It has been 21 years since the last two states (South Dakota and Wyoming) raised the drinking age to 21 in 1988, and a quarter century since the federal highway funding power grab of 1984 began. Initiated by MADD, spurred on by disgruntled members of Congress, reluctantly signed into law by Reagan, bowed down to by sellout state governors and legislators, and upheld by the highest court in the land, it appears to be all but cast in stone. But a relatively quiet movement to reverse this failed (ig)noble experiment is gaining momentum with each passing year.
And what has depriving more than 12 million legal adults of sovereignty over their own bodies and minds given us after more than two decades? Not much good it seems. And unfortunately a lot of unintended consequences such as loss of social cohesion, an increase in truly dangerous drinking, and even more ancillary laws to prop up the failed policy. Arbitrary and coercive imposition of order eventually and inevitably leads to escalation of chaos. The Law of Eristic Escalation in action.
Nevermind that 21-24 year olds are significantly more likely to cause alcohol-related traffic fatalities, are the most overrepresented in such fatalities, and are more likely to drive drunk, than 18-20 year olds. And this was true even when 18-20 year olds were allowed to drink legally, and remains true in countries like Canada where they still are. But tyranny is always whimsical.
There is a lot of junk science and misinformation out there about the drinking age, and this blog is designed to debunk it all. Take a look at the studies the pro-21 crowd doesn't want you to see, discussed here on this blog for your convenience. You'll find that the idea that there was a net lifesaving effect of raising the drinking age to 21 is questionable at best and most likely spurious.
We do not have a "teen drinking problem," we have an American drinking problem. And we need an American solution to solve it. A solution based on sound science and civil rights, not junk science, scapegoating, and tyranny.
The True Spirit of America Party (TSAP) believes that the drinking age should be lowered to 18, with 18 year olds having the same rights that 21 year olds have now, period. This would best be combined with a hike in the beer tax to $2.00/gallon, and the increased revenue used to fund alcohol education, treatment, and DUI enforcement. In addition, laws against drunk driving would be strengthened and enforced better, and licenses would be easier to lose at any age for misbehavior on the road.
TOP 21 REASONS WHY WE SHOULD LOWER THE DRINKING AGE, PREFERABLY TO 18:
21) Legal age 21 simply doesn't work. The odds of being busted are about 1 in 500. The majority of 18-20 year olds currently drink, and 90% of the population will drink at least once before turning 21. It simply cannot be consistently enforced, only arbitrarily. Even 8th graders (13 year olds!) can get their hands on alcohol, and more easily than even cigarettes, which have an age limit 18 in 46 states (and often poorly enforced). And the average age at first drink actually dropped from 16.6 in 1980 to 16.2 in 2002.
20) Legal age 21 is such a failure that it requires more and more ancillary laws (e.g. dram shop, social host liability, use and lose, keg registration, etc.) to prop it up, creating their own set of problems.
19) Legal age 21 is a distraction from the irresponsible drinking of older adults, and helps foster denial of such problems.
18) Legal age 21 requires violation of the Constitution (warrantless searches, internal possession laws, forced chemical tests, and even entrapment) in order to enforce it sufficiently.
17) Legal age 21 creates excessive liability for both adults and "minors" alike.
16) Legal age 21 breeds disrespect for law and authority.
15) Legal age 21 creates 12 million second-class citizens.
14) Legal age 21 unjustly punishes all under 21 for the actions of the few.
13) The USA is the only developed, non-Muslim country with a drinking age that high.
12) Legal age 21 is interpreted and enforced so pharisaically in some places that many underage drinkers are afraid to get medical help for alcohol overdoses, and too many people die that way.
11) Legal age 21 is the Law of Eristic escalation in action. Imposition of order eventually leads to escalation of chaos.
10) You don't swat a fly with a sledgehammer.
9) Legal age 21 creates "forbidden fruit."
8) Legal age 21 turns alcohol into a "gateway" drug.
7) Legal age 21 creates big profits for the fake ID industry, which supports organized crime and even terrorism.
6) Legal age 21 forces drinking underground, leading to more dangerous and/or deadly drinking.
5) Attempting to enforce legal age 21 is a huge waste of resources that could be better spent on education, treatment, and DUI enforcement, which are currently under-resourced.
4) Legal age 21 blurs the line between responsible and irresponsible drinking, and even encourages the latter at the expense of the former. Stupid drinking is common partly because intelligent drinking is illegal.
3) Legal age 21 makes criminals out of otherwise law-abiding citizens.
2) Because 18-20 year olds are adults. And adults are sovereign in body and mind, and shouldn't have to protected from themselves. That alone is reason enough.
1) It's a cliche, but if you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar. Anything else is un-American.
Many of these are the same reasons America decided to repeal Prohibition in 1933. How quickly we forget the hard lessons of that unfortunate era. When you criminalize normative drinking, you inevitably normalize dangerous drinking. And we are all paying a heavy price for it.
WHAT CAN YOU DO LEGALLY AT 18 IN AMERICA?
- Go to war and die for your country
- Vote for the most powerful person in the world
- Run for some political offices in some states
- Drive a car, truck, or motorcycle
- Drive a nuclear-powered submarine (in the Navy)
- Get married without parental consent
- Have custody of a child
- Consent to sex in all 50 states and DC
- Have an abortion without parental consent
- Enter into legally binding contracts
- Work in almost any hazardous occupation
- Pay income taxes
- Get a credit card and borrow money
- Get piercings and tattoos
- Be tried as an adult for all crimes in all 50 states and DC
- Go to adult prison in all states
- Be executed in states that have the death penalty
- Serve on a jury
- Sue and be sued
- Live on one's own
- Be evicted by one's parents in most states
- Get one's plug pulled in most states
- Commit assisted suicide (in Oregon)
- Join a cult
- Skydive, hang-glide, and engage in other extreme sports
- Hunt with dangerous weapons, even unsupervised
- Carry concealed weapons in some states
- Buy shotguns and rifles
- Sell guns at gun shows in states that have them
- Buy and sell chainsaws, knives, boxcutters, razorblades, and swords
- Buy and sell fireworks in some states
- Buy and sell toxic chemicals
- Buy and sell cigarettes and other tobacco products
- Buy and sell questionable "dietary supplements"
- Buy, sell, and star in pornography (most states)
- Buy and sell Robitussin, Sudafed, Benadryl, and other potentially hazardous drugs without a prescription
- Gamble in many states (lottery, bingo, stock market, and even casinos in some states)
- Sell your body (in Nevada) or soul (anywhere)
- Be a human guinea pig
- Own real estate in most states
- Sell alcoholic beverages
- You can even own a bar in some states...
THE TOBACCO MODEL WORKS
A quiet revolution has occurred in America in the last 40 years or so. Since 1969, adult smoking has plummeted by more that 50%, and the same happened for teen smoking since 1976. The exact year it peaked was accurately predicted by the tobacco companies. Smoking rates of all ages are now at an all-time low since they began being accurately measured. Even the brief increase in teen smoking in the first half of 1990s was in 30-day prevalence surveys, and heavy daily smoking had dropped even faster over the years than smoking in general. Now that's a great American success story!
What were the factors that caused this monumental change? Americans became more health conscious since the 1970s, of course, as also reflected in the decline in per capita alcohol consumption since 1980. The only major public policy measures done were education, taxation, and advertising restrictions. Most notably, America did not raise the smoking age to 21, not even in a single state. The age limit for cigarettes is 18 in 46 states, and is often poorly enforced. Yet alcohol is easier for 13-16 year olds to get than cigarettes, go figure. And for high school seniors, the decline in smoking at all in the past 30 days was somewhat faster (in the long run) than the decline in "binge" drinking (5 or more drinks in an occasion).
