Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Case Closed? Not So Fast

A new study by William DeJong claims that the debate on the 21 drinking is over, and that the evidence is overwhelming that the policy saves lives and reduces teen and young adult drinking.  His literature review, titled Case Closed:  Research Evidence on the Positive Public Health Impact of the Age 21 MLDA in the United States, looks at research conducted mostly from 2006 to the present.  While on the surface DeJong's paper appears to be decently written, upon closer examination one can see several flaws that undermine his thesis.

First and foremost, his treatment of Miron and Tetelbaum's groundbreaking 2009 study (which thoroughly debunked the supposed lifesaving effect) is sorely lacking.  He literally devotes a mere two sentences to casually mentioning and blithely dismissing its results.  DeJong seems to think that the reason that the coerced states saw no significant effect while the voluntary-adopting states did was due to enforcement differences and/or cohort or other differences between the two groups of states.  That's very funny considering how Miron and Tetelbaum took great pains to control for just about every conceivable variable that would likely have a significant effect, in addition to state and year fixed effects.  Additionally, even if the handful of voluntary adopters did enforce the 21 drinking age to a greater extent, even they saw that their fairly weak lifesaving effect lasted no more than a year or two following the law change (while it actually seemed to throw gasoline on the fire in many of the coerced states).  Miron and Tetelbaum also found that the effect of raising the drinking age on high school drinking was fairly small, likely due to reporting bias, and basically confined to the voluntary-adopting states.  All of which puts a massive hole in DeJong's theory to say the least.  Strike one.

Secondly, while DeJong does talk a bit about Europe and New Zealand, he does not devote a single word to Canada.  As Twenty-One Debunked has noted repeatedly, Canada saw a similar or faster decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths as the USA despite NOT raising the drinking age to 21.  And while young Canadians do tend to drink a bit more than their American counterparts on average, the rates of "binge" drinking in Canada are roughly equivalent to the demographically and geographically similar US states that they share a border with or are otherwise fairly close to.  Canada also boasts a lower alcohol-related death rate than the USA as well as less crime and violence, and the alcoholism rates in the two countries are roughly equivalent.  That's another huge hole in his theory that cannot be easily explained away.  As for New Zealand, note that we have already debunked the fairly outdated studies that DeJong refers to.  Strike two.

But probably DeJong's biggest flaw of all is his logic or lack thereof.  He claims that the evidence to date supports the idea that not only should we not lower the drinking age, but that enforcement should be toughened.  Leaving aside all the studies that debunk the supposed benefits of the 21 drinking age, his logic is based on shaky ground.  He takes various outdated correlations and presumes them to be causation, he blithely dismisses any evidence to the contrary, and essentially denies that there is any good alternative policy aside from tougher enforcement.  Which is very funny considering how much research (including some of DeJong's own previous research) finds that social norms marketing techniques are at least as effective in reducing high-risk drinking among college students as tougher drinking age enforcement is.  Strike three, yer out!

Unfortunately, DeJong does appear to be right about one thing.  The movement to lower the drinking age to 18 has been losing a great deal of momentum over the past few years, and since about 2011 is now essentially on the back burner once again compared to other, more pressing issues like the economy and of course cannabis legalization.  Scratch that, the movement is now on life support, and the coroner is just waiting to be called.  So we need to redouble our efforts, like yesterday.  And let's hope that DeJong's declaring the debate to be over actually has the opposite effect and re-ignites the drinking age debate once again.  Now let's get to work!

Let America be America again, and lower the drinking age to 18.  If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.

Saturday, February 8, 2014

FebFast is Here

Similar to last year's 40-Day Challenge, Twenty-One Debunked is participating in the fairly new Australian tradition of FebFast.  To wit, it involves no drinking at all during the entire 28 days of February.  Or one can choose the "half-arsed" option, and go a mere two weeks without drinking.  Just about any drinker would benefit from a good detox period, and the benefits include improved health and energy, a better bank balance, and a better quality of life overall.  As the FebFast folks would say, it's just the tonic for you.

