Friday, December 11, 2009

White Noise Syndrome

Has anyone ever seen the 2007 horror film White Noise 2? (Spoiler alert) A man has a near-death experience that has left him with the supernatural ability to predict exactly who will die and when.  He acts on his premonitions, and saves several lives, only to find out that exactly three days later, the people he saves start killing others upon being possessed by an evil entity.  In other words, the net effect is an increase in deaths.  He then realizes he wasn't supposed to save those people, regrets his choices, and actually considers killing those he saved in order to rectify this horrible, unforseen tragedy.  We watch such films with revulsion and assume they are mere fiction.

But what if there was a government policy, at the expense of tax dollars and civil liberties, that at best delayed deaths of young people by a few years and potentially even increased the number of premature deaths over the lifecycle?  What if there were entire orgainizations who wholeheartedly endorsed such a policy as "saving lives" or "for the children" while ignoring or minimizing its dark side?  And what if anyone who questions such a policy is subjected to a heckler's veto and even occasional censorship to chill debate? 

Well, that describes the 21 drinking age perfectly.  Fans of this blog already know about a study done by Dee and Evans (2001) which showed that raising the drinking age merely shifted deaths into the future by a few years, and perhaps even increased them.  Asch and Levy (1987 and 1990) and Mike Males (1986) were some of the first people to notice this redistribution of mortality.  And remember, the longer a drunk driver lives, the more innocent people he or she can take to his grave with him or her.  Of course, not every study agrees with Dee and Evans' conclusion, but there is some new evidence that supports this view.

Kitt Carpenter and Carlos Dobkin (2009) have a new study out that shows a discrete and significant jump in mortality at exactly age 21.  The effect is true only for external causes of death, including motor vehicle accidents, suicides, deaths labled as "alcohol related," and those labeled as "other external," but not homicides or drug-related deaths.  The effect also occurs for self reported alcohol consumption as well.  Ruling out alternative explanations, they conclude it is due to the effect of the drinking age.   But unfortunately, they also make the specious claim that such an effect is not merely a delay in deaths but a true lifesaving effect of the policy.

We at Twenty-One Debunked who have read the paper fail to see a true lifesaving effect over the lifecycle.  First of all, only deaths between one's 19th birithday and 23rd birthday are included, and the data are rather grainy, making longer range projections very difficult for what would happen in the absence of the observed drinking age effect.  Yes, the effect persists to an extent, but one can clearly see it gradually decline over time.  It would have been better if they expanded the data to include ages 18 through 24 (are 18 year olds somehow irrelevant to the debate?).  And there could be other age-related factors that give an illusion of persistence, such as a "toning down" of drinking in the few months just before turning legal as well as the fact that 22-23 year olds are more likely to have cars and live away from their parents than 19-20 year olds.  Indeed, our own crude back-of-the-envelope calculations after reading the paper (and its graphs) in which we project while excluding ages 20.5-21.5 suggest exactly that--it is most likely just a temporary effect overall.

Of course, death rates are merely the tip of a very large iceberg.  Carpenter and Dobkin (2008) also conducted another similar study, this time concerning various types of crime, with similar results overall.  Arrest rates were used as the proxy measure of crime.  They found a discrete and significant jump in the arrest rates of several offenses, such as assault, drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and especially DUI, at exactly age 21.  However, there was no noticeable effect for other crimes.  Interestingly, even rape, which has a reputation for being alcohol-related, appeared to be unaffected.  (We suspect this is due to the fact that drinking is less likely to be done "underground" after 21, and thus in environments less conducive to rape, which may outweigh the increase in drinking.  Or perhaps the supposed causal link between alcohol and rape has been overstated.)  The authors draw the same conclusions that they did in the other study, which is unfortunate for precisely the same reasons.

While our own back-of-the-envelope projection estimates suggest that the increaes in assault and disorderly conduct arrests are merely temporary and seem to wear off by age 22, the effects on DUI and drunkenness arrests do still seem to persist to at least age 23.  However, the fact that 21-23 year olds can drink in bars may make drunk drivers more likely to get caught, and also the increase in both DUI and drunkenness may be an artifact of the fact that people over 21 can no longer be charged with underage drinking, as evident in the simultaneous sharp decrease in "liquor law" (i.e. underage drinking) arrests upon turning 21.  Thus, some behaviors that would lead to underage drinking arrests before 21 would likely lead to DUI and/or drunkenness arrests instead after turning 21.

In other words, these studies show that banning young people from drinking until age 21 (when they are more likely to have cars, and family controls are much weaker) may not be the best way to introduce them to alcohol.  In fact, it appears on balance to be one of the worst ways, and is akin to setting a time bomb.  There is zero evidence that people magically become mature enough to handle alcohol upon turning 21.  Indeed, the aforementioned studies suggest quite the opposite, at least in the short term.

We all know what the road to hell is paved with.  Let's defuse this ticking time bomb and lower the drinking age to 18, legalizing alcohol for all legal adults in America.  What better time than now?

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