Monday, August 31, 2009

The Tide is Turning

According to the latest Rasmussen poll, 30% of American adults believe that the drinking age should be lowered to 18, and 5% believe it should be lowered to 16. This combination, 35%, is a record high, and this is one of the few times in decades that we broke the 30% barrier. And only 51% believe it should remain at 21, a record low. Adults under 40 were fairly even on whether the drinking age should be 18 or 21 (last year it was about half of men and about a quarter of women under 40 who wanted the age to be 18), another sign of progress. (Now, if only we could get young people to vote more!)

Also, 50% of adults believe that drunk driving laws are too lenient, while only 8% think they're too tough. That's one thing we at 21 Debunked do agree with the majority on.

It appears we are fast approaching a critical mass, if we have not achieved one already. Remember that it does not always take a majority to prevail, as Samuel Adams so eloquently noted.

Forty years ago, it was 1969. Lots of great things happened in that fateful year (Woodstock, the moon landing, the first Earth Day, etc.), but most relevant to the debate is the fact that the first two states to lower the drinking age (the first time around) did so that year. From 1970-1976, 30 states would lower their drinking ages, chiefly in 1972-1973, after decades of it being 21 in most states (some were 18 since the 1930s or remained 21 throughout). This occurred because the voting age and age of majority were lowered, due to the hypocrisy that 18-20 year olds were dying in Vietnam but were not allowed to have full adult rights, leading to much protest from that age group. Sound familiar? There was a huge mass of young people at the time, whose numbers would decline to political impotence in the 1980s (when the drinking age was raised to 21) and rise again in the late 1990s and especially the 2000s. Forty years later, the children of the Baby Boomers have come of age. There are now at least as many young Millennials as there were young Boomers in 1969, and they are a force to be reckoned with as there is strength in numbers.

If the current groundswell continues, perhaps we can consider 2009 to be like the new 1969, and so on. Only now Vietnam is spelled "Iraq" (or perhaps "Afghanistan"). Thus, we may lay the events on a timeline and make a prediction that the first state or two to lower the drinking age will do so in 2009-2011. Those will be the "guinea pigs," and how the feds handle it in 2011 will be crucial to the movement's success--that will be the wild card. If a large number of states follow suit, that will likely occur in 2012-2013. If so, a few more may do so in 2014-2016, and hopefully the Millennials won't sell out like the Boomers did back in the day.

Of course, this is all just speculation, but it can happen. What better time than now?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Our Modest Proposal

While the first post outlines our purpose and views, and should be read, some folks may still be confused about details. Here is precisely what we at Twenty-One Debunked (a subsidiary of the True Spirit of America Party) propose, in concrete terms, to further the cause of justice and help reduce America's drinking problem:

  1. Lower the drinking age to 18, period. No compromises, except perhaps to have the age for kegs/cases/other very large quantities be 20 or 21.
  2. Raise the beer tax and liquor tax to its 1951 and 1991 inflation-adjusted values, respectively, and make the beer tax proportional to alcohol content. (No tax hike for microbrews.) Use the funds to pay for education, treatment, and DUI enforcement.
  3. Crack down hard on DUI, increase penalties, lower BAC limit to 0.05%. Have graduated (but stiff) penalties based on BAC, with serious jail time for high BAC offenders. Lose license forever on second offense above 0.08, regardless of age. No more excuses.
  4. Keep Zero Tolerance age at 21, and/or make it for anyone who has had a license for less than 5 years, regardless of age.
  5. Increase honest alcohol education, which should begin long before 18.
Lower-priority measures that we support include the following:
  • Restrict alcohol advertising to no more than what is allowed for tobacco.
  • Regulation of alcohol outlet density.
  • Price floors on off-premises sales.
  • Free or low-cost taxi service to and from bars and/or improved late night public transportation.
  • Increased alcohol treatment.
  • Make driver licenses tougher to get and easier to lose, and the road test much tougher.
  • Make it a federal crime to drive drunk across state lines, punishable by many years in federal prison.
What we do NOT support:
  1. Special restrictions on 18-20 year olds that do not apply to those over 21 (except perhaps on bulk quantities of alcohol) or any kind of strings attached, including "drinking licenses".
  2. Dram shop and social host laws of any kind.
  3. Loopholes that allow DUI offenders to get off easily (e.g. plea bargain for "reckless driving").
  4. Harsh criminal penalties for underage drinkers of any age.
  5. Blue laws.
  6. Public drunkenness laws based solely on BAC or the mere fact of drinking.*
  7. Laws that completely prohibit parents from giving their own children alcohol.
  8. Any laws that require that the Constitution be violated in order to adequately enforce them.**
*We do support laws against drunk violence and disorderly conduct, and tougher enforcement thereof.
**We do not consider implied consent laws to be against the constitution, and have no problem with stiff penalties for test refusals for drivers (but no one else).