If you have read a previous version of this post, please disregard the second paragraph.  The idea outlined therein was admittedly silly and kind of takes away from the overall mission of Twenty-One Debunked.  I'm sure that anyone who wants to see a cached version will just Google it anyway, but remember that it is no longer the case, and we apologize for such inane logorrhea (i.e. diarrhea of the mouth or keyboard).

Monday, January 20, 2014

What About Weed? (Part Deux)

With the recent legalization of recreational cannabis (for those over 21) in Colorado and Washington, and likely at least a few more states to follow, we at Twenty-One Debunked feel the need to update and clarify our official stance on the cannabis issue.  Previously, Twenty-One Debunked has been officially neutral on the issue of cannabis legalization, with our only position being that if and when it becomes legal, the age limit should be 18 instead of 21.  In the meantime, our affiliated political party, the True Spirit of America Party (TSAP), has always been 100% in favor of legalization.  However, after careful evaluation and deliberation, as of January 2014 Twenty-One Debunked has decided to take up the cause of cannabis legalization as well, albeit as a lower-priority issue relative to our main cause of lowering the drinking age to 18.   Our new stance on cannabis can be delineated as follows:
  • Cannabis should be legal for everyone 18 and older, period.
  • No one of any age should be arrested, jailed, or given a criminal record for simple possession or use of cannabis.
  • Passing around a joint or bong should not be treated any differently than passing around a tobacco cigarette or a bottle of beer.
  • While not completely safe for everyone, cannabis is a safer alternative to alcohol by just about any objective scientific measure, and as harm-reductionists we need to get the word out about that fact.
  • While driving under the influence of cannabis can be dangerous and should remain illegal, drunk driving is much worse, and the penalties should reflect that fact.
  • As with alcohol, blood THC limits for driving should be based on science, not zero-tolerance.
Thus, our new position is identical to the TSAP's longstanding view on the matter, and our creed applies equally to alcohol and cannabis.  As for legalization in states with an age limit of 21, pragmatism unfortunately forces us to part ways with people like Mike Males in that regard.  It would be foolish of us to make the perfect the enemy of the good, and thus we will grudgingly support legalization initiatives with a 21 age limit if that is what it takes to get such initiatives to pass.  There will always be time to lower the age limit to 18 when the dust settles and people begin to realize that cannabis is nowhere near as scary as the drug warriors want us to think.

To all the prohibitionists and drug warriors out there, we have one question for you:  How does it feel to be on the wrong side of history?  Because we wouldn't know anything about that.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Should Bars Set Their Own Drinking Ages?

In response to the latest news about a NYC bar setting a minimum age of 25 for patrons, we at Twenty-One Debunked realize that we haven't been all that clear about whether bars should be allowed to discriminate based on age.  And it's perfectly legal too, believe it or not.  We have mixed feelings about the issue overall, and if the founder of Twenty-One Debunked ever owned a bar, he would not set the age limit any higher than the legal drinking age (whatever it may be at the time).  In principle, it is ageist to do so, and it is far better to crack down on all troublemakers regardless of age and put better safeguards in place for everyone.

However, there are some fairly strong arguments in favor of allowing bars to set a higher age, particularly if the legal drinking age is lowered to 18.  First, it is worth noting in that some countries with a drinking age of 18, such as Sweden, several bars (and especially nightclubs) set an age limit of 20, 23, or even 30 in some cases.  Puerto Rico, with a drinking age of 18, has bars that are 21 to enter as well.  Also, there is anecdotal evidence that when many states lowered the drinking age to 18 in the 1970s, at least some bars lost business (and even went out of business) due to the supposedly rowdy 18-20 year olds flooding the bars and scaring off the older patrons.  The irony of the Brooklyn bar was that the age was raised to 25 because the 21-24 year olds were apparently the ones causing too much trouble, so it seems that raising the legal drinking age to 21 just shifted the problems to a slightly older age group.  Finally, there's the free market argument that private businesses should be allowed to do as they please, within reason of course.  While none of these arguments by themselves are strong enough, when put together they make a rather compelling case in favor of allowing bars to remain free to choose their own minimum ages.  And most importantly, if bars are allowed such freedom, they would be much more likely to get on board with our movement to lower the drinking age since they would not feel "forced" to accomodate "rowdy teenagers" if they don't want to.  So there's a strong argument from practicality as well.

