Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Truth About New Zealand

New Zealand. An island country of 4.3 million people in the southwest Pacific, 1250 miles from Australia. With more sheep than people, they say. What could this tiny, halfway-around-the-world country possibly have to do with the American drinking age debate? Everything, at least according to the pro-21 crowd.

It turns out that New Zealand was the only country in the past decade that has lowered its drinking age, and it did so from 20 to 18 in December 1999. With disastrous results, according to the pro-21 crowd. The same folks that otherwise insist that we can't compare America to other countries with lower drinking ages imply that we would experience disaster as well. Only a few studies have been done to determine the effects of the drinking age change, most notably Kypri et al. (2005) which was co-authored by MADD member Robert Voas from the USA.  When the study came out, leading to news sound bites alleging a dramatic increase in 15-19 year old fatalities resulting from the change, the pro-21 crowd ate it right up without questioning a word of it. But several astute observers did precisely that--they questioned. When the Progressive Party of NZ tried to raise the age back to 20 in 2006 as a result of the moral panic, it fortunately got defeated by a conscience vote after much protest against it. Today in 2009, the drinking age issue is back on the front burner again, in both NZ and the USA. And over here, when the pro-21 crowd is pressed and refuted by those in the movement to lower the drinking age, they like to pull the New Zealand card. And here is where it gets debunked.

Traffic Crashes

The study by Kypri et al. (2005) allegedly found an increase in traffic crashes that involved injuries (not fatalities as is often claimed) among 15-19 year olds since the drinking age was lowered, comparing the four years before to the four years after December 1999. What the media don't mention is that the "increase" was relative to 20-24 year olds, not an absolute increase. There was actually a decrease in all three age groups studied (ages 15-17, 18-19, 20-24), but the 15-19 year old crashes decreased at a slower rate than 20-24 year olds. The original claim that an additional 12 deaths per year resulted from lowering the drinking age was left out of the final paper, probably for good reason. The study also does not control for potential confounders (other than the population of each age group), and we know that such confounders existed during the study period (e.g. increased outlet density, falling alcohol prices, increasingly aggressive advertising/marketing, rise of alcopops). And yes, it is possible for different age groups to be differentially affected by things other than the drinking age, especially the last three things. So one could not really tease out the effect of the law change. The authors assume that teen crashes would have probably dropped even more had the age not been lowered, but that assumption is far from obvious.  Also, according to the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, the reporting of nonfatal injury crashes by police had improved since 2001.  Teen fatalities fluctuated a great deal due to their small numbers, but the rates generally remained below their 1999 values from 2000-2008.

Indeed, using 20-24 year olds as a control group is a poor choice. We know that several American studies found that drinking age changes merely shift deaths from one age group to another (see Five Studies that Debunk the Rest for more info), so that could be a reason for the faster decline among 20-24 year olds when those who were 18-19 when the age was lowered turned 20 in 2001-2002. Also, Brownsfield et al. (2003) found that college students already over 20 when the age was lowered drank less immediately after the age-lowering than immediately before. That could be due to not wanting to go to the bar as much due to the resulting influx of younger people, or simply because it would be more crowded. Or they may have felt that their thunder was stolen, so to speak. This (drinking less and staying home more) could also plausibly lead to fewer crashes among those 20 and over. A better choice would have been to use 25-29 year olds as a control group as they would be distant enough to not be affected by the drinking age, but still close enough to be "in the loop" of the latest social trends.

What about the apparent spillover effect on 15-17 year olds, you ask? Interestingly, the "increase" in crashes was even higher for them than for 18-19 year olds, and females were affected more than males in both groups. In America, this would make no sense since crashes involving female drivers are less likely to involve alcohol, and the same is true for 16-17 year olds. So other factors had to be involved. And there is a much more plausible explanation as well.

A little background about New Zealand is necessary to understand all this. First of all, they never really had a true drinking age like we do in America, just a purchase age (we will use the term "drinking age" anyway). They also allow moonshining and drinking in the street. When the age limit was 20, it was poorly enforced, and there were numerous exceptions to the law as well. IDs were not consistently checked, if at all. Back then, it was fairly easy even for 15 and 16 year olds to get into bars and be served. Nod nod wink wink, as long as you behaved yourself we'll let you drink. When the age limit was lowered to 18, however, they really cracked down on bars and restaurants who served to anyone under the new drinking age, but for off-licenses (liquor stores, supermarkets, convenience stores) the enforcement was just as lax as before, which was very lax indeed. Youth under 18 ironically found it harder to get into bars when the age was lowered. So those 15-17 year olds who could no longer go to bars simply went to the stores instead. What they couldn't buy themselves they often got strangers outside to buy for them (furnishing to minors was and remains effectively legal, unless it can be proven who bought it, but even then the penalty is modest). Premixed spirit-based drinks (ready-to-drink, or RTDs), like our alcopops only stronger, were often the drink of choice, as well as cheap liquor. And the already low prices were effectively falling due to the practice of "loss leading," to the point where one could easily get completely wasted for only a few dollars, as RTDs were cheaper than soda or even water. And wasted they got, without the moderating influence of the pub and with little incentive to behave. 