We clearly have a lot to learn from this model of regulation. It seems that both hard (e.g. taxation) and soft (e.g. education) policy measures that target all ages work a lot better than scapegoating young people for adult problems.
FREQUENTLY ANNOYING QUESTIONS (FAQ)
Q1) You gotta be insane to want to lower the drinking age! If anything, we should raise it. Do you really want to see more teenagers getting killed on the highways? Because that's what would happen, all else being equal.
A1) No, we don't want to see more teenagers getting killed, on or off the highways. And who says all else has to be equal, anyway? Even in the worst-case scenario, we doubt that there would be any increase in fatalities in the long run. But just in case there's a short-term increase, all else being equal, we have built-in safeguards to our alcohol policy (raising the beer tax, increased education, cracking down on drunk driving, etc.) to prevent this from occurring. We could also lower the age gradually as well. Thus the net effect of our policy will likely be death reduction, not increase. And what sane person would be against that?
Your fears are based on junk science and misinformation. See question 2 for more information.
Q2) Studies have proven that the 21 drinking age law saves lives on the highways. Science speaks for itself. Why would you want to get rid of it?
A2) Which studies are you referring to? The ones quoted by MADD ad nauseum? Not all studies agree on the matter. Anyone who says "science" is entirely on one side of an issue should make our collective antennae go up immediately. In fact the studies are almost evenly split on the matter.
Take a look at the following studies that debunk the myth of 21 saving lives:
- Males (1986)
- Asch and Levy (1987)
- Asch and Levy (1990)
- Dee and Evans (2001)
- Miron and Tetelbaum (2007)
But what about high school kids? Contrary to popular opinion, Miron and Tetelbaum also found little to no effect of the drinking age on high school drinking as well after controlling for confounders. It appears that they are willing to drink regardless, and that the drinking age is irrelevant or even counterproductive. In fact, they found that the higher the drinking age, the more 17 year old (and under) driver fatalities there were!
Still don't believe us? Even in some of the studies that do suggest lifesaving effects, we also learn that the beer tax has a lifesaving effect as well. Ponicki et al (2008) even found that, while the drinking age does have a small effect, there is a negative "interaction" between the drinking age and the beer tax: the higher one is, the less effective the other is in reducing fatalities. Their model suggested that if the beer tax is high enough, the drinking age becomes irrelevant or even counterproductive. The TSAP recommends raising the combined federal and state beer taxes to $2.00/gallon in conjunction with lowering the drinking age to 18. Another reason to take a chill pill.
Q3) How about making it so 18-20 year olds can get a provisional "drinking license" or "learner's permit" after taking an alcohol education course? That way it will be like driving, and those who abuse the privilege will lose it. Surely that would be better that letting them have full drinking rights at 18?
A3) The TSAP does not support the idea of a "drinking license" or "drinking learner's permit" of any kind for legal adults. We believe that 18 year olds, as full legal adults, should have all the same rights that 21 year olds currently have. And yes, unlike driving on public property, sovereignty over one's own body is a right, not a privilege. And the power to license a right is the power to take it away, often arbitrarily.
Ok you say, but what if all adults were required to have a license to drink? And what else should we license? Breeding? Leaving one's house? And there's the slippery slope. Furthermore, no country in history has ever had anything like that before--it is a completely unprecedented, ivory tower idea. And a huge can of worms. Do we really want to turn drinking into the same kind of rite of passage that driving is? How would we possibly be able to enforce it if we can't even enforce the policy we have now? Enter Big Brother.
As for alcohol education, it would have to begin a LOT earlier than 18 to be effective. Parents are the ideal alcohol educators, and they should thus be allowed to give their kids alcohol as they see fit to introduce them to it gradually before they turn 18. That's what is done in Europe, and it appears to work fine. But that would obviously not be the case for everyone, or even most kids, so the schools have to step up to the plate as well to provide honest and accurate alcohol education (without handing out booze of course). And such education would be funded by the increased beer tax we propose. Those who say education doesn't work are basing their judgments on the current failed temperance-oriented approach.
As for the "abuse it and lose it" idea, a more libertarian alternative would be the "blacklist." All legal adults will be given the benefit of the doubt, and allowed to drink by default without having to prove anything. But those of ANY age who are convicted of drunk driving, drunk violence, or buying alcohol for minors (under 18) will lose the right to purchase alcohol for a fixed period of time in addition to other penalties. Their names will be put on a list, available to every bar and store that sells alcohol in the state. Their driver's licenses or state ID cards would be replaced with new ones that say in red letters, "Do not serve alcohol, under penalty of law." Those who knowingly buy for such individuals would face the same penalties as buying for minors, including getting "blacklisted" themselves. Few deterrents are greater than not being able to go to the bar when all your friends can, and having to explain the fact to them.
Finally, part of America's drinking problem is that we make such a big deal about alcohol, to the point where we fetishize it as some kind of magical talisman. More so than most other developed countries, for sure, and it is partly due to our drinking age being ridiculously high. That is true whether we condemn all drinking or praise excessive drinking, and unfortunately America does both. And a drinking license of any kind would likely intensify this attitude toward alcohol that can only be called strange by international standards.
While we agree with Dr. John McCardell that some "mechanism other than moral suasion" for regulating alcohol use is necessary, we think the best way is to use the same strategies used on tobacco that cut the smoking rates in half since 1976. These include taxation, education, and perhaps advertising restrictions. For alcohol, of course, cracking down on drunk driving is an integral part of the strategy as well. We feel that doing these things in conjuction with a drinking age of 18 is much more pragmatic than any other alcohol policy proposed. The American drinking problem necessitates broad-based, proven solutions for all ages, not specious ones like licenses for young adults that put drinking on even more of a pedestal than Legal Age 21 does.
Q4) But America is not Europe. We got a lot of problems with alcohol, and lowering the drinking age will just make them worse. They may very well be able to handle it just fine over there, but we can't.
A4) True, America is not Europe, but we're not New Zealand either. We have no illusions that lowering the drinking age will magically transform our drinking culture overnight into one like France. It should be noted that that line of reasoning is also a straw man. It does not follow that things will necessarily get worse by legalizing what most 18-20 year olds already do illegally, and the burden of proof is on those who assert this. Fortunately, we have a yardstick for what would likely have happened had we not raised the drinking age in the 1980s, and we need only look north to see it. It's called Canada. They have a similar drinking culture and drinking history to the United States, and they are a car culture like us as well. And they saw an equivalent alcohol-related fatality decline as us, without raising the drinking age to 21. Their civilization did not collapse. Australia saw an even faster decline, and their drinking age has been 18 since the early 1970s. And they party pretty hard down under, no doubt about that. But they're tougher than we are on drunk driving. And in both countries, the drunk driving fatality rate is about half of what ours is.
By your pseudo-logic, ALL Americans should be banned from drinking. After all, a 30 year old driver is more likely to be involved in an alcohol-related fatal crash than an 18 year old. A 38 year old is about the same. And a 21 year old is twice as likely!
Q5) But we don't have the public transport infrastructure needed to handle all those 18 year olds drinking legally. Nor could we afford it. What makes you think they won't drive drunk given the lack of options?
A5) And you think Canada (see above) or Australia does? Do you think we have the infrastructure needed to handle all those 21+ year olds drinking legally, which greatly outnumber America's 10 million 18-20 year olds and are more likely to have cars? Or all those under 21 who currently drink illegally as we speak? Come on now! And a lack of public transit options is no excuse to drive drunk and endanger the lives of innocent people. Get a designated driver, call a cab, or even walk if you have to. Or stay home. Or don't drink--nobody's got a gun to your head. And why punish all for the actions of the few?