Friday, August 14, 2009

Latest Brain Studies Demonstrate The Same Old Flaws

Potentially adding fuel to the fire of the drinking age debate is a new study of 18-20 year old first-year university students in Spain, that looked at the effects of so-called "binge" drinking on the brain. In this study, 95 students (42 "bingers", 53 controls) were given tests of attention and working memory, and their specific brain waves were monitored with electrodes. No statistically significant differences were observed between the two groups in terms of actual performance, but the electrophysiological test suggested that more attention was expended to complete a given task among the "binge" group, as well as other electrophysiological differences. This is a lot more nuanced and less certain than the media are implying, and hardly represents "dain bramage."

The biggest flaw in this study was the fact that there was no over-21 comparison group. So we simply cannot infer anything at all about age from this piece of research. Absolutely zilch. A better method would have been to have three groups: 15-17, 18-20, and 21-24 years of age. But no study that we know of meets this standard. This would help to settle the nagging question of whether or not it actually is worse to drink at 18 rather than 21. Or perhaps some people are afraid of the possibility that their rationale for keeping the drinking age at 21 would be debunked if such a comparison was done. As yet, there is essentially ZERO hard evidence that drinking at 18 is significantly worse than doing so at 21, ceteris paribus, but a plethora of evidence showing that excessive drinking is unhealthy at any age. To be fair, however, the purpose of the study was not to test the rationale for the drinking age, but rather the effects of alcohol on a particular segment of the population.

Other flaws included small sample size, and not enough information to determine whether the results are of any practical significance. The lack of behavioral performance differences between the two groups suggests that the answer is not very much, but still warrants more study before jumping to any conclusion either way. Subjects were only required to refrain from using alcohol or drugs for at least 12 hours, so acute and transient effects (such as hangover, which can last for up to 36 hours) cannot be ruled out. Also, this was a cross-sectional study, so we do not know whether or not the purported effects were acutally innate characteristics that predated (or even predisposed for) the "binge" drinking. Tobacco smoking was also not controlled for. In other words, this study is preliminary at best.

It is also interesting to note that the average age of onset of drinking in the "binge" group was 14, and 15 in the nonbinge group.

The reason this blog uses scare quotes on the word "binge" is by convention: we do not feel that the definiton used (6+ standard drinks on at least one occasion in the past month, at a pace of 3+ drinks per hour) was an adequate one. That was equivalent to about 4+ American drinks, and undercounting and underreporting can also confound the results as well. Given the small sample size, there could be a few students that drank much more than the others, and more than they led on, and skewed the results. Some could have been dishonest about alcohol use disorders, which were an exclusion criterion, and could also have skewed the results.

Another recent study, done on college students in Belgium, also found similar electrophysiological differences, but again no behavioral differences for some reason. In this study, there were no differences in alcohol consumption or electrophysiological results at baseline, but both changed significantly in the "binge" group when measured 9 months later, but not in the control group. However, we should keep in mind that the binge group averaged 12.5 units (about 9 American drinks) per binge session, and two such binge sessions per week, which is quite extreme. Number of (American) drinks per week averaged a whopping 35 units (25 American drinks) in the binge group, while the control group drank about one drink per week. And some participants drank as recently as three days before the tests as well, potentially conflating short and long term effects, though this was ostensibly controlled for. One good thing about this study, however, was that the sample size was significantly larger than the aforementioned one, and there was both a before test and and after test.