Thus, while Twenty-One Debunked believes that the legal drinking age should be lowered to 18, we feel that individual bars should be allowed to choose a higher minimum age if they wish.  And if they did, it would be more likely to be 21 rather than 25, since 21-24 year olds would likely be a lot mellower if they grew up under a drinking age of 18 than if they grew up under the status quo.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Happy Drink Nothing Day!

You have probably heard of Buy Nothing Day. Celebrated on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year, this self-explanatory holiday is meant to be a protest against consumerism. But perhaps you didn't know that the biggest drinking day of the year is the day before Thanksgiving. That's right, it's not New Year's Eve, but Thanksgiving Eve, also known as "Blackout Wednesday."

Thus, three years ago we at Twenty-One Debunked have decided to create our own protest holiday, Drink Nothing Day. It is designed as a way for people 21 and over to show solidarity with those under 21 by not drinking any alcohol that day. To observe this holiday, which can only logically be done by folks over 21, one must not drink any form of alcohol at all during the entire 24 hours of that date, as well as the following day until sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner (or until the sun goes down, whichever occurs earlier). Then, one may drink, but one must give thanks that prohibition no longer applies to him or her. Other ways to observe include wearing two black armbands: one to symbolize those soldiers who died before being able to drink legally in the very country they served, and another to symbolize those under 21 who were killed by a drunk driver over 21.

We will continue to observe this holiday until the drinking age is lowered to 18 in all 50 states.  And remember, whether you choose to observe it or not, never drink and drive.  If you plan to drink, don't drive, and if you plan to drive, don't drink.  It's just not worth the risk.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

NYC Raises Tobacco Purchase Age to 21

Much to our chagrin, Mayor Bloomberg has finally signed the bill that would raise the tobacco purchase age to 21 in New York City.  He was originally against such a move in 2006, but the City Council finally convinced him, which was really not that difficult to do considering his history as a jerk and a nanny-stater.

The bill, which bans the sale of tobacco products and e-cigarettes (but not paraphernalia) to anyone under 21, takes effect in 180 days from today, which will be on May 19, 2014.  NYC Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio will be in power then, and it remains to be seen how he will handle such a law.  We hope he will listen to reason and repeal it before it goes into effect.

As we have previously noted unequivocally while the issue was first being discussed, Twenty-One Debunked does NOT support raising the age limit for cigarettes to 21.  The one bright spot to the new law is that, unlike with alcohol, it does not apply to possession or use of tobacco (currently no age limit), or to the sale of paraphernalia (which will remain 18).  However, that does not make it any less ageist, and it will only expand the city's already extensive black market for untaxed/out-of-state/stolen/counterfeit cigarettes.  What allegedly works in the small town of Needham, MA (which is debatable) would be unlikely to work in a place like NYC.  While another bill was passed today to increase penalties for black-market sellers, it does not get to the root of the problem:  extremely high cigarette taxes compared to surrounding areas.  And the 21 age limit only pours gasoline on the fire.  I would bet that cigarette retailers in Westchester County (where the age is 18) and Long Island and New Jersey (where it's 19) would probably be the greatest beneficiaries of the new law, in addition to the mobsters and terrorists that profit from the black market in the city.

As a result, Twenty-One Debunked is calling for an all-ages boycott of all tobacco products in the five boroughs of NYC, beginning on May 19, 2014 when the law takes effect (and lasting until repeal).  If you live in the city and smoke, be sure to (legally) buy your smokes elsewhere--or better yet, quit.  Tourists should also avoid buying tobacco while visiting.  The more die-hard boycotters might even want to include alcohol on the do-not-buy list, for obvious reasons.  Watch the tax revenue shrink precipitously.