(As an aside, you should also read point #1 of the TSAP platform if you are as interested in improving public transportation as we are.)
Q6) But wouldn't a higher beer tax be punishing the moderate drinking majority for the actions of alcohol abusers?
A6) The tax burden (as a percentage of income) would fall hardest on the heaviest drinkers, as it should. They are the ones who generate the largest social costs, so they should pay more. Moderate drinkers would not be hurt by paying an extra dollar on a six-pack, but someone who has a six-pack every day would be set back a bit. True, the majority of drinkers drink in moderation, but the majority of alcohol is consumed by heavy drinkers. 20% or the population consumes about 80% of the alcohol. Partly because booze is so cheap in America compared to other countries. Numerous studies have shown that demand for alcohol, and its attendant social problems, is inversely related to price. In other words, unlike the 21 drinking age, a higher beer tax would encourage moderation, not punish it. If you can't afford to get trashed on a regular basis, maybe you should cut down.
Q7) The list of things that you can do at 18, albeit a long one, is irrelevant to the debate over the drinking age. Furthermore, for more than half of those things, mixing them with alcohol is downright dangerous, so banning 18-20 year olds from drinking is entirely rational.
A7) How is it irrelevant? So you're implying that it is logically consistent to allow someone to engage in numerous activities that are significantly more dangerous and/or require more maturity and responsibility than drinking, but to forbid that same person to drink period? Thought so. That's an easy way to dance around the fact that, for better or worse, our society set 18 as the age of adulthood. You can't just arbitrarily say that 18-20 year olds are adults only when it is convenient for the older and more powerful adults in our society. If they are not adults, then they should not go to war, be executed, be tried as adults, work in dangerous jobs, etc. You can't have it both ways. Either 18-20 year olds are adults, or they are not.
As for mixing alcohol with driving/guns/chainsaws/work/etc., remember that mixing them is already illegal for anyone to do, or at the very least will expose one to serious liability. It is just as dangerous for a 21 year old to mix these things, and our society does not prohibit them from drinking period like for 18-20 year olds. It is a separate issue altogether, and should be dealt with specifically. Some things just don't mix, but it does NOT follow that any of those things in isolation should be prohibited. Otherwise, cars would be outlawed. If anything, our country has it backwards. Many other developed countries allow teens to legally drink several years prior to being allowed to do a lot of the things on the list.
Being sovereign in body and mind, legal adults of all ages are by default given the benefit of the doubt that they have the mental capacity to make their own decisions unless they are individually proven otherwise. Otherwise the age of majority, and indeed adulthood itself, is meaningless.
Q8) We tried lowering the drinking age in 30 states the 1970s, and alcohol-related fatalities went up among teenagers as a result. So much so that they had to raise the drinking age later. What makes you think that won't happen again?
A8) First of all, we don't really know if that statement is even true to begin with, and we probably never will. Only a few decent-quality studies examined the years 1970-1975, the years in which 29 of the 30 states lowered the drinking age (Oklahoma did in 1976). The Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), which gives detailed reports about traffic fatalities, was not even created until 1975, and state-level data were not available through that system until 1976. So any conclusions drawn from state-level data for 18-20 year olds before 1976 is questionable at best. And any "alcohol-related fatality" data before 1982 is unreliable since FARS did not make this distinction until that year, and a state that tested even 50% of fatal crash drivers for alcohol was considered stellar back then. Garbage in, garbage out.
From 1970-1975, any alleged increase in fatalities was imperceptible in the aggregate data. Using data from the National Safety Council, national 15-24 year old fatalities peaked in 1969, then declined sharply until 1975. From 1976-1980, fatalities rose somwhat, and declined from then on. The same was true for 18-20 year olds after 1976, when that group was separated out by FARS and the two groups are highly correlated. But the increase in the late 70s also occurred in states like California, which kept their drinking age at 21 throughout.
So all state-level data for 18-20 year olds before 1976 must be gleaned from sources other than FARS, and some states had data problems for this period. And here's the grain of truth of it all. It is true that some states that lowered their drinking ages saw increases in reported 18-20 year old fatalities from 1970-1975. But other states that lowered their drinking ages saw either no significant change or sharp decreases in such deaths. And North Dakota saw an increase despite keeping their drinking age at 21, while South Dakota (who lowered their drinking age from 19 to 18) saw one of the largest decreases of any state. Thus, the state-level data are completely patternless. Clearly, other factors were involved. And any increases are not clear as to whether they reflect true fatality increases or simply changes in how fatal crashes were reported.
Regardless of what happened or didn't happen in the 1970s, it is essentially irrelevant today. Back then, drinking ages were lowered against a backdrop of falling real alcohol prices, higher adult per capita alcohol consumption than today (and rising), permissive and toothless DUI laws, social acceptability of drunk driving, no seat belt laws, ignorance about the risks of alcohol, and a generally cavalier attitude toward safety. The term "air bag" meant a person who talked too much. The term "designated driver" was not even in our vocabulary until the 1980s. Drunk driving was not just tolerated back then, it was expected of you if you were the least drunk person in the group (to drive everyone else home). Needless to say, things are very different today. So it's comparing apples and oranges. And your question about the 1970s is therefore academic.
Q9) But alcoholism rates will skyrocket! The earlier you drink, the more likely you will become an alcoholic.
A9) There is no significant correlation between a country's legal drinking age and its alcoholism rate. If anything, it is slightly positive rather than negative, but that could be due to reverse causality. Interestingly, in the United States in the late 1970s, states with higher drinking ages had lower adult per capita alcohol consumption rates, but higher rates of alcoholism. So your claim has no basis whatsoever.
On the individual level, a correlation has been found in this country between decreasing age at first drink and increasing risk of later alcoholism or alcohol abuse, but a causal relationship has not been proven. It may simply be a "marker" for increased risk, not a cause. The correlation greatly weakens when several confounding variables are accounted for, and any remaining risk is small enough to be due to possible residual confounding or reporting bias. Even if the statistics are taken at face value, the real concern should be for those who start before the age of 15, not 18 year olds, who do not differ significantly from 21 year olds when confounders are controlled for. Interestingly, this correlation is not observed (or the reverse is true) in many European countries, where most people begin drinking from a very early age and it is no big deal when done in moderation (unlike in America, where any teen drinking is considered "deviant" but adult heavy drinking is glorified). So it is more likely a social phenomenon than a pharmacological one.
Even if it was true, that same logic could in principle be used to ban all men from drinking, since they are four times more likely to become alcoholics that women.
Q10) Science has shown that the brain is not fully developed until 21. From a public health perspective, we can't afford to risk alcohol-related damage to developing brains by lowering the drinking age.
A10) Actually, the latest studies suggest that the brain is not "fully developed" until 25. Maybe even later--remember that until recently we used to think the brain was fully developed before adolescence even began. I wouldn't be surprised if in the next 10 years they say 30, and eventually say that it never really stops changing (in fact, we already know that some parts, like the corpus callosum, continue growing into the forties). So 21 is a completely arbitrary drinking age. But let's assume you're right for a moment and that the process is complete at 21. So you're basically saying that young people should wait until their brains are fully developed before destroying them? And that public health trumps civil rights? Thought so.
