Sunday, December 12, 2010

Latest Study Wields "Occam's Butterknife"

More educated readers of this blog are probably familiar with Occam's Razor--the observation that a relatively simple explanation is more likely to be correct than a more complicated one.  Some folks have satirically come up with the term Occam's Butterknife, which is the erroneous belief that a more complicated explanation beats a simple one.  A case in point is the latest study on how lowering the drinking age in the USA might affect college binge drinking.

The study uses a mathematical model to suggest that lowering the drinking age would not reduce binge drinking.  However, there are significant problems with the study and its conclusion:
  • The study is purely theoretical, not empirical.
  • The only empirical data considered is current self-reported survey data where the drinking age is 21, which may be biased, and levels of enforcement in various colleges.
  • The definition of "heavy episodic drinking" is questionable in the absence of context.
  • The study modeled a change in the drinking age to 19, not 18.
  • The study only looked at two variables--"misperception" (social norms) and "wetness" (availability/enforcement).
  • Most campuses are actually very "wet" in practice.
  • Variables such as the dangerous effects of forcing alcohol underground are not considered.
  • Consequences of drinking were not considered.
Thus, while the study was relatively complicated in terms of the mathematics used, it does not prove that lowering the drinking age to 18 is a bad idea, or that keeping it at 21 is a good idea on balance.

We at Twenty-One Debunked also find it rather funny that the authors of the study said that lowering the drinking age to 18 would be a "radical social experiment," when in fact, the current drinking age of 21 is the real radical social experiment, both internationally and in terms of our nation's own history.  And a failed one nonetheless.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

New Holiday: Drink Nothing Day

You have probably heard of Buy Nothing Day.  Celebrated on Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the biggest shopping day of the year, this self-explanatory holiday is meant to be a protest against consumerism.  But perhaps you didn't know that the biggest drinking day of the year is the day before Thanksgiving.  That's right, it's not New Year's Eve, but the day before Thanksgiving.

Thus, we at Twenty-One Debunked have decided to create our own protest holiday, Drink Nothing Day.  It is designed as a way for people 21 and over to show solidarity with those under 21 by not drinking any alcohol that day.  To observe this holiday, which can only logically be done by folks over 21, one must not drink any form of alcohol at all during the entire 24 hours of that date, as well as the following day until sitting down for Thanksgiving dinner.  Then, one may drink, but one must give thanks that prohibition no longer applies to him or her.  Other things include wearing two black armbands:  one to symbolize those soldiers who died before being able to drink legally in the very country they served, and another to symbolize those under 21 who were killed by a drunk driver over 21.

We will observe this holiday this year, and every year thereafter until the drinking age is lowered to 18 in all 50 states.  After that, we should rename the holiday "Novemberfest" or something like that.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Several Military Leaders Support Lowering Drinking Age on Bases

It seems like we may have finally reached daybreak on the drinking age issue.  Though many are hesitant to talk about it, several military leaders are endorsing proposal that would allow 18-20 year old servicemembers to drink beer and wine on base.  This would affect all military bases, both foreign and domestic. Currently, most domestic bases set the age at 21 due to a federal law that requires all domestic bases to have the same drinking age as the state the base is in, except for those very close to the Canadian and Mexican borders, who set it at 18 if they choose to.  Of course, many 18-20 year old servicemembers still drink illegally anyway like civilians do, usually off-base which creates more dangerous situations.  Thus, lowering the drinking age on base would likely be safer than the current situation.  This idea certainly deserves a 21-gun salute.

Though this is quite a limited relaxation of the 21 drinking age, the movement to lower the drinking age to 18 across the board has to start somewhere, and we at Twenty-One Debunked fully endorse this idea.  If you are old enough to go to war, you are old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Do Drinkers Really Outlive Teetotallers?

This has been a controversy for decades, with most studies saying "yes", at least for moderate drinkers.  Such a relationship is thought to be primarily due to reductions in cardiovascular disease.   However, methodological problems such as confounders and the "sick quitter" effect (not to mention the wrath of the neoprohibitionists) have hampered the ability to draw any firm conclusions until now.

A recent study found that, among 55-65 year olds at least,  moderate drinkers lived the longest, followed by light drinkers, followed by heavy drinkers, followed by abstainers.  You read that right--for some reason, even heavy drinkers outlived teetotallers!  This was true even after controlling for numerous traditional and non-traditional confounders, including smoking, obesity, sociodemographic factors, former problem drinking status, and health problems at baseline.  While controlling for these attenuated the relationship somewhat, it still remained strong, confirming previous studies that also found a U-shaped or J-shaped curve for mortality.  It appears that the ancient Greeks were right after all.

But before you go out and buy a bottle of Jack to celebrate, remember that there are several caveats to these findings.  First of all, the study only looked at 55-65 year olds, so attempting to generalize these findings to younger (or older) age groups can be problematic.  No health benefits from alcohol have ever been conclusively proven for people under 40 (though one study suggests that there might be some), and many (but certainly not all) experts believe that the well-known risks (dependency, injuries, liver damage, etc.) outweigh any theoretical benefits that may occur from drinking before that age, especially for heavy drinking.  People over 65 would likely show significant cardiovascular benefits from light drinking, but this age group can run the risk of falls and other injuries from drinking as well.  Also, there are many folks (of all ages, and we all know them) who really should avoid the bottle like the plague.  The fact that the study included only people over 55 means that it inherently excluded many severe alcoholics and/or drunk drivers who would most likely have died before reaching that age, and thus reduced the number of life years in the population.  Finally, the study failed to distinguish between different patterns of drinking--you should realize that there is a huge difference between having two drinks each night of the week (Continental-style) versus having all 14 drinks on a single night (British-style).  The latter is very dangerous indeed, don't do it!