For this and many other reasons, we hereby say "good riddance" to lame-duck Nanny Bloomberg when he finally steps down on New Year's Eve.  Don't let the door hit you on the way out.

Friday, November 15, 2013

To Puerto Rico: Don't Raise the Drinking Age!

There has been a recent proposal in Puerto Rico to raise the legal drinking age from 18 to 21.  If it passes, it would leave only the Virgin Islands as the last remaining holdout where the drinking age is 18, since Guam raised it to 21 in 2010 (much to our chagrin).  Aside from the tired old canards about "safety" and "protecting young people" (from themselves), there is also that pesky 10% highway funding penalty that Puerto Rico has had to deal with every year since 1988, and their flagging economy can clearly use a boost.  And this was not the first time such a hike in the drinking age was proposed:  in the 1990s, there were two failed attempts to raise the drinking age to 21, which most of the people did not support.

While we believe that such a law is unlikely to pass, Twenty-One Debunked would still like to urge the island to avoid making the same mistakes as the mainland.  That is, Puerto Rico should keep the drinking age at 18, while strengthening and enforcing it better.  To do so, they should:
  • Increase retailer compliance checks to help keep booze out of the hands of people under 18.
  • Increase the penalties for selling or furnishing alcohol to people under 18.
  • Increase alcohol education programs in schools and elsewhere.
  • Bring back the successful community coalitions formed in the 1990s to fight underage drinking and other alcohol problems.
  • Crack down harder on drunk driving, drunk violence, and drunk and disorderly conduct among all ages.
  • To reduce traffic deaths and other alcohol-related problems, and raise much-needed revenue at the same time, raise the alcohol taxes (especially beer) and the gas tax.
  • Above all, never back down.
Puerto Rico has already seen great success in reducing underage drinking and traffic deaths since the 1980s, and they did so without raising the drinking age one iota.  They should continue to build on the successes of the past in order to have a better future.  And it is completely unnecessary to violate anyone's civil rights to do so.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Extreme Binge Drinking Revisited

The latest news on extreme binge drinking is in.  Apparently, a new study of Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey data from 2005-2011 found that about one in ten high school seniors have engaged in "extreme" drinking, defined as 10 or more drinks in the same occasion at least once in the past two weeks.  And about one in twenty have consumed 15+ drinks (!) in the same timeframe.  Rates were highest in the Midwest and in rural areas (i.e. so-called "blue-collar America"), and more common among males than females.  We have already noted similar findings four years ago.

While clearly only a small minority in engaging in such truly dangerous drinking, it is not a trivial fraction either, and is probably an underestimate.  And, most relevant to the drinking age debate, these numbers have not changed significantly since MTF began following them in 2005, despite ever-intensifying enforcement of the 21 drinking age and its ancillary laws.  So recent declines in prevalence of 5+ drinks in a row appear to be somewhat misleading, especially since underage drinkers tend to undercount their drinks.  Lying (or exaggerating or minimizing) is also fairly common in teen drug and alcohol surveys.

For what it's worth, according to the same surveys about 25% of seniors and 18% of sophomores admit to having had 5+ in a row in the past two weeks, and these numbers are leveling off after a decade-and-a-half-long decline.  It seems that fewer teens are drinking, but the more they do when they do.  That may explain why in emergency rooms in several cities across the country, admissions related to teen binge drinking increased in recent years in spite of surveys showing that teen drinking and "binge" drinking are both at record lows.