These fears are unfounded. The idea that drinking before 21 is somehow more harmful than drinking after 21 has no real scientific basis. The only human study on the matter that controlled for amount of drinking and number of years drinking (Demir et al. 2002) showed no differences in long-term cognitive impairments between those who began drinking before 21 and those who began after, even for heavy drinkers. All other human studies either lacked an over-21 comparison group and/or focused on truly heavy drinkers who began drinking much earlier than 18. While truly heavy drinking for prolonged periods is indeed harmful to the brain for anyone, age appears to have very little to do with it. So consider this one debunked as well.
Furthermore, it is safe to say that while the 18 year old brain is still not 100% finished developing, it is very close, and any further development is really just the last finishing touches. Adolescence is a period of major brain development, but the most critical development occurs before 18, chiefly between 12 and 15. So critical, in fact, that intelligence stops increasing and levels off at 16, and even "executive functioning" levels off for the most part at 17. Interestingly, the executive functioning center of the brain (the prefrontal cortex) reaches its maximum weight around 13 and actually shrinks from then until the early 20s. Changes that occur after 15 are primarily pruning away the excess neurons (gray matter) and increasing the efficiency connections by adding white matter (myelin) for insulation.
Honestly, think about what the world would be like if the pro-21 crowd was right. We have entire countries that begin drinking way before 21, often in their early or mid-teens. In some of these countries, the majority drink on a daily or near-daily basis. And an entire generation of Americans in 38 states and DC was allowed to drink legally before 21 back in the 1970s and early 1980s. In 11 states and DC, even earlier generations did as well. Surely they would all be brain-damaged alcoholic felons by now if the pro-21 argument was sound. The fact that they're not is reason to take a chill pill. But please drink in moderation if you choose to drink, regardless of age.
Q11) OK, I see your point on lowering the drinking age. I took my chill pill. But wouldn't 19 be better than 18 to keep it away from the high school kids?
A11) Lowering it to 19 (or even 20) is a step in the right direction, and the TSAP would not object to any stepping stone that leads to a drinking age of 18. But it would still be a year higher than the age of majority in 47 states. And the TSAP believes in treating 18 year olds as full adults. A drinking age of 19 would not be fair to those 18 year olds who have already graduated. And 19 is an awkward age to begin drinking legally (though not as awkward as 21 of course). Either way, alcohol would be just as illegal for those 17 and under.
As for high school kids, remember that 10th graders (and even 8th graders) right now can get alcohol more easily than cigarettes (which are 18 in 46 states, 19 in the rest). It is hard to imagine booze being any more available in high school than it is now. But the current underground supply networks for high schoolers are highly unpredictable (feast or famine), and so they do not know when they will get the next opportunity to drink, so they are more likely to really overindulge. With often dangerous consequences. And some 17 year olds would be willing wait a year to stay within the law if the drinking age was 18, rather than be asked wait four years and saying why bother waiting even a minute? So even if alcohol did become slightly more available to 16 and 17 year olds under a drinking age of 18, it would hardly be an unmitigated evil. 18 is low enough to enable high school seniors to learn to drink in a safer environment before going to college, while it is still high enough to not make it significantly easier for, say, 13 year olds to get. And those under 19 tend to have more parental supervision than those over 19.
Also, remember that the lower the drinking age is, the easier it is to enforce. Finite law enforcement resources need not be spread so thin trying to do the impossible and keep 18-20 year olds from drinking. They could focus more on the younger kids instead, and better monitor their behavior as a result.
Still worried? We could always keep the purchase age at 21 (or 19 or 20) specifically for kegs, cases, and other bulk quantities of alcohol despite lowering the general purchase age to 18. For example, we could have it that if you're 18, you may buy no more than an 18 pack of beer in any one transaction. More than that and you'll need to find a surrogate buyer just like you do now. This could be complemented by requiring any sale of more than 216 ounces of beer to take place at a beer distributor (as opposed to a supermarket or corner store) for all ages, and have such distributors close at 10 pm or earlier. That way, 18-20 year olds could legally drink like 21+ year olds do now, but we can guarantee there would be no resultant increase in the number of high school keg parties. They may even decrease since at least some seniors over 18 would likely prefer to go to the bar instead, thus reducing the demand for those crazy keggers.
Q12) How about it be 18 for beer, 21 for liquor? Many states used to have that back in the day. Seems like a good compromise, right?
A12) It's a good start, and the TSAP would not object to that as a stepping stone. But we never really understood the point of that since you can get just as drunk on one as you can on the other. Alcohol is alcohol is alcohol, period. In fact, beer is the drink of choice for drunk drivers ("Hey I can drive fine, it's only beer"), and when behind the wheel it is just as dangerous as liquor. Even states that sell low-alcohol "3.2 beer," such as Oklahoma, find that it is disproportionally implicated in alcohol-related fatalities relative to stronger beverages. A split age may even perpetuate the false sense of security about driving after drinking "just" beer.
Q13) What about blood borders? Don't states that lower their drinking ages hurt their neighbors by creating an incentive for their neighbors to drive drunk across state lines?
A13) Although not all studies agree on whether they are even significant, in the 1980s, "blood borders" was one of the excuses given for the feds forcing states to raise their drinking ages to 21 to create a uniform drinking age. While a uniform drinking age does reduce one potential incentive to drive drunk, the same would be true for a uniform drinking age of 18. Simply forbid states from having a drinking age higher than the age of majority or the age for being tried as adults (unlikely to be raised above 18), whichever is lower, if they want full highway funding. Problem solved. Other alternatives that do not violate states' rights include making drunk driving across state lines a federal crime, or simply increasing roving patrols or sobriety checkpoints near the blood borders. The latter worked wonders in New York and Vermont (which border on Quebec), and border-related fatalities are currently very low as a result. Nowadays with all the concern over drunk driving, blood borders should not be as much of an issue. Drinking and drunk driving are two separate issues and should not be conflated.
An absolute last resort, of course, could be having a higher purchase age specifically for nonresidents of a state (i.e. having an out of state ID) unless they could prove that they are also not residents of border states with a higher drinking age, and/or that they are students in the state (show college ID) or live on a military base in the state (show military ID). That is what Wisconsin did half a century ago, so there is a precedent. West Virginia did something similar in the 1980s as well. And it does not violate states' rights either. If it sounds tough to enforce, remember that the 21 drinking age is just as tough to enforce as well, if not tougher.
In reality, blood borders between higher drinking age states and lower drinking age states are really no worse than the blood borders between dry counties and wet counties. In fact, the latter is worse since it involves a much larger percentage of the counties' population (everyone over 21 versus 18-20 year olds). And yet we let counties decide for themselves whether to be wet or dry. You never see dry counties attempting to force their wet neighbors to go dry (in fact some states actually forbid dry counties). Nor do we say that wet counties are "hurting" their dry neighbors; rather, we see the dry counties as hurting themselves. That's exactly how we should view it on the state level. Like dry counties, states that refuse to recognize 18-20 year olds as full adults would catch the brunt of any cross-border fatalities, and they would reap what they sow. And it is their responsibility, to protect their own citizens, especially ones not yet considered full adults (paternalism works both ways). It's the price we pay for federalism. Instead, they whined to the feds to protect them from the logical consequences (border hopping) of their own failed policy of age discrimination.
Q14) How could the TSAP alcohol policy possibly solve our teen drinking problem?
A14) First of all, there is no "teen drinking problem." What we have is an American drinking problem that affects all ages. Of all the children under 16 killed by drunk drivers, 90% of them were killed by a driver over 21. The 21-24 year old age group is the most likely to drive drunk as well as to drink heavily. Alcohol abuse is quite high among middle-aged folks as well, with 40 year olds being worse overall than 17 year olds. Yes, some (but not all) teenagers do drink irresponsibly as well. But there has never been a society in which adults drink but teenagers do not, nor has there been one in which teenagers drink but adults do not. The pink elephant in the room is the abusive drinking of the adults around them, which is the strongest influence of all. Are we really so fixated on age that we fail to see the forest for the trees?