The seeds appear to have been planted in 1989, a full ten years before the drinking age change.  That was the year the Sale of Liquor Act was enacted, which liberalized licensing laws and allowed for 24-hour opening hours.  The number of licensed outlets skyrocketed since then.  Also, NZ began to allow the sale of beer in supermarkets, and legalized Sunday sales of alcohol, on the very same day that the drinking age was lowered.  This further increased the number and density of outlets as well as the resulting availability of booze.

The prexisting trend of increasing binge drinking (which was always worse than in America), combined with the converging trends of falling real alcohol prices, increasing outlet density, 24-hour sales, aggressive marketing and advertising, and the rise of alcopops/RTDs, was a powder keg. Non-alcohol factors, such as faster cars and increasing illegal street racing, may have also played a role in the car crashes as well. If the law (and enforcement) change did anything, it was merely a spark, and rather ironically so at that.

Other effects

Alleged effects of the drinking age change were not limited to motor vehicle crashes. Putative increases in binge drinking, alcohol overdoses, unsafe sex, teen pregnancy, and violent crime have all allegedly been linked to the age-lowering by those who seek to raise the drinking age, using mostly anecdotal evidence. But most of these were either continuations of preexisting secular trends and/or things that could also be explained by other factors (falling alcohol prices relative to income, increasing outlet density, 24-hour sales, aggressive marketing and advertising, and the rise of alcopops/RTDs). These variables are seldom controlled for in the studies. For crime, there were changes in how some crimes were reported and collated since the age was lowered as well, further muddying the waters. Also, many of these effects (such as higher pregnancy rates) were also found for those over 20 as well, and there is a strong correlation between the behavior of adults and that of teens. Indeed, the alleged "effect sizes" of some of these things, though practically small in most cases, are implausibly large given the minimal enforcement of the previous drinking age, and so such effects are likely spurious. The same can be said about the alleged effects on traffic crashes.

Contrary to popular opinion, there was little evidence that 18-19 year olds were a significant source of alcohol for younger teens. But the number one source of alcohol, as it had always been, was parents. Parents were, and still are, the elephant in the room than no one wants to talk about. A pink elephant in this case. Not only do they drink quite a bit themselves, they would also buy large quantities of beer, RTDs, and liquor for 15 year olds, and those 15 year olds would often share it with their younger friends as well. Often unsupervised, in God knows where. Remember that 15 is the driving age in NZ. That means the parents essentially handed them whiskey and car keys. Have fun, don't kill nobody! Look, you simply can't legislate common sense, and raising the drinking age back to 20 would do nothing for this issue.

What to do about it

New Zealand has always had a drinking problem worse than America. There is much debate on what to do about it. But raising the drinking age would likely be fighting fire with gasoline. It would at best be a distraction from the worst drinkers of all--20-29 year olds. Here is what we, the TSAP, recommend instead:

  • Raise the tax on all alcoholic beverages, especially RTDs, hard liquor, and cheap beer.
  • Set a price floor for alcohol, especially at off-licenses, and ban the practice of "loss leading".
  • Restrict alcohol advertising, especially on TV.
  • Increase the penalties for drunk driving, and step up enforcement.
  • Lower the general blood alcohol limit for driving to 0.05, and the under-20 limit to 0.02 or less (the limits are currently 0.08 and 0.03, respectively).
  • Hold parents more accountable for what their kids (under 18) do, especially if the parents supplied them with alcohol beforehand. Duh!
  • Put more cops on the street, and get tough on real crime, including drunk violence.  Penalties and enforcement for violent crimes appear to be far too lax in New Zealand.
  • Ban drinking in the street by all ages, or allow very limited designated areas to do so.
  • Restrict the number and density of alcohol outlets.
  • End 24-hour bar-hopping and have a pub closing time of 2 am, and/or a one-way door policy after 1 am. That's evidently when the crazies come out, and the crazy stuff happens.
  • Increase alcohol education and public awareness campaigns.
  • Do NOT touch the drinking age!  Just enforce it better at off-licenses to increase compliance, and close the existing loopholes on furnishing alcohol to minors. 
These common-sense measures would work wonders, and would affect all ages. Which is exactly what a lot of adults who would rather scapegoat teenagers don't want. Those who insist on raising the drinking age in NZ are so fixated on age that they fail to see the forest for the trees. Gee, who does that sound like? If they are really that concerned about age, than raising the driving age (currently 15) to 16 or 17 is probably the best place to start (along with making the road test harder).

Interestingly, the New Zealand Medical Association agreed in 2006 that the drinking age should remain 18, since there was no clinical evidence that alcohol was more harmful to an 18 year old than a 20 year old.  But they did say that the current drinking age needs to be enforced better, and also called for tighter advertising restrictions on alcohol.

Relevance to America, or Lack Thereof

It goes without saying that while America is not Europe, we are not New Zealand either. As mentioned before, there are several significant differences between the two countries that the pro-21 crowd likes to gloss over. And even there, the effects of the drinking age are likely spurious. So consider this one debunked as well.


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