While this study is not directly relevant to the drinking age issue, we feel that studies like this are important to show that alcohol is not an unmitigated evil like MADD and their ilk claim it to be.  Booze does indeed have a dark side that we all need to be aware of, but there are good things about it as well.

We at Twenty-One Debunked present this for informational purposes only and in no way intend this to be an encouragement for anyone to drink.  We are not a "pro-alcohol" organization, but rather we are pro-liberty and anti-tyranny.  But if you do choose to drink, remember that moderation is the key, and of course never drink and drive.

UPDATE:  Take a look at this review in the British Medical Journal on the apparent inverse relationship between light to moderate drinking and cardiovascular disease.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

More About Guam

As you already know, much to our chagrin Guam was in the news for hastily raising the drinking age to 21 in July 2010.  That makes them the first part of the USA to change the drinking age in over two decades.  They were in the news again recently in August.  The first is that they will actually get tougher on DUI by requiring a mandatory overnight jail stay and will prosecute cases within 48 hours, instead of the former policy of "catch and release" that made it such a joke before.  (This we certainly applaud, by the way.) The second was the fact that the arrest rate for DUI had been skyrocketing since 2007, especially for younger drivers.  Aside from being the major impetus for the latest change in DUI criminal procedure, this fact was also used by some to retrospectively justify the drinking age hike to 21.

But the latter claim does not stand up to closer scrutiny.  In fact, it falls flat on its face.  The stats from the Guam Police Department show the following numbers, in a population of about 175,000 residents:

YearTotal DUI ArrestsUnder 21%  Under 21
2010 (first half)3824110.7%

Clearly arrests have risen for all ages, and doubled for those under 21 in two years, though the share of arrests under 21 has essentially plateaued since 2008, after jumping from 2007 to 2008.  Back in 2005, it was only 6%.  However, arrest rates can be quite deceiving, as the table of fatalities below so clearly shows:

YearTotal FatalitiesAlcohol RelatedUnder 21% Under 21
2010 10200%
Avg. (3.7%)

Here we see a very different picture indeed.  It does not appear that alcohol-related fatalities have been rising for any age group.  Quite the opposite in fact, a whopping 64% decrease overall, and thus the reason for rising arrests is most likely greater enforcement and targeting of younger drivers, as opposed to more drunk driving. You read right that in 2008 and 2010, there have actually been zero traffic fatalites of those under 21.  The 2010 data only include the first half of the year (up to June 30), during which the drinking age was still 18, so one can thus project 20 total deaths and 4 total alcohol-related deaths for the whole year, and either zero or one death under 21, had the status quo remained. 

As for the percentage under 21, since alcohol involvement is not given for the under 21 data, we assumed the worst (that all of them involved booze) and calculated the number of under-21 deaths as a percentage of total alcohol-related deaths.  This gives 7.4%, but if we assume that half of the under-21 deaths involve booze (a reasonable estimate given the all-ages data), we get a mere 3.7%.  Thus, drivers under 21 are overrepresented in arrests, but underrepresented in fatalities.  Put another way, even if all under-21 drinking was to somehow magically disappear, over 96% of the deaths would most likely still occur.

How does this compare with the rest of the nation, where the drinking age has been 21 since 1988?  Well, research shows that in 2008, drivers under 21 accounted for 12% of total fatalities and 13% of alcohol-impaired fatalities.  Clearly worse than Guam by any measure, but remember that 21-24 year olds are the worst of all in terms of overrepresentation in drunk driving deaths, a fact that is true in almost every developed nation in the world regardless of drinking age.  Thus, these data are hardly a ringing endorsement for a 21 drinking age.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

California Passes Social Host Law

Much to the chagrin of 21 Debunked and all those who love liberty and oppose the 21 drinking age, today California joined the majority of states and passed a social host liability law.  This means that if you furnish alcohol to someone under 21 and they happen to get killed or injured, you can be sued, and there appear to be no limits on how much you can be sued for. 

We have already discussed in previous posts why we oppose such laws.  First of all, it is just another attempt to prop up the greatest alcohol policy failure since Prohibition, the 21 drinking age.  Secondly, 18-20 year olds are legal adults in all other ways, and should be responsible for their own actions, drunk or not.  Third, such laws have not been proven to save lives, and would probably just force alcohol even further underground, leaving party hosting to only the bold and reckless. Finally, in a country without meaningful tort reform, it will enrich greedy trial lawyers while causing many families to possibly even lose their homes in lawsuits, as social host awards are typically in the millions of dollars.  We can just see them salivating like Pavlov's dog at the prospect.

We at 21 Debunked feel that suing the host (who is at most only peripherally involved, by definition) because the drunk driver does not have deep enough pockets is really quite low to say the least.  Parasitic even, especially when the dollar amounts are ludicrously high as they usually are.  The worst of all are those stupid drunk drivers who sue the host for their own injuries, a group for whom we have no sympathy.  Thus, we do not support social host laws of any kind.  But we do think that drunk drivers of any age who kill or seriously injure others should be sued for everything they have and, if that is still not enough to cover the damages, be forced to work off their debt in prison the rest of their lives.