The TSAP alcohol policy is an inversion of America's current one in some respects. Instead of targeting all drinking by people under 21, we target irresponsible drinking by people of all ages, and hold individuals accountable for bad behavior. History has shown that is the only way, and America's unique obsession with age is counterproductive. Cigarette use declined dramatically since its peak in 1976, with the only significant public policy measures being education, taxation, and advertising restrictions. America did not raise the smoking age to 21 (in fact, the current age limit of 18 in 46 states is poorly enforced). Yet that was a real success story. With something similar to that for alcohol, as well as getting tougher on drunk driving and drunk violence, and increasing treatment for alcoholism, we will likely see the American drinking problem decline in the long run.
Q15) As far as taxes are concerned, why are you picking on beer?
A15) Because the liquor taxes are already much higher, and cheap beer is disproportionately found in drunk driving fatalities and other alcohol-related deaths and injuries. Beer is the drink of choice for drunk drivers and underage drinkers, partly because it is so cheap (when bought off-premises at least). Currently, the cheapest brands cost less than a dollar per standard drink (especially when bought in bulk, such as for keg parties) in most states, meaning the average adult could get very drunk for $3.00-$5.00. That's why this amount is the typical "all you can drink" admission fee at your typical kegger, while when it comes to serving liquor the hosts are much more stingy. Also, most of the studies of the effects of alcohol taxes focused on beer, and it is likely that they do reduce fatalities, especially when the drinking age is low.
Just so you know, microbreweries (at least at the federal level) currently pay a lower beer tax rate than large breweries, and that rate should remain unchanged. Their high-quality beers are already significantly more expensive than the cheap, mass-produced brands that are favored by those who are most likely to abuse them. And the relatively high prices are already somewhat proportional to alcohol content.
Alcopops (flavored malt beverages) should be taxed as liquor (or higher) rather than beer, since they are made with liquor and are designed for and marketed toward underage drinkers.
It may also be a good idea to raise the liquor and wine taxes as well, since all alcohol taxes have lagged behind inflation, but beer is the most important one to raise as it has lagged the most since 1951. Liquor is much more elastic than beer and only a small increase will be needed to pack the same punch as the beer tax hike. It would also be good to make beer taxes proportional to alcohol content as well, like it currently is with liquor. Equalizing the tax per alcohol content for all beverages (beer, wine, liquor) would make sense as well since alcohol is alcohol. And we should index all excise taxes to inflation from now on as well, so they won't lag behind again.
Q16) You say you want to lower the blood alcohol limit to 0.05? But most alcohol related fatalities occur at 0.15 or higher. How dare you punish responsible adult social drinkers!
A16) You mean like responsible social drinking 18-20 year old adults are currently punished for drinking period, even if they never set foot behind the wheel? With fines, license suspension, and even jail in some states? Absolutely not. That is a straw man often used by alcohol industry groups who are afraid that demand for their product will wane if stricter BAC limits are used. Science shows that driving impairment begins well below the current limit of 0.08 (about three drinks for the average adult). A limit of 0.05 will still allow for one or two drinks before getting behind the wheel, and remember even that can produce some impairment. 0.05 is the standard used by Australia, and several other countries, and it seems to work pretty well. Remember, a truly responsible person will not drive with any alcohol in his or her system, let alone several drinks in a row.
It is true that most fatalities occur at BAC 0.15 or higher. That's why the TSAP supports a graduated penalty scheme, not unlike what is done with speeding. There's a huge difference between two drinks and ten. Here's how it would most likely go if the TSAP was in power:
0.05-0.08 $500 fine, license suspended for 90 days. No jail. (Administrative only)
0.08-0.10 $1000 fine, license revoked at least 1 year, up to 6 months jail. Misdemeanor.
0.10-0.15 $5000 fine, license revoked at least 5 years, mandatory 6 months jail (maximum 1 years). Misdemeanor.
0.15+ $10,000 fine, license revoked at least 10 years, mandatory 1+ year jail (maximum 5 years). Felony.
0.05-0.08 repeat offenders lose their licenses for a year. 0.08+ repeat offenders will lose their licenses forever, $5000+ fine, forfeit their vehicles, and get mandatory 1 year or more in jail (felony). 0.10+ repeat offenders will get mandatory 5 years in prison as well.
Forced treatment, if necessary, will be in addition to the penalties. For first-time offenders, jail sentence may be reduced below the mandatory minimum or replaced entirely with electronic monitoring if treatment is completed successfully. But you won't get your license back any sooner.
Fines listed are minimum amounts on a sliding scale based on income. That is what college students would pay. Wealthy drunk drivers, such as Congressmen, would pay even more!
Kill or maim an innocent person in a drunken accident and get mandatory minimum 10 years in prison if it is determined to be your fault. If you're an alcoholic, you get to dry out in prison.
Additionally, we support keeping a Zero Tolerance law for drivers under 21. For 0.02-0.05, $250 fine, license will be suspended 6 months, violation. For 0.05-0.08, suspension will be no less than 6 months, up to a year. Or better yet, apply Zero Tolerance to all drivers with less than 5 years of licensed driving at any age, and again for those whose licenses have been revoked. That would be stricter, but much less ageist. The TSAP favors a ZT limit of 0.02 over 0.00 to avoid false positives (the body naturally produces alcohol).
Of course, we must avoid the pitfall of targeting the plentiful low BAC drivers more than higher ones, and should prioritize enforcement toward the highest BAC drivers. And besides, it would be much more lucrative to target the latter when you consider the schedule of fines above! Setting the BAC limit low will scare the crap out of most people even with minimal enforcement, but not so for the hardcore drunk drivers. Clearly, enforcement must be stepped up in order to get the latter. Roving patrols will work better than checkpoints at getting the worst ones off the road first.
Q17) What about people under 18? Should it be legal for them to drink too?
A17) The TSAP does not take a position on whether the alcohol purchase age should eventually be lowered any further after reducing it to 18. However, we do not think that simple possession or consumption of alcoholic beverages per se should be a crime at any age, especially in a private residence. Alcohol should ideally be treated like most states treat cigarettes, in other words. If the powers that be decide that it must remain illegal for youth under 18 to simply possess or consume alcohol, it should be treated like a minor traffic violation, punished with no more than a small fine (less than $200) and perhaps an alcohol education class. It should never result in jail time, arrest, or even a criminal record. The act of drinking a beer is no more "criminal" than smoking a cigarette is, and the law should reflect that. We do not support "internal possession" or "walking while intoxicated" laws in which failing a breathalyzer when not driving is punishable. Warrantless searches and forced chemical testing may not be used to enforce the drinking age, regardless of what it is.
Whatever age limit is ultimately chosen, supply-side enforcement of the new drinking age should be stepped up. IDs should be updated to be more forgery-resistant and scannable if they are not already, scanners should be used in ideally all outlets, and compliance checks should be increased. Enforcement on off-sales is probably more important than bars and restaurants, but both should be stepped up. Ditto for cigarettes as well.
The TSAP does believe in any case that parents should be allowed to give their kids under 18 alcohol at home at any age (supervised and within reason of course), as most states already allow, and any laws that prohibit it should be repealed. Drinking with parents is a proven way to reduce the chance of later alcohol abuse. We do not take a position on whether parents should be allowed to give their underage kids alcohol in bars and restaurants like Wisconsin currently does, as there are very good arguments both for and against.