Still another study in 2007, this time of 21-25 year olds (you know, folks who are legally allowed to imbibe) who were self-identified heavy drinkers (more than 25 drinks per week), found that subtle brain changes are not exclusive to those under the magic age of 21.  The heavy drinkers did not exhibit significant neuropsychological test differences, but PET scans showed subtle differences.  Of course, this study did not gain nearly as much attention as the others previously mentioned.

Drinking ludicrous amounts of alcohol is dangerous, period.  Regardless of age.  That, if anything, should be the moral of the story. Keeping the drinking age at 21 only encourages such extremes, especially for college students.

We at 21 Debunked provide this for informational purposes only and do not in any way advocate drinking of any kind, underage or otherwise.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Looks promising for South Carolina (Updated)

Two recent lower (county level) court rulings have declared South Carolina's drinking age of 21 unconstitutional. The state's constitution says that “Every citizen who is eighteen years of age or older ... shall be ... endowed with full legal rights and responsibilities, provided that the General Assembly may restrict the sale of alcoholic beverages to persons until age twenty-one.” (emphasis added). Also cited was a SC Supreme Court decision in May 2008 that struck down a law banning handgun possession by 18-20 year olds. If these rulings are upheld on appeal, then the age for possession and consumption of alcohol would automatically revert to 18, like it was 25 years ago. But the age for sale would remain 21, unless the legislature decides to lower it. And the results of the court cases would only be binding in the affected counties unless the SC Supreme Court upholds the appeal as well.

However, the legislature could always change the state constitution, but only with voter approval.

While limited, this is clearly a step in the right direction. Domino effect you say? One can only hope.

UPDATE: We may have spoken too soon. On August 26, 2009, a circuit court upheld the drinking age of 21, unfortunately. The judge said it would create an "absurd result" to allow possession and consumption, but not sale, to 18-20 year olds. (But the SC constitution clearly says "sale" and nothing about possession or consumption). Honestly, the real absurdity is the fact that 18-20 year old legal adults are allowed to go to war, vote, get married, raise kids, and even (as of 2008) carry handguns in SC, but not drink--period. And we (the USA) stand alone among the developed world in maintaining this absurdity.

However, the latest ruling can still be appealed further if so desired, possibly all the way to the Supreme Court. It is too early to throw in the towel just yet.

The drinking age must be lowered, in the interest of justice. What better time than now?

Saturday, August 1, 2009

About-Face, About Time!

You know the 21 drinking age is on its last legs when one of its former supporters, substance abuse expert Dr. Morris Chafetz, has a sudden change of heart a quarter-century later. Remember that presidential commission in 1982? The one that gave 39 recommendations, #8 of which was to raise the drinking age to 21? Well, Dr. Chafetz was on that commission, and he now calls his decision to support Legal Age 21 "the single most regrettable decision" in his career.

Now THAT really says something! Especially given the length of his career. And he's no hippy-dippy or wild party animal either. Dr. Chafetz was the founding director of the NIAAA (pronounced "nee-ahh") beginning in 1970, a psychiatrist, and a renowned expert on alcohol.

He also notes, as 21 Debunked has, that the alcohol-related traffic fatality decline in the US was virtually identical to that in Canada, a country that did not raise the drinking age to 21. Even NHTSA admits this, and it is pretty tough to explain away. This fact alone puts a huge question mark over the specious claim the Legal Age 21 saves any lives at all. Additionally, he echoes the view that the 21 drinking age created unintended negative consequences, such as more deaths and injuries off the roads from clandestine, underground binge drinking (not unlike Prohibition).

As a result, we at 21 Debunked propose an honor for anyone who once fervently supported Legal Age 21 but has finally seen the light. Three cheers for the first ever recipient of the Chafetz award!

The tide, my friends, is turning as we speak. What better time than now?