Friday, August 22, 2008

Change the Drinking Age?

Earlier this week, a major policy debate was touched off by a public letter from over 100 college and university presidents, advocating a "rethinking" of the quasi-national 21-year-old drinking age in the U.S. As noted in this article, "Technically, laws governing drinking age are left up to each state. However, all states adopted 21 as the minimum drinking age after Congress mandated in the mid 80's that any state that allowed drinking under 21 would lose ten percent of federal highway money."

Writing under the title, the Amethyst Initiative, the presidents take what could be called a "harm reduction" approach. Such a perspective argues that, as much as one might want people to refrain from a potentially dangerous behavior, people are going to do it anyway. Therefore, such behavior should be legalized to bring it out into the open and prevent the worst of the harms associated with the behavior. As the presidents' letter notes, "A culture of dangerous, clandestine 'binge-drinking' — often conducted off-campus — has developed."

Indeed, according to the Harvard School of Public Health's College Alcohol Study surveys from the 1990s and early 2000s, students younger than 21 drink at a similarly high level to their older-than-21 counterparts. More anecdotally, the Alexandra Robbins book Pledged talks about the extensive drinking -- and efforts to conceal that drinking from the university community -- among sorority members.

As an academic researcher of college drinking, I immediately sought to round up as much evidence bearing on the controversy as possible within a narrow time frame, study it, and present it on this blog, in an effort to further the debate.

Opposition is mounting quickly to the presidents' initiative, however. In fact, a story in yesterday's New York Times reports that two of the original participants have withdrawn their signatures (although some additional presidents have added theirs).

The Times article included quotes from opponents of the presidents' letter, including the following:

“Why would you take the one thing that has been tried in the last 30 years that has been shown to be most successful and throw that out the window and say, ‘I have a better idea?’ ” said Alexander C. Wagenaar, an epidemiologist at the College of Medicine at the University of Florida.

Wagenaar's views are stated in more depth on pages 78-80 of the book Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses, by Henry Wechsler and Bernice Wuethrich. Via an interview format, Wagenaar claims that, "The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that the [Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21] saved more than twenty thousand lives since the 1970s." He discusses some examples of inverse (negative) correlations, where in the 1970s, a state's lowering of the drinking age was associated with increases in teen alcohol fatalities, and vice-versa. Wagenaar characterizes the research as "incontrovertible evidence that the policy has had a significant effect on drinking rates and deaths."

Other scholars take a different view, however. In a 1999 article, Ruth Engs cites the idea of the "forbidden fruit," where the illegality of some act increases its attractiveness. She acknowledges the reduction over time in drinking-and-driving related problems, but questions how much of it can be attributed directly to the federal legislation that encouraged a uniform 21-year-old drinking age. Further, she cites statistics purporting to show that other indicia of problematic college-student drinking actually rose after passage of the legislation. Foreshadowing the Amethyst presidents' statement quoted above, Engs contends that:

This increase in abusive drinking behavior is due to "underground drinking" outside of adult supervision in student rooms and apartments where same-age individuals come together in the 1990s collegiate reincarnation of the speakeasy.

David Hanson's website also presents a lot of information on drinking-age policies (it was here that I learned of Engs's writings).

The debate over the legal drinking age is very likely to continue. By following the links included in the present write-up, as well as doing your own research, readers of this blog can contribute to the debate.

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