Q18) But education doesn't work. What makes you think it will under your policy?
A18) This is a classic meme among both the pro-21 crowd and the neo-drys, a meme that has to die now or else young people will continue to die from truly dangerous drinking, regardless of the drinking age. That specious argument ignores several important facts:
- Most alcohol education programs that were studied were abstinence-only and consisted of mainly half-truths and scare tactics, and/or a fixation on age.
- Some programs are little more than temperance lectures. There is a huge difference between "alcohol education" and "anti-alcohol education" that the pundits often (deliberately?) fail to see.
- Sex education programs that are abstinence-only have been a failure, while most comprehensive programs have been shown to work. There is no good reason to believe this would not be true for alcohol.
- Not all education is equal. Numerous types exist.
- Studies often only look at the short-term effects and not the long-term effects of alcohol education.
- Following the logic of the pro-21 crowd, then driver's ed should be abolished. What sane person would advocate that?
- Education of any kind, alcohol or otherwise has to begin early (well before 18) and be repeated in order to achieve the maximum benefits.
The TSAP believes that, coupled with an increased beer tax and a more realistic drinking age, education that is properly designed and implemented would work wonders in reducing America's drinking problem, especially (but not only) in the long run. Those who say "education doesn't work" clearly have their heads in an anatomically impossible position.
Q19) What is your position on alcohol advertising?
A19) The TSAP believes that alcohol advertising/marketing should be allowed no more leeway than tobacco advertising currently has. That means no TV, no radio, and no billboards. Also, no alcohol ads in magazines with more than 20% of the readers under 18. Exterior advertising at retail locations should be limited as well, and interior advertising discreet.
Q20) What is your position on dram shop and social host liability laws?
A20) The TSAP supports neither as they lead to lawsuit abuse that enriches trial lawyers while they are of questionable effectiveness in reducing alcohol-related fatalities and injuries. These laws conflict with our values of liberty and personal responsibility, as well as our position on tort reform. Throw the book at the drunk drivers instead! And if you get so drunk you pass out on the train tracks and your arm gets severed by a train, that's your own fault, not the bar who served you, idiot.
The term "social host law" can also refer to laws in some jurisdictions that punish adults (or even teens) criminally for merely allowing underage alcohol consumption on their property, regardless of who brought or provided it. Depending on the jurisdiction, penalties range from a small fine to multiple years in prison. Such laws have never been shown to save lives, and it is highly unlikely that they do. As a result, only the bold and reckless throw underage drinking parties, as opposed to parents who take everyone's keys (to prevent drunk driving) and monitor the situation. It merely forces drinking even further underground (woods, cornfields, graveyards, cars) and makes it all the more hazardous. We do not support such laws either as they are very difficult to enforce without violating the Constitution, the punishment often does not fit the "crime," and they are likely counterproductive as well.
Q21) Is the TSAP affiliated with the alcohol industry? How much did they pay you?
A21) No. And we don't get a dime from them either, nor would we accept anything from them. When was the last time the industry, or any of its front groups, came out in favor of increased alcohol taxes, let alone even modest advertising restrictions? Your question doesn't even pass the straight face test.
(Originally, this list was supposed to be 21 questions, in keeping with the theme, but there are further questions to be answered as well)
Q22) What would you do about highway funding?
A22) This is the question that often leaves the anti-21 side stumped. But we do not get stumped so easily. For those who don't know, the federal government in 1984 coerced states that had a drinking age below 21 to raise it and keep it 21 or else lose 10% of highway funding for every year the age is below 21. It has no sunset clause, unfortunately. So there are three possible things to do about it:
Option A: Reform the Federal Law
This is the ideal solution. Unfortunately, it is not as easy as it sounds. Obama said he was against it while running for President in 2008, as did Biden. But maybe Obama was just saying that, who knows. Any politician who says otherwise is taking a huge risk since the polls say over 70% of adults (even higher among those who are older, female, and parents) want the age to stay 21 as opposed to lowering it. Convincing Congress to change the law in spite of this is a Herculean task indeed. But that law is up for reauthorization this year. So one can only hope that it will be de-authorized one of these days. Until then, we must do our best to swing the popular support to our cause. Remember, it was not until 70% of the adult population was against Prohibition that it was successfully repealed at the federal level in 1933. And women were the most crucial demographic driving the movement towards repeal.
So we clearly have our work cut out for us. Women need to know that the 21 drinking age does not make them any safer--it only diverts police resources away from protecting them, and forces young female drinkers underground into potentially dangerous situations. Much like Prohibition did in the 1920s. Parents need to be informed that their kids will most likely drink before the age of 21 (they have a 90% chance of doing so) and that a lower drinking age will reduce harm by allowing drinking to take place in above-ground, less risky settings. If that fails, let them know that before the age of 16, their kids are more likely to be killed by a drunk driver over 21 than by any other alcohol-related cause, and it is foolish to keep diverting resources away from this problem to bust 18-20 year olds simply for drinking period. And most importantly, older folks need to know that the youth of America are a force to be reckoned with. After all, that was what caused 30 states to lower the drinking age (along with the voting age and age of majority) for the Baby Boomers in 1970-1976.
Option B: Defy the Feds
Another option is for states to take matters into their own hands. If enough states do it in spite of the cost, and by "enough" we mean the majority, the feds will eventually back down. But in the meantime, such states will lose 10% of their designated highway funds, and the dollar amount varies widely from state to state. However, Puerto Rico did exactly that, keeping the age at 18 despite the penalty, and simply put up toll booths to make up the difference. The amount they get now is only 90% of what they are entitled to, but that became the new normal. States could easily make up the funds by raising alcohol taxes (which should be done anyway, especially for beer), raising the gas tax and possibly giving a "prebate" to drivers over 21, implementing congestion pricing, and increasing the fines for drunk driving. All of these things would have positive externalities as well: fewer crashes, fewer alcohol deaths, less fuel consumption, and less pollution.
Option C: Make an End-Run Around the Feds (the Louisiana Loophole)
A less obvious solution also exists. The feds made an end-run around the Constitution by coercing states to raise their drinking ages, so we should be able to make an end-run around the misleadingly-named National Minimum Drinking Age Act (if you forgive the sports metaphor). In fact, Louisiana did just that from 1987-1995, and lost no highway funding in the process. It's really quite simple. There is a huge loophole in the law in that only "purchase" and "public possession" (as defined by the feds, with exceptions) must be prohibited by a state to recieve federal highway funding. Ancillary laws are not affected or even mentioned. Even sale to a person under 21 need not be prohibited, only purchase by such person. Furthermore, no penalties or even enforcement are required, just that the law be on the books.
To lower the drinking age to 18 de facto without jeopardizing highway funding, simply take the following five steps:
- Make a law that explicitly prohibits purchase and public possession, and only those two acts, for those under 21, with the definitions for those terms the same as the feds' definitions, verbatim.
- Have no penalty (or a trivial penalty like a $5 fine ticket) for those two specific acts when committed by a person 18-20 years old.
- Repeal any laws prohibiting (or even mentioning specifically) the sale of alcohol to 18-20 year olds, and only explicitly prohibit (and penalize) sale to those under 18. This loophole will render the purchase law unenforceable, but still valid in the eyes of the feds, thus no loss of highway funding. Also, make 18 the minimum age to enter bars if not already the case.
- For ancillary laws like private possession/consumption, furnishing to minors, dram shop, social host, etc., change "21" to "18" wherever it occurs, and/or abolish those laws altogether.
