Saturday, August 23, 2008

Point-counterpoint on underage drinking

The Dallas News this morning published an excerpt from this Grits post on the merits of lowering the drinking age, using it as a counterpoint for a longer column reprinted from a Chicago Tribune columnist Steve Chapman, who makes a claim I don't believe stands up to rigorous scrutiny:
It's true that in the old days, there was no college culture of clandestine, off-campus binge drinking. It was out in the open, right on the quad. Another difference back then: There was more of it.
By what measure, exactly, was there more underage drinking 25 years ago than today? After all, how can we really know since it's been effectively driven underground? Just because you don't see it on the quad doesn't mean kids aren't drinking back at their apartment, frat house or other off-campus setting. (Is "out of sight, out of mind" really the approach we want to take on this topic?) Drunk driving has declined across the board, not just for teens. And to the extent overall teen drinking has declined, how do we know it isn't just a substitution effect with marijuana and other drugs?

What's more, Chapman's analysis ignores data indicating binge drinking increased as a result of raising the minimum legal age. If more youth drank before the drinking age rose but a greater proportion drank irresponsibly after the law changed, that's still an ineffective law.


Anonymous said...

Please remind me when was the movie "Animal House" made?

Jeff Versteeg said...

Grits, can you address the substantive arguments that Chapman made, particularly the ones that were backed up by data from reputable sources? Is there a real connection between raising the drinking age and lowering drunk driving fatalities among young people? Or can this effect be explained by better public education and stricter enforcement over the past 25 years? Particularly compelling is Chapman's claim that the first states to raise their drinking ages saw a drop in DD fatalities for young people, while those that did not raise the drinking age early on did not see such a drop. What do you make of this evidence?

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jeff, did you read my full, original post? I linked to a meta-study of studies on the topic and identified what I think are the mitigating factors that cause the MADD folks, et. al, to overstate the import of raising the MLDA. Tell me if you have the same questions after reading it.

The studies on the topic show a temporal but not a causal relation between raising MLDA and DWI, and many other factors were at play. Proponents of that interpretation of the data must explain why, if raising the MLDA caused declines in American youth DWIs, why did Canada and other countries experience similar declines WITHOUT raising the drinking age? I've never seen a credible answer to that question.

Finally, is the rate of highway deaths the ONLY relevant factor? I don't think so. E.g., are deaths due to binge drinking and other alcoholism-related factors not equally important, and won't those deaths increase by driving the culture underground? What about the manufacture of massive, artificial demand for easily accessed fake IDs - does the added terrorism related danger get to factor in, or is it just okay to ignore that?

Bottom line, I think other tactics did more to reduce youth drinking, and even to the extent this one contributed, it created unintended consequences that worsened problems with the most serious substance abusers.

Jeff Versteeg said...

To be precise, you don't link to any studies on the issue of teen drunk driving. You simply make the assertion that "drunk driving has declined across the board." Which I guess I'll accept as true, but is just as sloppy as Chapman saying that there was more teen drinking when the MLDA was 18 (a fact that is actually supported by the binge drinking study that you link to).

As far as the drop in DWI without raising the drinking age in Canada goes, I think you're confusing necessary and sufficient conditions. I don't think too many people would argue that raising the drinking age is a necessary condition for reducing teen DWIs. But it may be sufficient, if it could be shown to reduce teen DWIs on its own, without any concurrent changes in policy. This is the potential import of comparing the change in teen DWI rates in the first few states that raised the MLDA with states that were late-adopters. However, it seems that there were in fact some other factors at play in the early adopter states, so we can't be sure at all that raising the drinking age had any effect on drunk driving. What Canada's experience tells us for sure is that raising the drinking age is not a necessary condition for reducing teen DWIs.

I'm also not saying that preventing drunk driving is the only relevant consideration in this debate. But it's unquestionably the most important consideration, (yes, even more important than kids drinking themselves to death, because no innocents are put at risk) and the one that gets the most headlines. So if there is a relationship between the drinking age and teen DWIs, I'd like to know what that relationship is. But it doesn't seem as though there's any evidence of one.

Concerning binge drinking, I do think there is a strong relationship between the sharp increase in this phenomenon for 18-20 year-olds and the MLDA being raised. I would agree that raising the drinking age has driven the drinking scene for 18-20 year-olds underground, in that these people are drinking far more at private parties and far less at bars than they used to. This absolutely leads to more binge drinking, as alcohol is either cheap or free at a keg party, there is a virtually unlimited supply, no one to cut you off if you've had to much, and a party never closes. Further, the health risk to the drinker is often the least of the potential problems resulting from binge drinking - vandalism, assault, sexual violence, theft, both short and long-term health outcomes (including an increased risk of alcoholism), the list goes on and on. I'm a big believer that kids need to be drinking in bars or on campus in a regulated atmosphere, especially when alcohol is new to them.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Jeff, you're wrong that I linked to no studies on teen drunk driving. Check again.

RE: Necessary vs. sufficient conditions. If raising the drinking age is merely "sufficient" to lower drunk driving, as you claim, then it may also not be "necessary," and if it creates unintended consequences those must be factored in. Your response to the question about Canada's DWI rates basically says "maybe maybe maybe." I don't doubt that raising it reduces overall youth drinking, but it appears to also increase problem drinking. What we know for a fact is that the drinking age is not INHERENTLY related to higher DWI rates, only that those rates were higher 25 years ago when all DWI rates were greater. (The term "designated driver," after all, was only coined in 1984.) Which is why I say the research demonstrates a temporal not a causal connection.

Your argument that DWI is the most important issue here is IMO wrong. Most DWIs are victimless crimes. In terms of cost to society, long-term health costs are at least as big a concern. Indeed, the greatest harm by far from the raised drinking age is creating a culture of unregulated alcoholism among the young which creates a host of short and long-term problems, not just DWI. best,

Anonymous said...

paul-uk ... 30 years ago this year!!!!

Anonymous said...

Let's lower the drinking age, raise the driving age and do away with proms. Problem solved.

brianna said...

I think there should be the age limit for Drinking, and Driving both because these can convert into accidents in any unfavorable condition.



R Johnson said...

Alcoholism is as much a problem today as it was before the minimum age was raised. This disease does not recognize age, race, gender or any other boundary.