Interestingly, social host laws (as well as dram shop laws, which are the same thing only applied to bars/restaurants instead) appear to exist in only two countries, the USA and Canada.  We Americans are well-known for our ethic of hyper-individualism, as opposed to a more communitarian or "brother's keeper" ethic found in most other countries, including many in Europe.  Thus, America is the last place one would expect to find such laws, but for some reason it is almost the only place they are found.  Perhaps the fact that our society is so litigious compared to the rest of the world, and increasingly so, is at least part of the reason.  Or maybe it is for the same asinine reasons that the drinking age is arbitrarily set at 21, a full three years higher than the age of majority.  Whatever the reason, such laws are un-American, obsolete, and incompatible with the values upon which our nation was founded, and should thus be stricken from the books at once.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Zero Tolerance Laws in Canada

On August 1, 2010, Ontario will join a few other Canadian provinces (not to mention the USA) in implementing zero-tolerance laws for drinking and driving.  In Ontario's case, the age limit will be 22, and the BAC limit will be 0.00%.  It is a traffic infraction rather than a criminal offense. The penalty will be an automatic 24-hour roadside suspension of one's license, plus a fine of up to $500 and a suspension of up to 30 days upon conviction.  For those over 22, the limit will remain 0.05 for a traffic infraction and 0.08 for a criminal offence of DUI.

Ontario has, and will retain, a drinking age of 19.  In Canada, the drinking age is 18 or 19 depending on the province.  Thus in Ontario, one can drive at 16, drink at 19, but will not be allowed to mix the two until 22 or until one has had a license for at least two years, whichever is longer.

We at Twenty-One Debunked, who unequivocally abhor drunk driving but believe the drinking age should be 18 and not a day later, have mixed feelings about the new law.  On the positive side, though it may or may not actually save lives, it does send a strong message that drinking and driving simply do not mix.  It provides a reason (or even an excuse) for young drivers to refuse a drink from their buddies at a bar or party without looking or feeling awkward.  It also helps to appease the fears among older adults about young people drinking and driving, and can help pre-empt more extreme measures, such as raising the drinking age.  On the negative side, it still remains a form of age discrimination, regardless of how well-intentioned it is, and the unrealistically low BAC limit provides no safeguards against false positives.  There is a significant margin of error of +/-0.01-0.02 in BAC readings, meaning that it is theoretically possible for someone who had nothing at all to drink can test positive and lose his or her license for up to a month.

Thus, we recommend keeping the law, but raising the BAC limit to 0.02, or at least automatically subtracting 0.01 or 0.02 from any breathalyzer reading if they still wish to retain the absolute zero limit.  Also, we think all fairly novice drivers (less than 5 years of licensed driving experience) should be held to the same standard regardless of age, as is currently done in the Netherlands with a BAC of 0.02.  In addition, we recommend that if there must be age limits, the drinking age should be lowered to 18, and the zero tolerance age should be 21.  Finally, we must never lose sight of the fact that (in the USA) the average BAC in fatal crashes is 0.16 overall and 0.14 for drivers under 21.  We need to see the forest for the trees, and focus enforcement where it matters most.  For those with high BACs, regardless of age, judges need to throw the book at them before they ever kill someone.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Guam Raises Drinking Age to 21

We didn't think this would actually happen, but it did.  On July 8, 2010, the bill that raised the drinking age to 21 was unfortunately signed into law at noon.  This new law, effective immediately with no grandfather clause, criminalizes the purchase and possession of alcohol by anyone under 21, just like it was for those under 18 before, except that 18-20 year olds are still allowed to work in bars and sell/serve alcohol.  Selling to anyone under 21 is illegal now as well. 

This time, they did not even leave it up to the people.  (Not like those over 21 really should have a say as to what legal but outvoted young adults 18-20 put into their own bodies, especially if those over 21 are allowed to do it themeslves, but it still was elitist for the legislature to go over the people's heads.) It was passed unanimously by the Guam Senate with almost no debate at all, in spite of the fact that referenda for raising the drinking age in previous years (such as 2006) had failed.  What little discussion occurred was primarily recycled and often outdated junk science from the mainland, combined with shaky (but emotional) anecdotal evidence from Guam.  The deck was stacked, and the opposition didn't stand a chance.

We predict that, based on research we have previously cited, no lives will be saved as a result of this draconian law, at least not in the long run.  They would have been better off getting tougher on DUI and raising the alcohol taxes than punshing all 18-20 year olds for the actions of the few.  Like we previously noted, 94% of the island's DUI problem consists of drivers over 21, and would still remain even if they could somehow prevent everyone from drinking until 21.  On the mainland, roughly 90% of young adults will drink before 21 despite the drinking age, so even that is just wishful thinking. 

Also, this will most likely hurt Guam's economy, dependent on tourism as they are.  Looks like tourism will probably decrease over there, while it will likely increase in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, the last two places in the USA in which 18-20 year olds are allowed to drink legally, and no passport required.  Fiji learned this the hard way in 2006-2009, when their drinking age was briefly 21.  They have since lowered it as a result, and the sky did not fall.  Thus, we hope the leaders of Guam will come to their senses within a few years as well after seeing that the costs of an unrealistically high drinking age outweigh any possible benefits.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

To Guam: Don't Raise the Drinking Age!