- Maintain the Zero Tolerance law (for drinking and driving) at 21, with BAC limit 0.02. Although ancillary, a separate federal law further takes away highway funding for not complying with this one. (Note that this is also true for open container in vehicle laws, the 0.08 or lower BAC limit for DUI, and seat belt laws).
Another thing that can be done, of course, is to challenge the constitutionality of having a drinking age higher than the age of majority on 14th Amendment (equal protection) grounds. That has yet to be tested in the U.S. Supreme Court. If victorious, then nearly all states would have lower the age to 18, and the federal law would be left completely toothless. That, of course, would be ideal.
Q23) Would you lower the drinking age suddenly or gradually?
A23) The TSAP believes that, to minimize any possible short-term adverse effects, it would be best to lower the age (relatively) gradually. It would also be more subtle and less scary for the masses, which would enhance popular support for the change. But lowering it too slowly can lead to backpedaling, and frankly we should not continue the injustice of Legal Age 21 any longer as a matter of principle. This can be done in many ways, but one in particular stands out as the best. Here are the steps on how we propose to phase in the lower drinking age:
- Allow up to one month of lead time before lowering the drinking age, during which high schools and colleges can implement a "crash course" on alcohol if they so choose to. The beer tax hike should be fully phased in and drunk driving law changes should be passed by the end of this period as there is always a delayed effect with these things. Make underage possession (without incident) by 18-20 year olds the lowest law enforcement priority during this period.
- After the lead-in period, begin dropping the drinking age by a month each day until it becomes 18 (21 years, 20 years and 11 months, 20 years and 10 months.....18 years). That will take 36 days to complete. Alternatively, the age could be dropped by a month each week, such as every Friday, which would take about 8 1/2 months. Either way, give modified "born on" calendars to alcohol sellers that reflect this change.
- Keep the purchase age for kegs, multiple cases, and possibly other bulk alcohol purchases at 21 for at least the first few years. Also, anything larger than an 18 pack should be sold only at a beer distributor, regardless of age. That should alleviate any fears of increased high school keggers.
- "Wolf-pack" the highways with police patrols like never before, to crack down on drunk driving. Set up sobriety checkpoints in strategic locations as well. Flood the airwaves with publicity about the increased DUI enforcement.
- Keep the Zero Tolerance (drinking and driving) age at 21, with BAC of 0.02.
The keg/case exception may anger the purists in the movement to lower the drinking age, but that will increase the chance of getting it passed. Many would feel that is the most prudent thing that can be done with respect to bulk purchases. And remember, such massive amounts of alcohol are seldom for personal use. If you are concerned that kegs are the "greener" alternative to cans, the term "keg" could be legally defined as "x number of gallons or more," so mini-kegs (1.5 gallons) would be treated like non-bulk alcohol for the purposes of the purchase age. And then there's draft beer at the bar, which is obviously non-bulk.
Q24) It may work fine in other countries, but America is too undisciplined/irresponsible/spoiled/diverse/multicultural/(insert favorite adjective here) to allow 18-20 year olds to drink. And our society is far too fractured as well.
A24) By that pseudo-logic, NO ONE in America of ANY age should be allowed to drink, period! And if Americans can't be trusted with alcohol, can they really be trusted with anything? In any case, in the interest of justice, we ought to allow 18-20 year olds, who are legal adults in essentially all other aspects, to have at least the same rights that those over 21 currently enjoy.
Diversity is a red-herring to this issue. If anything, a higher concentration of non-whites likely reduces overall alcohol abuse, even among whites. One can also observe that a high concentration of Anglo-Celtics in a country tends to increase alcohol abuse. Diversity is irrelevant to the drinking age.
As for ours being a fractured society, we certainly are, and more so than most developed countries. But arbitrarily dividing the adult population with an unrealistically high drinking age, and denying young people their rights, only exacerbates any such fracturedness.
Q25) You're just punting on the issue, leaving the under-resourced high-school principals and parents to deal with it. How dare you!
A25) No, the principals and parents who stick their heads in the sand and leaving college presidents and staff to deal with it are the ones who are really punting. And right now numerous high school kids still drink despite a drinking age of 21. Open your eyes. Right now, it is easier for 8th-10th graders to get alcohol than it is to get cigarettes, a product whose purchase age is 18 (and often poorly enforced) in nearly all states.
Yes, high school drinking has sharply declined since 1979 according to the Monitoring the Future survey, but that trend began many years before a significant number of states raised the drinking age to 21, and also occurred in states that were 21 throughout with no age change. Canada saw a decrease as well, and they did not raise the drinking age to 21. For cigarettes, smoking rates among American high schoolers declined even faster than drinking rates. (It is worth noting, however, that there is no data in the MTF surveys for grades other than 12th grade for years earlier than 1991).
For kids under 18, it SHOULD be the parents who deal with it, regardless of whether the drinking age is 18 or 21.
As for high schoolers having "liquid lunches" during school hours, it's not the 1970s anymore. Schools are often run like prisons, and students are much more defanged and declawed than their parents were when they were in high school. Such behavior is now considered a red flag for a student having a serious drinking problem. Thus any such fears are largely anachronistic.
Q26) What benefits are there to raising the beer tax?
A26) Plenty. Aside from merely raising revenue, numerous studies have shown that they likely reduce traffic fatalities significantly. While Dee (1999) found no significant effect (and the wrong sign) after adjusting for state and year fixed effects as well as state-specific trends, he did not include Alaska and Hawaii, which are the highest and fourth-highest beer tax states, respectively (#2 is Alabama and #3 is Georgia, if local tax is included). Most of the others states' taxes are an order of magnitude lower, which is too small to significantly affect the price. So there was too much noise in the data to be accurate, and that was the biggest flaw. Fixed-effects and state trends may have absorbed what little useful variation in taxes there was. But Miron and Tetelbaum (2007) replicated Dee's best 1999 model and then added AK, HI, and DC to the data, changing nothing else. They inadvertently discovered that the sign changed to the expected one, and it became significant at the 10% level (The TSAP speculates that if it weren't for the statistical noise from all the very low-tax states, the significance level would be much stronger). In fact, the estimated effect size of doubling the beer tax was about twice that of raising the drinking age from 18 to 21, and that was before Miron changed the model in ways to which the drinking age effect was no longer robust.
Other studies have found additional benefits, which include:
- Reduced "binge" drinking (Powell et al., 2002) (Kuo et al., 2003*)
- Reduced underage drinking (Chaloupka et al., 2002)
- Reduced BAC levels among college bar patrons (O'Mara et al., 2009*)
- Reduced cirrhosis deaths (Cook, 1981**; Wagenaar et al., 2008)
- Reduced total alcohol-related deaths (Hollingworth et al., 2006; Wagenaar et al., 2008)
- Reduced syphilis and gonorrhea rates (Chesson et al., 2000)
- Reduced crime, especially rape and other violent crimes (Grossman and Markowitz, 2000; Cook and Moore, 1993)
- Reduced child abuse and domestic violence (Markowitz and Grossman, 1998)
- Possible reduction in alcohol dependence (Farrell et al. 2003)*
- Possible reduction in youth suicides (Markowitz et al. 2003)
- Possible reduction in teen pregnancy and abortion rates (Sen, 2003)
- Possible improvement in infant health outcomes
- Possible reduction in other drug use (Pacula, 1998)
- Possible increase in college attendance and graduation rates (Cook and Moore, 1993)
- More money for healthcare, education, alcohol treatment, and DUI enforcement
**Indicates that liquor taxes were studied instead of beer taxes.
The TSAP also believes that liquor tax and alcopop tax hikes in addition to the beer tax may be beneficial as well. Some studies have found that beer taxes affect men more than women (or vice-versa), so raising the tax on other beverages would likely correct for this disparity.
