Archive for October, 2007

Alcohol Nannies: Time-Out Needed

Wednesday, October 31st, 2007

Two steps forward, one step back. Or vice versa? A well-executed article by David Harsanyi examines the alarming shift from prevention to prohibition amongst “alcohol nannies” — most notably, Mothers Against Drunk Driving. The long-term reduction of alcohol-related fatalities, and overall fatalities more generally, should be applauded and attributed to automotive safety innovation and effective campaigns encouraging the use of seat belts and designated drivers.  However, we must also consider the fact that alcohol-related fatalities have remained stable since 1997, and trended upward over the past decade.   Targeting and arresting casual, moderate drinkers is a waste of time and resources, and provides a free ride for those hardcore drunk drivers who continually violate the law and place themselves and others at risk. The reversal in drunken driving trends is therefore not surprising. Americans who illustrate responsible and moderate alcohol use should be commended, not arrested.  In order to move forward, we need to turn away from prohibition and towards the core mission of preventing and reducing drunk driving.

Senate hearing on drunk driving

Thursday, October 25th, 2007

On October 25, a subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works will hear arguments put forth by MADD and its supporters. The hearing, entitled “Oversight hearing on Federal Drunk Driving Programs” will likely discuss the merits and effectiveness of ignition interlock devices. We support use of ignition interlocks in vehicles of convicted drunk drivers because they are effective in decreasing recidivism, but also know that the group assembled as witnesses today will also support maintaining the 21 year-old drinking age. We, along with our volunteers in the states represented on the subcommittee, sent along the following letter to remind the senators that there is more to the story on the drinking age:

Dear Senator,


It has come to our attention that a hearing will be held on the effectiveness of federal drunk driving initiatives this Thursday October 25. We hope that you, as a member of the subcommittee involved in the hearing, will look at all sides of this important issue, as well as the many factors related to it.  Drunk driving is a complex social problem and one that we have made huge strides in reducing over the course of the last two and a half decades.     


The ignition interlock device is likely to be presented as an example of a promising step to decrease recidivism amongst convicted drunk drivers.  While we see many benefits of that device because it deals with a specific aspect of a specific problem, we are concerned that some of its advocates also support the 21 year-old drinking age.  Our view is different and we ask that you consider all perspectives in the discussion over the drinking age and drunken driving.  For instance, you will likely hear that there are 50 studies that support the supposition that the 21 year-old drinking age has reduced alcohol-related traffic fatalities. But you probably will not hear that the same analysis (Wagenaar and Toomey, 2002) found that for the other 50 studies on the topic, there was no significant effect; in fact, 35% found no association at all between the drinking age and the decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities. 


We would also urge you to remember that more than 1,000 lives of 18-24 year-olds are lost each year in situations off the roadways—a figure that has been increasing since 1998 (Hingson et al., 2005).  Those who support a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the 21 year-old drinking age and the decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities must be forced to explain why this disturbing trend exists and, furthermore, why between 1993 and 2001 18-20 year-olds showed the largest increase in binge drinking episodes amongst American adults (Naimi, et al., 2003).  The 21 year-old drinking age must also be at least partially responsible for these alarming statistics and the growing public health problem that faces all American adolescents and young adults today. 


Thank you for acknowledging all perspectives on this complex issue.  We can assure you that there is more to the story than you will hear presented on October 25.

What, exactly, is “science?”

Monday, October 15th, 2007

What, exactly, is “science?”  And what is “preponderance of evidence?”


Much has been made in recent days about how “science” proves “overwhelmingly” that a lower drinking age reduces alcohol-related traffic fatalities.  The supporting evidence for this claim may be found in a 2002 article by Alex Wagenaar and Traci Toomey, which identifies 52 peer-reviewed analyses that establish a cause-and-effect relationship between drinking age and traffic fatalities.


This is called “science,” when, in reality, it is mathematics, statistics, probability, abstraction, estimates.  Generating these data did not require a laboratory, nor did it require an advanced degree in any of the natural sciences.  These data are the result of “imputation” (try deciphering NHTSA’s definition of that term), assumption, extrapolation, and the plugging of numbers into a formula.  That’s math, folks, not science.  And it’s an estimate.  And there is not a single, identifiable human life associated with any of those numbers.  How after all count wars not fought?  Fortunes not made?  Friends never met?  Lives not lost?


So let’s begin by using the correct term.  This is “mathematics speaking for itself,” not science.


But when a discipline speaks for itself, it requires no filter, though it demands its hearers not listen selectively.


And here’s why.  The same peer-reviewed article that lists 52 analyses showing a cause-and-effect relationship between a higher drinking age and lower traffic fatalities notes that this number is out of a TOTAL of 102 such analyses.  In other words, about HALF the analyses show a relationship … and HALF don’t.