Guam (Guahan) is one of the few places in the United States that, along with Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, still has a drinking age of 18, but all that may soon change.  Several politicians on the island want to raise the drinking age to 21, and the majority of adults (who are over 21) agree as well.  They claim it will make the island safer and reduce various social problems.  But we at Twenty-One Debunked feel that this move is a huge mistake.

Supporters of the proposed 21 law ignore several important facts while simultaneously touting junk science.  First, Guam (as well as Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands) has lower teen drinking and past-month "binge" drinking rates than the mainland, as well as lower than the Northern Mariana Islands, where the age limit is currently 21.  Ditto for self-reported driving after drinking in the past 30 days, according to the latest CDC's Youth Risk Behavior Survey data:

Location"Binge" Drinking
(Grade 12)
Drove after drinking
(Grades 9-12)
USA (overall)36.5%10.5%212007
Puerto Rico (USA)33.2%7.3%
Guam (USA)30.3%7.8%182007
Northern Mariana
Islands (USA)
US Virgin Islands14.4%6.1%182003
American Samoa26.1%7.8%212007

In addition, only about 6% of all drunk driving arrests in Guam are for drivers under 21.  That means that even if you could somehow magically stop everyone from drinking until 21, 94% of the island's DUI problem would still remain.

Secondly, Canada has seen the same (or faster) decline in traffic fatalities as the United States despite not raising the drinking age to 21, and their teen "binge" drinking rates in most provinces remain comparable to the geographically and demographically similar northern States as well.  In fact, most of the world allows 18 year olds to drink, without the sky falling in those countries. 

Thirdly, if Guam thinks that a drinking age of 18 is not working in some way, the first thing that should be done is to enforce it (and other existing laws, such as DUI) better, not to ban all 18-20 year olds from drinking and thereby increase the number of "underage" drinkers.  Also, jacking up the alcohol taxes (especially beer) would likely be beneficial as well, especially if the funds are used for education, treatment, and law enforcement.

Fourthly, it will merely force drinking by young adults underground, as well as create "forbidden fruit" and "feast or famine" mentalities about alcohol.  This will make it a lot more dangerous than it has to be.  The effects of a 21 drinking age are thus iatrogenic--the "cure" is worse than the "disease."  This is part of the reason that several college presidents want to lower the drinking age to 18 on the mainland, even as the pro-21 folks are calling for more and more ancillary laws and pharisaical enforcement to prop up the greatest alcohol policy failure since Prohibition.  And we all know how that worked out.

Finally, 18 year olds are legal adults, for better or worse.  If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  And those that claim that the brains of 18-20 year olds are not developed enough to be given full adult rights need to think long and hard about the underdeveloped ethics of trying them as adults, executing them, letting them be police officers, letting them get married and raise their own children, among other things--all while denying them sovereignty over their own bodies.  Makes you wonder how capable the brains of people over 21 (especially over 25) are of thinking in new ways.

To Guam, take it from us folks on the mainland:  21 does NOT work!  On the contrary, those that claim that it does and advocate raising the drinking age are playing with fire.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

There They Go Again!

In a previous post, White Noise Syndrome, we have pointed out what was known for a long time:  drunk driving (and related deaths) peaks at age 21.  Now, yet another study has noticed this too, this time among college students.  Captain Obvious, if you will.  The researchers found that among 20 year old students, 20% admit to driving drunk, which rises modestly to 25% when they turn 21.  But the conclusions the authors drew about it were nothing short of strange.

The authors actually feel that the study validates keeping the drinking age at 21!  Their pretzel logic is that the increased availability of alcohol at 21 translates into more drunk driving than at 20, thus lowering the drinking age would be a bad idea.  But this argument is specious at best.  For example, the peak age for drunk driving is also 21 in countries with lower drinking ages such as Canada (18 or 19), Germany (16), Australia (18), and the UK (18), and this was true in the USA as well when the drinking age was 18 in most states.  That is, DUI increases between age 18 and 21 even in the absence of increased availability at 21.  Also, the aforementioned study also found that college freshmen drink more than upperclassmen, while drunk driving appears to increase with age--and even between 19 and 20 this increase occurs as well despite similar alcohol availability.  One possible reason for this paradox is that freshmen are less likely to have their own cars, as are 18 year olds in general, and more likely to live on campus.  Combine a 21 year old's greater likelihood of owning a car with the sudden increase in freedom to drink legally, and the study's results are hardly surprising.  It is the Law of Eristic Escalation in action.  One thing is for sure:  no one magically becomes able to handle alcohol upon turning 21 if they were not able to handle it before.  And with 1 in 5 college students overall admitting to driving drunk in the past year, it is quite obvious that if this is what they call success, we'd hate to see what failure looks like.

