywhere by everybody, one must ask whether enforcing a law that no one abides by is time well spent. Surely there are other, more pressing matters like sexual assault, burglary, and alcohol poisoning on campuses that require the attention of campus security. All of these present a greater threat to students than drinking while 18, 19, or 20, versus 21. It is a matter of perception, because by enforcing the 21 year-old drinking age campus officials are being perceived as tough on these other more dangerous threats to students:

According to Brett Sokolow, a risk management consultant, universities have been scrambling ever since to reduce the odds of being sued. Demonstrating that you’re doing all that you can to stem drinking may reduce the size of a potential judgment.”

Unfortunately, these very attempts to combat underage drinking are only pushing drinking behavior further underground, beyond the reaches of the law.

Reducing binge drinking

Monday, October 9th, 2006

Recent research in the UK has indicated that dangerous, excessive drinking among young people can be prevented if parents discuss alcohol use at home and encourage their teens to drink small amounts of alcohol with meals or in other family settings. Lead author Mark Bellis writes, “By the age of fifteen the vast majority of young people are already using alcohol and this study suggests that those who do so with their parents are more likely to avoid the most dangerous drinking behaviours.”

Our 21 year-old drinking age makes this type of safe and sensible introduction to alcohol–in many cases a preventative measure–illegal for most American parents. Teens’ peers are instead left to the job, and too often the result is risky drinking in secretive settings. A lower drinking age and educational initiatives for parents and children alike would encourage introduction to moderate and responsible alcohol use in the home.


Saturday, October 7th, 2006

This opinion piece (“Pragmatic approach needed for alcohol issue,” 27 June 2006, Pacific Daily News) presents a good argument for why residents of Guam should vote to maintain its 18 year-old drinking age. The US territory, which receives a substantial amount of federal highway funding each year despite having a legal limit below 21, has historically set its drinking age at 18. MADD is active in Coalition 21, the organization formed in favor of raising the drinking age. Residents will decide whether or not to raise the drinking age to 21 in a general election on November 7.

Why lower the drinking age now? Aren’t there more pressing concerns facing the US today?

Friday, October 6th, 2006

In the more than two decades that have passed since its implementation, the 21 year-old drinking age has created a climate in which terms like “binge” and “pregame” have come describe young peoples’ choices about alcohol; in which the law is habitually and thoughtlessly ignored by adolescents and adults alike; in which colleges and communities across the nation are plagued with out-of-control parties, property damage, and belligerent drunks; in which emergency rooms and campus health centers are faced with an alarming number of sometimes fatal cases of alcohol poisoning and overdose on weekend nights; and in which the role of parents in teaching responsible behavior around alcohol has been marginalized and the family disenfranchised. Maintaining status quo in America today is not an option.

We are faced with a law that is out of step with our cultural attitudes towards alcohol, one which encourages violation and breeds disrespect. Historically, we know that during the Vietnam War the 26th Amendment in 1971 provided 18 year-olds the right to vote, the age at which one could be drafted to fight in the war. This constitutional recognition of 18 year-olds as consenting adults was fundamental for guaranteeing the right for 18 year-olds to drink. Again, a quarter century later, we are engaged in a war where many of the soldiers currently serving abroad are under the legal drinking age of 21. And while that historical parallel itself does not provide justification for changing the drinking age, it makes strikingly clear the poor logic behind the assumption that at the age of 18 one is too immature to consume alcohol. If the drinking age were lowered, it would signal a transformation in the relationship our society has with its young adults. Besides engendering greater respect for the law, a lower and more easily enforced drinking age would offer alternative choices for parents and college campuses around the country in shaping responsible drinking behaviors and encouraging informed decisions about alcohol use.


Friday, October 6th, 2006

In the United States today, the unsupervised, uninformed, and often abusive use of alcohol by our nation’s youth has reached a crisis stage, and poses substantial public health, civic and ethical challenges for our entire nation. We think it’s time to do something about it.
Where do we start? Reconsidering the drinking age…

The prevalence of today’s dangerous drinking practices among many young people demands the nation’s attention and requires a fresh response to the rules regulating alcohol consumption. Out of concern for the well-being of young American adults, we embrace this need for change and offer a unique approach to this national problem. Young adults who choose to drive must be properly taught; so, too, must those who choose to drink. We call for a strategic reform of the laws governing alcoholic beverages. The reform would permit the lowering of the legal drinking age from 21 to 18 when coupled with a comprehensive program for young adults that requires education and licensing, offers personal incentives for adherence, and enforces responsible and ethical adult behavior among all those—regardless of age—who make choices about drinking.