The other side can say, as they have in each of the following publications, that these are simply one man’s opinions (Parade Magazine).  They can question why an historian knows more about science that scientists (KGO radio).  They can dismiss CR’s assertions as untruths (KGO radio, Fox News).  In short, they can continue ad hominem responses.  Or they can explain what the scholar they cite, who is a member of MADD’s own Board of Directors, means by this statement (p. 213):


“Of the 102 analyses, 52 (51%) found a statistically significant inverse relationship between the legal drinking age and crashes;  that is, as the legal age was lowered, the number of crashes increased, and as the legal age was raised, the number of crashes decreased.”


These are not “off-the-cuff musings.”  These are not “opinions masquerading as facts.”  They are peer-reviewed data that any historian – or political science major – can read and quickly grasp.


So the next time you hear about “more than 50 peer-reviewed studies,” keep in mind:  the actual number is 52.  And that’s out of a total of 102.


Let’s let science (er, rather, mathematics) speak for itself.  Unencumbered by emotion.  Without personal attacks.  And in the service of nothing more, or less, than the truth.

 –[CR] Director John McCardell

Call and Response

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

In the interest of full disclosure, we present below both the link to MADD’s press release and the text of Choose Responsibility’s response.

Science speaks for itself” (MADD press release). Indeed it does. While it is true that “almost 50 peer-reviewed studies” have “found that an increased drinking age significantly lowers alcohol-related fatalities” (MADD press release), an equal number of studies have found no relationship between the drinking age and alcohol-related fatalities (Wagenaar and Toomey, 2002).

Thus, if science is allowed to speak for itself, we must not listen selectively.

While it is true that alcohol-related traffic fatalities have declined since the age was raised to 21, the downward trend began before the law was changed, and it has remained essentially flat for the last decade (NHTSA). Meanwhile, more than 1,000 18-24 year-old lives are being lost to alcohol each year off the roadways, and this number is increasing at an alarming rate (Hingson, 1998, 2001). These lives are being put at risk in the dark corners and behind the closed doors to which Legal Age 21 have banished them.

Thus, we need to look at all the ways alcohol, and the drinking age, put lives at risk, not just at traffic fatalities. The 21 year-old drinking age has forced drinking underground. Clandestine, goal-oriented, unsupervised drinking, a consequence of Legal Age 21, is putting an increasing number of young adult lives at risk.

While it is true that “the neurotoxic effect of excessive alcohol use” (MADD press release) can affect the development of the adolescent brain, no one is advocating excessive alcohol use. Researchers involved in studies of the adolescent brain have stated that, unless the drinking age is raised to 25, when the adolescent brain is fully developed, there is nothing magical about some other age. Indeed, at least one such researcher, Professor Scott Swartzwelder of Duke University, has stated that his studies do “not mean that an 18 year-old who has a beer or two every couple of weeks is doing irreparable damage to her brain. It is the 18 year-old (or 30 year-old for that matter!) who downs five or six drinks on his way to a dance that worries me.”

Thus, we mustn’t be misled by scare tactics. We must listen carefully to what scientists are saying. Most of the rest of the world, where the age is lower than 21, exhibits no evidence of brain impairment. Moderate, responsible use of alcohol poses little neurological risk. Excessive use of alcohol, at any age, may be health- or life-threatening. Clandestine drinking, fostered by Legal Age 21, raises that threat.

MADD forms Support 21 coalition

Tuesday, October 9th, 2007

At a press conference today at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) Conference Center in Washington, DC, MADD joined with the IIHS, NTSB, and the AMA to announce their collective support for maintaining Legal Age 21.

Why was this press conference called? Were they there to convey new research findings?  Our questions exactly, perhaps phrased best by a CBS radio host who called us asking, “do they actually have something new to say?”

In a nutshell, no.  The statistics and arguments are the same: emphasis on traffic fatalities and the host of negative consequences that result from drinking by people 21 and younger.  The new Support 21 coalition focuses the “science” above all else, but our research and experience tells us that there is much more to the story.  Many of the same papers they cite as support for maintaining the status quo tell us that more that 1,000 lives of 18-24 year-olds are being lost off the highways each year, and that that death toll has been increasing with each passing year.  That statistic as well as the findings from recent CDC studies and the College Alcohol Study (Harvard School of Public Health) would tell us that the increase in loss of young life off the highways is more than likely linked to the astonishing increase in binge drinking rates and negative consequences experienced by young people.  We must acknowledge that beyond the science, we are experiencing a cultural shift, marked clearly by the intensification of excessive alcohol consumption among adolescents and young adults.  Drinking to intoxication is the norm for 18-20 year-olds and, unfortunately, is fast becoming the standard for younger teens as well.  Beyond discussing the trends, the numbers, and the consequences, we need to question and address the culture that is encouraging that reckless and excessive behavior.