Perhaps our country's misguided attempt to keep 18-20 year olds from drinking at all, which has clearly failed, is not the best way to prepare young adults for the reality of drinking that 90% of them will experience.  All it is doing is delaying the inevitable at best, and making it more dangerous than it has to be at worst.  If the drinking age was 18, young adults could get the partying out of their system before many of them get their first cars, and often while still living on campus.  It would likely be done more safely than now, when it is done underground.  There would be no need to go to far-off locations (which often involve drinking and driving) when they could drink in their dorms, apartments, or walk to and from the local bar.  In fact, a 2005 study found that blood alcohol levels prior to driving among college students are higher from drinking at parties compared to all other locations, so more 18-20 year olds going to bars would probably mean fewer crashes, even among those who are foolish enough to drive.  Then when they are a few years older, it would get to be "old hat" and there would be less desire to mix booze and car keys. 

If anything, this study is a good argument for lowering the drinking age to 18, as well as cracking down harder on drunk driving.  We currently waste far too many resources trying to keep 18-20 year olds from drinking, that could be better spent on DUI enforcement.  But apparently the brains of people over 21 (especially over 25) are less capable of thinking in new ways.

As the late Ronald Reagan would say, "I can't help it, there you go again!"

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Finally, Some Good News from Britain!

(NOTE: This blog is from a primarily American perspective)

The United Kingdom (which happens to be America's mother country) has had a long history of binge drinking.  By long, we mean nearly a thousand years.  And by binge drinking, we mean drinking to not only get drunk (or "pissed" as they like to say), but to fall down.

The British drinking culture, which was the main influence on its former colonies around the world, has generally ebbed and flowed along with the zeitgeist.  For a variety of reasons, binge drinking and alcohol consumption in general has increased dramatically over the past few decades (especially the 1990s) among both teenagers and adults alike.  Most notable among those reasons was the steadily falling price of booze relative to personal income since the 1960s, the rising number and density of alcohol outlets, and the practice of "loss leading" promotions by these outlets.  Since around 2000, the news media (especially the tabloids) have been hawking scare stories on a regular basis about the country's apparently worsening drinking problem, especially stories about young people.  Of course, we all know that good news doesn't sell nearly as well as bad or frighening news.

However, it appears that things are actually changing for the better, at least among young people.  Since about 2003, teen drinking in England is down significantly, especially among 11-15 year olds.  This appears to be driven in part by fewer people under 18 buying their own alcohol directly, which is likely a result of tougher enforcement of Britain's long-standing drinking age of 18.  By tougher we mean that enforcement went from practically nonexistent to quite significant, though the age limit is still less enforced than America's 21 drinking age and there are numerous exceptions to the UK limit.  Think of it like the way we treat cigarettes in the USA.  Also, 16-24 year olds are drinking less frequently and less heavily in 2008 than they were in 1996.  Unfortunately, however, there has been little to no progress overall among adults over 25 for some reason, and alcohol-related deaths (mostly liver disease, which has a lag time of many years) remain higher than in the 1990s.  Though that may change as the current cohort of teens and young adults ages in the future.

In addition, the British Crime Survey shows that violent crime has generally declined since the 1990s as well, including crimes committed by offenders perceived by victims as being under the influence of alcohol or drugs.  Suicides have dropped as well.  This trend is unlikely due to tougher gun control laws passed in the 1990s--the use of guns in crimes has actually risen since 1998 despite overall violent crime falling.  It also calls into question the conventional wisdom that the 24-hour extended drinking laws (effective 2005) have ushered in disaster on the streets of England.

Most notably of all, this occurred without raising the drinking age to 21, as some people in the UK had suggested doing.  Right-o, old chap?

Thursday, May 6, 2010

The Real Terrorists of the Road

What if we were to tell you that there was an epidemic of adults going around killing thousands of children and teenagers every year, and maiming hundreds of thousands more?  What if the innocent victims were statistically more likely to be victimized by such adults than to be victimized by people their own ages?  What if the killers were able to get off with relatively light punishments, and were still allowed to engage in the very behaviors that led to such tragedies? 

You probably think there would be an outrage, as there should be.  But America just predictably responds with a collective yawn and a shrug to the problem of drunk driving adults over 21 killing and maiming people under that age.  A new study shows that, with respect to alcohol-related crashes, children and teens are statistically more likely to be victimized by adults over 21 than vice versa, and more than from drunk drivers under 21.  Think about that next time you read about yet another "teenager killed in a drunk driving crash."

Remember, the drunk driver that killed MADD founder Candy Lightner's 13 year old daughter was 46.  A teenager was killed by an adult.  And what age group lost the most civil liberties as a result of MADD's activism?  18-20 year olds.  Honestly, does that really make any sense?

It's time we got much tougher on the real terrorists of the road.  Our children and teens--that is, our future--deserve nothing less.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

New Zealand Revisited

(NOTE:  This blog is from a primarily American perspective)

It's official.  New Zealand has a drinking problem.  While America does too, if you scrape the bottom of the barrel you will actually find quite a few countries that are worse than the good old USA in terms of dangerous and excessive drinking, and NZ appears to be one of them.  And it appears to be getting worse over there as time goes on.

New Zealand has always had such a problem to some extent.  Google "six-o-clock swill" and you'll quickly see that it goes back at least a century.  But the recent increase can be traced back to 1989, when the Sale of Liquor Act dramatically liberalized the booze laws.  Trading hours for booze became 24/6 (still no Sunday sales), up from the previous 10 pm closing times, and the looser licensing laws caused number of outlets to more than double from 1989 to 2009.  Booze prices also shrank relative to average incomes, and "loss leading" became a common practice.  In 1999, on the same day the drinking age was lowered from 20 to 18, they began allowing beer to be sold in supermarkets, accelerating the rise in outlet density, and with the simultaneous addition of Sunday sales, it was now 24/7.  All this in a country that is generally soft on crime and tolerant of extreme drinking and drunken violence.

