Monday, March 17, 2014

How Much Proof Does One Need to Lower the Drinking Age?

Yesterday was the Jewish holiday of Purim, and today is St. Patrick's Day. Two holidays that entail a good amount of drinking is certainly nothing to whine about. These holidays got me thinking: should we lower the drinking age? Prior to the federal government threatening to yank federal highway funding to the states if they didn't raise the drinking age to 21, plenty of states had a lower minimum legal drinking age (MLDA).

I found one study showing that American MLDA laws do not do much to impact teen drinking (Miron and Tetelbaum, 2007), one on the lack of impact on college students (Hughes and Dodder, 1992), and a meta-study showing that an increased MLDA does not affect suicide, homicide, or vandalism rates (Vagenaar and Toomey, 2002). I also found that in general terms, per-mile traffic fatalities were already decreasing prior to the increase of the MLDA in 1984 (see below), which would diminish an argument of causation. If I had to take a shot as to what caused the prior decrease, I would argue such factors as seat belt laws, zero-tolerance laws, greater public awareness, air bag implementation, and other technological developments played a larger role. More specifically to the 18-20 year old age demographic, per traffic-mile fatality rates were already decreasing prior to raising the MLDA to 21.

However, a recent meta-study (De Jong and Blanchette, 2014) that is seemingly thorough makes me wonder whether we should keep the MLDA at 21. The meta-study points out that an MLDA of 21 has saved an approximate 900 individuals per annum. Let's assume that De Jong and Blanchette are correct in saying that there is a small, negative effect (as opposed to a negligible or non-existent one). Much like I argued with trans fats, this is a matter of dealing with certain tradeoffs.

One tradeoff is the health benefits of alcohol. The neo-prohibitionists over at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) are not going to want to admit this, but unlike many of the illicit drugs out there, alcohol can be good for you when drunk in moderation. This is a point that cannot be emphasized enough. Our European counterparts learn to drink alcohol in a safe environment, usually as part of a meal, and are more prone to learn to drink alcohol with moderation and restraint. The typical American is exposed to alcohol at a high school party or at college, both of which are more underground, create a taboo for young adults entering college or the workforce (e.g., reactance theory), and help to perpetuate the binge culture. Much like responsible eating, sex, or other life choices, parents should teach their children the idea of responsible drinking, which is what parents in other countries do.

The other tradeoff is the freedom of being able to make choices, much like any other adult. Eighteen-year-olds are trusted to vote, buy cigarettes, get married, and risk their lives by serving in the military, but why doesn't the recognition of adulthood encompass alcohol consumption? We legally treat eighteen-year-olds like adults in just about every facet, except this one. This inconsistency, not to mention the relatively large gap between legal adulthood and the MLDA, develops similar disrespect for the law that Prohibition did. Not to say that nobody ever binge drank prior to, but should it be a surprise that a culture of binge drinking has become a staple of American culture since the enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (Title 23, §158)? Even with this law enacted, about half of Americans age 18-20 still drink at least once a month (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Figure 3.1).

I would argue for that the states should not have to kowtow to the federal government lest they lose federal highway funds. States should be able to determine the MLDA by analyzing their own unique demographics, much like Morris Chafetz thought. Conversely, I think the American political atmosphere can make us prone to thinking in terms of the "either legalize at 18 or 21" dichotomy, which means that more middle-ground solutions are not typically considered. I was talking with a friend and colleague prior to writing this blog entry, and he provided me with a policy alternative. Since we have different political ideologies, he knows it's not easy to convince me in a polemic context, but he managed to do so last evening. His idea? Lower the drinking age to 19. Why have an MLDA of 19?

I found this policy alternative to be appealing on a theoretical level. At the age of 18, there would still be high schoolers who legally had access to alcohol. The 18-year-olds would be able to provide younger high school students with alcohol. This policy alternative would be beneficial for the college level because at age 19, freshmen would only have to wait a few months, as opposed to a couple years. This smaller time gap would bring the drinking of those of the age of 19-20 to more regulated and supervised locales. This alternative would address both the binge drinking at the collegiate level and what it legally means to be an adult.

Unless there is a change in public opinion that leads to outcry, this is more of a exercise in public policy theory than anything else. In the meantime, one can only hope there is an ailment to this weak policy.

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