Thursday, September 24, 2009

Post #21--Would a Split Drinking Age Be Better?

A new study of the drinking age (Males, 2008) apparently finds that a split (or "graduated") drinking age of 18 for beer/wine and 21 for liquor would reduce combined violent deaths (traffic crash deaths plus homicides) among 18-20 year olds with similar reductions for 16-17 year olds and 21-24 year olds. It studied the effects over time of raising the age to 21 in the 1980s, based on a state's former drinking age (18 for all beverages, 18 for beer/wine only, or 19 and 20), relative to states that were 21 throughout. When they were raised to 21, the ones that were previously 18 for all beverages, as well as the former 19 and 20 states, saw a decrease in combined deaths, mainly from traffic crashes. But the 11 states that were 18 for beer and/or wine only, they saw an increase in deaths, with the lion's share of the increase being homicides. Interestingly, a few states that were 18 for all beverages saw increases or no significant change as well when the ages were raised to 21.

What are we to make of all this? Several states had split drinking ages, many of which had them for decades. When we look at the dates that the 21 law became effective, we see that all of them but Oklahoma (1983) raised them in 1985 or later. Ditto for the "18 for all beverages" states that saw increases or no significant changes. Hmmmm....what happened around that time? In 1984, the federal government coerced the states with lower drinking ages to raise them to 21 or lose 10% of annual highway funding starting in 1988. So, it could simply be that for many of the coerced states, raising their drinking ages merely threw gasoline on the fire!

This interpretation, rather than anything special about a split drinking age, appears to be more likely to be true when we consider a study by Miron and Tetelbaum (2009). In their study, which controlled for more variables than Males (2008) but looked only at traffic fatalities, they separated out the states based on the year the drinking age was raised to 21. The states that were coerced (i.e. those who raised the age after 1984) overall saw no lifesaving effect. On the other hand, the ones that raised their drinking ages voluntarily in 1983 or earlier did see a small lifesaving effect, but that only lasted a year or two and then wore off. Robustness checks were done as well. Interestingly, Miron and Tetelbaum found no clear relationship for the purchase ages of various beverage types when measured separately, but they did find an increase in fatalities among drivers under 18 when the drinking age was 19, 20, or 21 as opposed to 18.

We at 21 Debunked therefore see no reason why a split drinking age is superior to a drinking age of 18 across the board. We would support the former as a steppingstone to the latter, but ultimately favor the latter hands down. We never understood it since you can get just as drunk on one as you can on the other, and beer is grosslly overrepresented in DUI fatalities. If states feel that they must have special restrictions for 18-20 year olds, which are probably unnecessary, one or more of the following may make more sense:
  • Keep the age at 21 for kegs, cases, and other bulk quantities of alcohol; let 18 year olds buy everything else.
  • Limit the quantities 18 year olds can buy off-premise to 216 ounces of beer, 1 gallon of wine, or 1 fifth of liquor per person per day.
  • Require 18-20 year olds (or even just 18 year olds) to sign a logbook upon purchase, similar to what is done for Sudafed at all ages.
  • Have kegs and cases be sold only in beer distributors regardless of age, making the first two things easier to enforce.
  • Keep it 21 for internet alcohol orders, like some states currently do with cigarettes.
  • Have shorter trading hours (beginning later and/or ending earlier) for off-premises sales for 18 year olds than for those over 19 (or 20 or 21).
  • Allow some bars to set the limit higher than 18 if they wish (no new law needs to be made).
Also, we feel that the age limit should be the same for on- and off-premise sales, at 18. If we let 18 year olds buy cigarettes and guns for off premise use, why not a 6-pack? Their younger friends will find a way to get booze either way, and both 8th graders and 10th graders currently find alcohol easier to get than cigarettes. Furthermore, if there is a wide gap between the two (i.e. 18 for bars and 21 for stores), that may perversely encourage drunk driving for those rural 18-20 year olds whose nearest bar is 10+ miles away while a store that sells 6-packs is a mere 500 feet away. However, such perverse incentives could in theory be minimized by letting 18 year olds have the same drinking rights as 21 year olds currently enjoy, with the one exception being off-premise purchase, and having that purchase age be 19 instead of 21. We don't have any studies to back this up, but we also know of no hard evidence that it is any safer than 18 across the board.

In contrast, there is some evidence that restricting bulk alcohol sales may have benefits. A study of college students in college towns by Kuo et al. (2003) found that the availability of 6-packs was negatively associated with self-reported "binge" drinking, 12-packs showed no effect, while 24-packs (cases), 30-packs, and kegs all showed significant positive associations. In other words, the more 6-packs available, the less "binge" drinking. The more cases and kegs, the more "binge" drinking. (Liquor and wine were not studied; nor were 18-packs.) They also found that beer price was inversely related to "binge" drinking, and store advertising was directly related, just as expected. While we were unable to locate any jurisdiction in the world that has age-specific bulk-only alcohol restrictions, it stands to reason that such a thing would make more sense than splitting the age by venue or beverage type regardless of quantity.

No comments:

Post a Comment