The Law Commission has apparently come up with a few recommendations to tackle the problem.   In their report, they include the following, among others:

  • Have a "one-way door" (no entry) policy for pubs and nightclubs after 2am
  • Require all pubs to close by 4am
  • No off-premise sales after 10pm
  • Restrict "irresponsible" promotions that encourage excessive drinking
  • Raise the alcohol excise tax by 50%
  • Raise the drinking age from 18 to 20
While we at Twenty-One Debunked would not have a problem with the first five changes being implemented, we clearly take exception to the last one, raising the drinking age.  We do not think it will do any good, and may possibly throw gasoline on the fire.  Clearly, NZ doesn't have a teen drinking problem, they have a Kiwi drinking problem, one that spans all ages.  Plenty of 20-29 year olds can't handle their liquor, should the drinking age be 30 then?  Funny all the vitriol about raising the tax, often the same people over 20 who want the drinking age raised.  If the proposed 50% tax hike (really a mere 10% price hike) bothers you, you're clearly drinking way too much.  Perhaps you should cut down.  Chivas Regal said it best.

Besides, raising the age limit would be a major victory for the pro-21 crowd in this country as well if the drinking age was raised, reducing the chances that our drinking age will be lowered any time in the near future.  It would only reinforce the specious claim that lowering the drinking age in America would be a disaster, since it would seem that NZ tried it and couldn't handle it.  Nevermind that NZ is a very different culture from the USA, and that other factors were at work--neoprohibitionists apparently can't be bothered with pesky facts.

Instead, we propose the following for NZ in addition to the Law Commissions recommendations (aside from the drinking age), and these will likely work in other countries with a serious drinking problem:

  • Set a price floor for alcohol, especially at off-licenses, and ban the practice of "loss leading" (selling below cost).
  • Restrict or ban alcohol advertising, especially on TV and radio.
  • 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 accountable for what their under-18 kids do, especially if the parents supplied them with alcohol beforehand. 
  • Put more cops on the street, and get tough on real crime, especially drunk violence.
  • 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, especially in cities.
  • Increase alcohol education and public awareness campaigns.
  • Exempt microbreweries from any new tax hikes (they are generally not part of the problem, and they would have the hardest time absorbing such price increases). Otherwise, tax the hell out of alcohol, especially RTDs (alcopops).
  • Do NOT raise the drinking age! Just enforce it better, especially for off-premise sales, and close the existing loopholes on furnishing alcohol to minors under 18 (which the Law Commission also recommends).
Note that some of these things are a bit stricter than that which we would propose for America.  However, NZ has a worse drinking problem than we do, and appear to be one of the worst in the world.  Only Russia and a few other former Soviet-bloc countries appear to be worse, and not by all that much. 

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.  Unfortunately, they appear to have flip-flopped on the drinking age issue this time around.

What exactly were the effects of lowering the drinking age from 20 to 18 in December 1999?  It turns out that those who claim it was a disaster haven't the foggiest idea of cause and effect.  Carnage on the highways?  Unlikely to be causal.  According to the International Traffic Safety Data and Analysis Group, the reporting of nonfatal injury crashes by police had improved since 2001. Teen traffic fatalities fluctuated a great deal due to their small numbers, but the rates generally remained below their 1999 values from 2000-2008.  Increase in youth crime and violence?  That had been rising since 1992, seven years before the drinking age was lowered, and actually declined around 1998-2002 before resuming its upward trend.  Again, unlikely causation.

(Take a look at our May 2009 blog post about New Zealand for more information about the issue of their drinking age)

In other news, NZ's driving age (currently 15) was raised to 16 effective in mid-2011, and it will also be a bit tougher to get a license.  To that, we say good--if any age limit should be raised over there, the driving age is it.  Kiwis tend to have higher fatality rates compared to Aussies or us Yanks, and their driving age is ridiculously low compared to most other countries.  They are already debating whether to raise it further to 17.  But while they're at it, why not get tougher on drunk driving and reckless driving for all ages?

Monday, April 12, 2010

New Scare About Young Adult Drinking

This one is so easy to knock down it is almost a straw man, but we will do what we always do when junk science is encountered.  That's what we're here for, after all.

A new study reports that there is a correlation between benign breast disease and frequent drinking in young women aged 15-22.  One headline, "Underage Drinking Tied to Breast Disease Risk," is misleading because it includes women up to two years over the legal drinking age of 21, and not all drinkers were equal.  The risk was only statistically significant for those who drank three or more times per week, with the highest risk for daily drinkers.  Even so, the confidence intervals were very wide, suggesting possible residual or unmeasured confounding.  And the effect was not explained by age of onset of regular drinking.  That's right--no correlation with age of onset, and therefore nothing magic about the drinking age of 21.

Once again, it appears moderation is the key, regardless of age.  That should be the take-home message for this study, not "don't drink a drop until 21, then do what you will," which is apparently what one of the authors implied when discussing the results.  But moderation appears to be a forgotten virtue in the land of extremes that is America, no doubt spurred on by the 21 drinking age.