Tracking this highly dangerous behavior is long overdue.  We already know that among college freshmen, 20% of males and 8% of females have done extreme drinking (10+ males, 8+ females) in the past two weeks.  But that was a one-semester snapshot in the fall of 2003, with no other years for comparison.  The rate of "binge" drinking (using the 5/4 definition) in the past two weeks was 41% for males and 34% for females, which does jibe well with known statistics (roughly 40%) that use that definition.  But one must wonder if there is even any relationship at all between the rates of drinking, "binge" drinking, and "extreme" drinking.  And it is an important distinction to draw, as studies show that a higher cutoff (e.g. 7/6 or 8/6) has better predictive value for the more serious alcohol-related problems than the rather unscientific 5/4 definition.

Indeed, from 1993 to 2005, the percentage of college students who "binge" drank (5/4 definition) in the past two weeks has not changed a whole lot, but the percentage who do so three more times in the past two weeks ("frequent binging") has gone up significantly.  And since the aforementioned study found that extreme drinking was strongly correlated with frequent "binging," the former most likely rose as well.  Further evidence comes from another study that found that the number of alcohol poisoning deaths (a good indicator of truly dangerous drinking) among college students nearly tripled from 1998 to 2005. 

Bottom line:  when you criminalize normative drinking, you inevitably normalize truly dangerous drinking.  We saw the same thing during Prohibition.  And we all pay a heavy price for it.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

That Really Explains A Lot

An Alternet article titled "The Most Depressing Discovery About the Brain, Ever", along with the related Grist article, "Science Confirms:  Politics Wrecks Your Ability to Do Math", sheds a great deal of light on why it is so hard to get people to accept the truth when it conflicts with their political views.  A recent study found that our political passions can easily (and unfortunately) undermine our most basic reasoning skills.  That is, no matter how good one is at math, one may get the answer to a math problem wrong if the right answer contradicts their political beliefs.  Worse, when people are misinformed, giving them facts to correct such errors only makes them cling to their erroneous beliefs even more.  And this is true no matter how smart someone is--in fact political passion appeared to trump reason even more so for those who were better at math!  A truly depressing discovery indeed.

All this explains why our movement in particular has had such a hard time convincing the opposition about the error of their ways.  For an issue as fraught and passionate as the drinking age, it seems that for many of our opponents, no amount of evidence is enough to convince them that their unscientific and pseudo-scientific positions really don't stand up to scrutiny.   A particular debate that our group's leader had with an otherwise intelligent and well-educated member of the pro-21 crowd (with a PhD no less!) comes to mind.  The opponent's "evidence" and faulty logic were refuted over and over again by citing the best studies on the matter, and yet he still refused to budge one bit, finding every conceivable reason to believe that our data were suspect.  This literally went on for weeks.  But eventually he just got tired of arguing and walked away with his proverbial tail between his legs, after which we proudly declared victory.

In other words, we really do have our work cut out for us, and more so than we ever thought.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Rotten Reporting Strikes Again

A new Canadian study using data from 1997-2007 finds that there is a significant jump in hospital admissions for alcohol poisoning, suicide, and unintentional injuries during the first year that young Canadians reach the legal drinking age (18 or 19 depending on the province).  The way the study has been reported in the media implied that raising the drinking age would lead to a reduction in such morbidity.   Thus, if the three provinces with a drinking age of 18 were to raise it to 19, there would supposedly be fewer alcohol-related injuries overall in Canada.

However, this faulty logic ignores the fact that the same spike in hospitalizations still occurred in provinces where the drinking age is 19, just delayed by one year.  The study does not provide any evidence of a net reduction in injuries from a higher age limit, just a delay.  Apparently, the first year that one becomes legal to drink is the riskiest year regardless of the drinking age, which Twenty-One Debunked has noted from previous American studies such as Asch and Levy (1987 and 1990), Males (1986), and Dirscherl (2011).  Thus, raising the legal drinking age is merely a shell game that is unlikely to actually solve anything. 

Rather than merely postpone the inevitable, it would be far better if all Canadian provinces (and the USA) were to lower the drinking age to 18, increase alcohol education and treatment, and crack down harder on DUI and drunk violence among all ages.  For the USA, whose alcohol taxes are well below those found in Canada and other nations, it would likely be beneficial to raise such taxes as well.