Some studies (Ponicki et al., 2008) find that people immediately below the current drinking age of 21 are less sensitive to the beer tax than those immediately above it, and that there may be a negative interaction between the beer tax and the drinking age. This suggests that a high drinking age attenuates the true effects of the beer tax (possibly due to artificial scarcity of alcohol and/or the ubiquitous "all you can drink" keggers with a flat rate). With a lower drinking age, 18-20 year olds will be more likely to buy their own alcohol (and pay full price) than before.
In addition, job losses would be unlikely given the fact that the last time the feds raised the beer tax in 1990-1991, there was an increase in many types of beer industry jobs. The ones that were lost were obsolete ones that had been declining long before 1990 due to automation. And that was during a recession. Canada, which has significantly higher alcohol (and other) taxes than we do, still has a thriving brewing industry.
Q27) What are the current alcohol taxes, and what would they be if they had been adjusted for inflation?
A27) Quite a bit higher, in fact. The following is what the federal taxes (state and local not included) currently are according to the Tax and Trade Bureau and what they would be in 2008 dollars had they been adjusted for inflation since 1951, the year they were first instituted:
- Beer: $0.58/gallon or $0.33/six-pack
- Wine: $1.07/gallon* or $0.21/fifth
- Spirits: $13.50/proof-gallon* or $2.14/fifth of 80 proof
- Beer (1951): $2.38/gallon or $1.34/six-pack
- Wine (1951): $1.39/gallon* or $0.27/fifth
- Wine (1991): $1.67/gallon* or $0.33/fifth
- Spirits (1951): $86.31/proof-gallon* or $13.68/fifth of 80 proof
- Spirits (1991): $21.08/proof-gallon* or $3.34/fifth of 80 proof
- Beer (5% ABV): $2.11/gallon or $1.19/six-pack
- Wine (10% ABV): $4.22/gallon or $0.84/fifth
- Spirits (40% ABV): $3.34/fifth
*Proportional to alcohol content, average table wine value shown. One proof-gallon is one gallon at 100 proof (50% alcohol by volume). Note that the beer tax is currently not proportional to alcohol content for some odd reason, despite the fact that wine and liquor taxes are.
The federal beer tax also has a reduced rate of $0.23/gallon ($7.00/barrel) on each of the first 60,000 barrels for microbrewers (those who produce 2 million barrels or less).
Notice that wine was the only one that approximately kept up with inflation, mainly because the wine tax was raised nearly tenfold in 1991. The distilled spirits tax lagged the most at the federal level despite being raised twice (in 1985 and 1991), but that is tempered by the relatively high state taxes on such beverages. The beer tax has clearly lagged as well, and was only raised once since 1951, and that was in 1991.
The state taxes on beer have also lagged inflation in most states and few have raised them significantly in the past few decades (a notable exception being Alaska). State tax data for 2009 can be found here. Beer taxes range from $0.02/gallon in Wyoming to $1.07/gallon in Alaska, while liquor taxes range from $1.50/gallon in DC to $20.76/gallon in Oregon. Most states' beer taxes lie toward the lower end of the range, about an order of magnitude less than the top five states (AK, AL, GA, HI, and SC). The average beer tax rate is $0.26/gallon ($0.15/six-pack), and the combined federal/state rate on average is $0.84/gallon ($0.48/six-pack).
It is also worth noting that alcopops are taxed the same as beer at the federal level and in the majority of states, despite the fact that they are made with distilled spirits.
By comparison, as of 2003, Canada's federal beer tax was $1.06/gallon, wine tax was $1.95/gallon, and the liquor tax was $20.39/proof-gallon. (Metric conversion calculations ours, using rates for "normal strength" beer and wine, given in nominal Canadian dollars.) These figures do not include 5% GST (a federal value-added tax on most goods and services), bottle deposits, provincial alcohol taxes, provincial alcohol markups, or provincial sales taxes. Many of which are higher than in the USA. When all is said and done, the final retail price on a typical case of beer in Ontario is about double what it is in most of the USA, even when the Canadian prices are converted to American dollars. But there is variation between provinces, with Quebec's prices being only about 1.5 times what it is in America, a 25% difference from Ontario. Many provinces also have price floors: no one in Ontario may legally sell beer for less than $24/case, or $1 per can.
Q28) How dare you even suggest lowering the drinking age! I don't want some 18 year old guy buying booze for my 15 year old daughter!
A28) So you would rather a 21 year old buy her booze instead? That's gotta be creepier, don't you think?
Q29) The only thing wrong with the 21 drinking age is that it's not being enforced enough, as well as the presence of loopholes. We just need to strengthen and enforce it better. The benefits have been demonstrated with only minimal enforcement, but studies show tougher enforcement works even better.
A29) False. This notion is grossly outdated, and based on a few studies using data from the early 1990s, a time when enforcement was fairly lax. First of all, it is now enforced more than ever in American history, and more than other countries enforce their own drinking ages. Most "loopholes", if you want to call them that, have effectively been closed in most states by numerous ancillary laws to prop up the 21 drinking age, such as dram shop, social host, zero tolerance, internal possession, use and lose, and many others. Secondly, the fact that the alleged benefits occurred during a time of weak enforcement and many loopholes suggests that the such benefits were likely due to other factors than raising the drinking age.
As for the studies that show that tougher enforcement increases the supposed benefits of the drinking age, i.e. those by Wagenaar et al., they do not seem to stand up to close scrutiny. In 1993-1995, several Upper Midwestern communities were randomly assigned (or not assigned) to a community-level intervention whose purpose was to increase enforcement of the drinking age, particularly on the supply side. This program was known as Communities Mobilizing for Change on Alcohol (CMCA), and the effects of which were studied as a randomized trial. Though hailed as a success by the authors and others, there were serious issues that were glossed over. For example, while the propensity of alcohol outlets to sell booze to those under 21 appeared to drop, and telephone surveys indicated a modest net reduction in self-reported drinking by 18-20 year olds (the most targeted age group), self-reported "binge" drinking (5+ drinks in a row) appeared to show a small net increase among that age group. For high school seniors, the net effect on all measures was either virtually nil or had the "wrong" sign, implying that targeting 18-20 year olds does essentially nothing to protect high schoolers. A second study by Wagenaar compared outcomes of the intervention on DUI arrests, disorderly conduct arrests, and traffic crashes (both single-vehicle nighttime and those reported alcohol-related). Results: a modest net reduction in DUI arrests for 18-20 year olds, but no significant change in any other measures, including crashes of either kind for 18-20 year olds or 15-17 year olds. Thus it probably did not save any lives, and the overall results were really quite anemic (to say the least) given all that was invested in the program.
Contrast this to the effects of tobacco enforcement of the purchase age of 18. Though only a handful of studies have been done on the matter, nearly all of them suggest quite strongly that not only does tougher enforcement (specifically targeting vendors) succeed in reducing sales to minors, but also reduces smoking in those under 18. Not only is the age limit lower for cigarettes than for alcohol, but most of the country still enforces the age limit for tobacco less vigorously than for alcohol as well. However, since the 1970s, both teen and adult smoking have plummeted by half, declining more so than drinking has, even though no state has raised the smoking age to 21. In fact, unlike booze, most states do not even prohibit possession or use of tobacco by minors, only purchase and sale. The success story was primarily due to education, taxation, and advertising restrictions.