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

Sunday, March 28, 2010

High Gas Prices Save Lives

It's now official.  Traffic fatalities in 2009 were at their lowest since 1954, and in 2008 were at their lowest since 1961.  This was despite the fact that now the population is much larger, there are much more cars on the road, and much more vehicle miles traveled than back then.  Similar trends have been noted in preliminary data from Canada as well.  While many factors likely contributed to this lifesaving trend, perhaps the most salient one of all was gas prices, which had been rising steadily since 2004 and spiked dramatically in 2008.

Gas prices are now known to have a significant effect, and are thus now emerging as one of the most cost-effective ways to save lives on the road.  Carefully controlled studies have found this to be true, and the fatality rates of 2008 and 2009 confirm this.  While 2009 had lower gas prices than 2008, the driving habits learned in 2008 had yet to be unlearned, and this was likely prolonged by the recession.  Similar effects of gas prices (and recessions) occurred in 1974-1975, 1980-1983, and 1990-1993.  Contrary to popular opinion, the price elasticity of gasoline is not zero, or even close to zero, and it seems to rise dramatically when prices go above $3.00/gallon.  Longer-term elasticites are about twice as strong, suggesting the effect builds over time.

The effects on fatalities are not limited to reduced vehicle miles traveled; while that drops too, even controlling for this we can see a decrease in deaths.  "Discretionary" driving declines the most when gas prices rise, and most fatalities occur from this type of driving, including the majority of alcohol-related fatalities.  Speeding and aggressive driving also decline in an effort to save fuel and money.  Thus, the price elasticity for gasoline demand actually understates the effect on fatalities.

By that logic, it seems that one of the best ways we can reduce traffic fatalities (both alcohol and non-alcohol) would be to raise the gas tax.  Of course, that would make a lot of people mad.  But if it saves even one life, it's worth it, right?  Isn't that what groups like MADD have said about things like the 21 drinking age?  Judging by the lack of enthusiasm about raising the gas tax, it appears that the pro-21 crowd doesn't practice what they preach.  Or maybe it's all about liberty for "just us," not all.

If we know higher gas prices save lives, not to mention the planet, what are we waiting for?

Monday, March 22, 2010

The Lincoln (Nebraska) Miracle that Wasn't

You have probably heard about the supposed miracle that has happened in Lincoln, Nebraska.   At the University of Nebraska--Lincoln, a combination of tough laws, heavy-handed enforcement, and strong public support (from community members over 21) has led to a decrease in "binge" drinking and associated consequences since 1997.  Or at least that's what they're telling us.

UNL is a dry campus, and has been such for a while, but the surrounding town has been anything but dry.  But then the crackdowns happened, apparently with a special focus on underage drinking.  Police, college officals, and landlords all teamed up to reduce underage drinking and out of control parties, and the consequences meted out for either are severe (at least compared to other college towns).   Lives and careers have been ruined to one degree or another as a result.  In fact, it's become a virtual witch-hunt that would likely make McCarthy himself blush.

The crackdowns are actually part of a larger anti-alcohol program known as A Matter of Degree, funded by grants from the neo-temperance Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and directed by Dr. Richard Yoast.  Ten colleges around the country, including UNL, participated in the AMOD program since 1997 and it is still ongoing.

So was it worth it?  Well, if you dig a little deeper you will find that according to its own police department, the city of Lincoln had a record high number of DUI arrests in 2009.  In fact, 2008 and 2009 were the two worst years, even surpassing the old record from 1992.  Of course, analyzing arrest rates poses a chicken-or-egg problem; it could simply be tougher enforcement, not more drunk driving.  However, student surveys show that the percentage of students who report driving after drinking actually doubled from 2003 to 2006.  We speculate that many of the parties have simply shifted outside of the city limits, so party-goers drive there, get drunk, and drive back.  If that's success, we'd hate to see what failure looks like.

And the decrease in "binge" drinking according to surveys was from 62% of students in 1997 to 45%, meaning that they went from well above average to merely average.  No better than average in fact, and average is still quite high.  Remember too that correlation does not equal causation.  Part of it could be that prospective students who are most likely to be party animals simply choose other colleges instead after hearing about what a police state Lincoln has become.  And high school student drinking in Lincoln is still a persistent problem, one that most likely will remain as long as the police continue disproportionally targeting 18-20 year olds.  (Of course, Lincoln is clearly not the only place in the country where this is an issue)

As for the crackdowns purportedly reducing crime, LPD crime statistics for the city as a whole appear to debunk that claim as well, at least for the most serious crimes like homicide, rape, and aggravated assault.

Thus, it appears that it was a rather hollow victory overall.  While there are some good aspects to their overall strategy of reducing high-risk drinking, it would probably be best if Nebraska decided to lower the drinking age to 18 (it actually used to be 19 until the 1980s) and targeted the actual troublemakers rather than those who are simply drinking and/or at the wrong place at the wrong time.  But the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation would never even consider that, given their apparent bias against alcohol.

In fact, the rather expensive AMOD program itself is highly questionable at best.  A 2004 study found that in the first five years of implementation, little to no change in high-risk drinking (or its consequences) was seen in the aggregate.  Five out of the 10 schools that participated (including UNL) did see some improvement, but it was hard to tease out what actually caused what due to all the variables involved.  The RWJF, of course, put a positive spin on the results, as does the neo-temperance crowd overall.  But the rest of us can clearly see that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.