We invite Adrian Lund, director of IIHS, to tell us exactly how our “pre-scientific” and “unsubstantiated” proposal is any different from Legal Age 21.  If the drinking age were based on science alone, there would be blanket prohibition, or as our colleague Scott Guenther has said “mandatory injections of alcohol for men between the ages of 50 and 65.”  Why don’t we pursue either of those noble, science-based policy changes?  Because we (and MADD, and IIHS, and the American public…) know that such changes are unrealistic and unworkable in practice.  Alcohol plays a complex role in our society and its regulation needs to be addressed through discussions that allow for that complexity.  Over 90% of individuals who drink will consume their first alcohol well before the age of 21.  Alcohol is a reality in the lives of young Americans, and public policy needs to both acknowledge that reality and create the safest possible environment for it to occur.

Stay tuned for more…the debate is heating up.  Incidentally, so is the weather in DC–time to get back to Vermont!

“Children” will be children

Wednesday, October 3rd, 2007

 We commend Dale Pratt-Wilson for working to curb “underage” drinking. She has devoted her career to keeping alcohol out of the hands of our nation’s youth, and has collaborated with organizations such as Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol-Free in order to curb drinking amongst children aged 9 to 15. We applaud this mission. However,  in today’s The Daily Tar Heel, Ms. Pratt-Wilson unabashedly confuses young adults with children — infantalizing those who, in every other respect, are adults.

The opinion piece cites the work of H. Scott Swartzwelder, Clinical Professor of Psychiatry and Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University and member of the Board of Trustees of Choose Responsibility. Swartzwelder proves that the adolescent brain is not fully developed until age 25; however, the researcher himself agrees that 21 is not a magical number. Rather, Legal Age 21 has forced drinking underground and led to excessive, dangerous, and lethal drinking. It has created a culture of pregaming and drinking games, where drunkenness is the goal and alcohol consumption is forced out of safe, communal spaces and into dorm rooms, off-campus houses, and underground locales.

A quick glance at Europe disregards the markedly different historical drinking cultures of its northern and souther countries. History and an extensive body of cross cultural research would suggest that cultural attitudes towards alcohol use play a far more influential role than minimum age in these countries, which have more drinking occasions per month, but boast fewer dangerous, intoxication occasions.

Enforcement is not the answer. For every 1,000 incidences of underage alcohol consumption, only two result in arrest or citation. The cost of  “improved enforcement resources” is exponential and will further drive drinking underground. The fact is, the majority of college-aged students drink — in unsafe environments without adequate education or guidance. Infantile behavior is a product of infantalization. Adults will act like adults when the law is synchronized with reality.

The reality of it all

Monday, October 1st, 2007

Addiction expert and author of the recent book Addiction Proof Your Child Stanton Peele was interviewed recently by CNN on how parents should teach their children about alcohol. Along with his 19 year-old daughter, Anna, he discusses the importance of introducing adolescent children to alcohol in the home, modeling responsible behavior, and allowing them to sample alcohol on family occasions. Peele argues that taking such an approach is proven to lessen the likelihood of binge drinking and that more American parents need to play an active, supportive role in teaching their children about alcohol.

He says many of the programs set up to stop alcohol abuse contribute to the teen binge-drinking crisis. Any program that tells kids flatly not to drink creates temptation, he says. “Preparing your child to drink at home lessens the likelihood that they are going to binge drink,” he says. “Not sharing alcohol with your child is a risk factor for binge drinking.”

Peele’s advice is straightforward, responsible, and realistic. The vast majority–over 90% of young people who drink–start drinking before age 21. Adolescents will be exposed to alcohol before they are 21, likely in situations where their peers are drinking excessively and illegally. There is nothing new or revolutionary about this argument–in most other cultures (which incidentally have lower rates of youthful binge drinking…go figure!), alcohol is introduced in a family setting where norms about its use are instilled and it is held up as a food source rather than an intoxicant.

Yet apparently evidence from centuries of this practice around the globe aren’t enough proof for Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

“That’s ridiculous,” says Calvina Fay, executive director of the Drug Free America Foundation. “By allowing teens to drink,” Fay says, “you are giving permission to your children to do harmful things.”

Fay’s statements are reactionary and short sighted. Consuming alcohol is a normative experience for young Americans. Denying that reality, and chastising parents who are giving their children essential experience by serving alcohol in the home is dangerous and has perpetuated the culture of excess we are currently facing. We need to encourage policies that make moderate use an option for young adults, rather than supporting an unrealistic, no use policy for 18-20 year-old young adults.

Bottom line: Prohibition doesn’t (and has never) worked!