So let's make a toast to Richard Yoast.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Emperor Is Naked

We should have written about this last year, but we recently learned that MADD has severed all ties with the Century Council, and all of the reasons why.  For those who don't know, the Century Council (TCC) is an organization dedicated to fighting drunk driving and underage drinking, that is funded entirely by America's leading distillers.  Cynics, however, would say that the organization is just a political ploy to deflect blame from the alcohol industry.  MADD's Dear John letter to them noted that the primary reason for the split was the Century Council's initial opposition to mandatory ignition interlocks for first offenders, a group MADD rightly referred to as "ticking time bombs" since they have already driven drunk 88 times on average before being caught.  For that particular issue, we at Twenty-One Debunked tend to agree with MADD.  Ignition interlocks are the mimimum that should be imposed on drunk drivers, and in fact we think the laws against DUI should be much tougher.  Usually only extremely die-hard libertines or those with vested interests would be opposed to that, and TCC has since officially switched to neutrality on the ignition interlock issue.

However, another less-publicized reason noted in the letter was that TCC allegedly condoned drinking before the age of 21, despite the organization's generally unequivocal stance supporting the 21 drinking age.  This was based solely on a quote by TCC's president, taken way out of context, concerning an ad campaign designed by college students through the American Advertising Federation's student competition to reduce excessive drinking.  The actual quote was, "[t]he behavior is taking place, the best thing we can do is reduce the harm." Despite the TCC reaffirming its support for the 21 drinking age, MADD still was not satisfied since their refusal to retract that specific quote (though clearly true) could somehow be perceived as "undermining" the drinking age or "condoning" underage drinking.   Now that's just lunacy--even the slightest hint that one can see cracks in the facade of prohibition is somehow bad?

Just go to any college campus (except perhaps Brigham Young or Bob Jones) and you will see that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes.  The 21 drinking age simply doesn't work--the majority of 18-20 year olds still drink.  And while fewer of them now drink regularly than they did back in the 1970s, which may or may not have anything to do with the drinking age, the more they do when they do.  And the problem of truly dangerous drinking, though always there, is arguably worse in colleges today.  Forcing alcohol underground only makes it that much more dangerous (and appealing), a lesson we should have learned in the 1920s but somehow conveniently forgot when it comes to today's young people.  We need better solutions, the kind that can only work with a lower drinking age.  What better time than now?

Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Fake Controversy

The Canadian women's ice hockey team is supposedly in hot water after some of its members were drinking beer on the ice to celebrate winning against the American team in the Vancouver Olympics.  At least one of them was 18, and the drinking age in British Columbia is 19 (but 18 in Alberta where they trained, as well as in the player's native Quebec).  They weren't out of control, and the festivities occurred after the fans had left. 

The American media has been making a big deal out of this.  Why?  Because in the good old US of A, the drinking age is 21, and many older adults are both terrified and titillated simultaneously at the idea of those under 21 drinking.  Especially when it is done by young women.  Thus it makes a good story over here.  But the rest of the world (including Canada) just laughs at our puritanical immaturity and cultural schizophrenia regarding alcohol and young people.

In Canada, they recognize 18-20 year olds as full adults, and treat them as such.  The drinking age is 18 or 19, depending on the province, and they do not appear to be any worse off for it than us.  Drinking at that age is viewed as normative behavior, and they recognize that alcohol abuse (rather than mere use) is the real problem.  Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from our neighbor to the north.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Vermont Debates the Drinking Age

The Vermont legislature is currently debating whether or not to lower the drinking age to 18.  And we hope they choose to do so.  Someone's gotta go first, and Vermont's independent streak will make them a good choice.

For those who don't know, Vermont was the first state (except the 10 states that were 18 since the 1930s) to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18 in 1971, along with the voting age and age of majority.  This remained the case until 1986, when it was raised back to 21 due to federal coercion.  Actually, Governor Richard Snelling flat-out refused to raise the drinking age in spite of the highway funding penalty, vetoing several bills, and thought that it would be better to actually get tougher on drunk driving and improve alcohol education.  It was not until they got a new governor that the state finally sold out and it was raised. 

Interestingly, Vermont in 2008 actually had zero under-21 drunk driving fatalities, down from 14 in 1982.  Of course, that's easy for a state with a population of only 621,760.  And the decline began at least four years before the drinking age was raised.   This is in spite of their proximity to Quebec (where the drinking age is 18), the state's rural nature, and its above-average "binge" drinking rate.  Since the pretext for raising the drinking age in the 1980s was reducing drunk driving, many of the state's 18-20 year olds are probably now wondering, "Can we have our civil liberties back now?"

Most states either hate guns or hate gays.  Vermont, however, uniquely tolerates them both.  And if they lower the drinking age to 18, they will truly be the most free state in the country.  Even freer than their neighbor New Hampshire, the one with the motto "Live Free or Die," which also happens to be the motto of the True Spirit of America Party.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Social Host Laws Revisited

We at Twenty-One Debunked have repeatedly stated that there was no hard evidence that "social host" laws (laws that impose civil and/or criminal liability on those who merely allow (not give) those under 21 to drink on property they control, especially if injuries or fatalities subsequently occur) save any lives or reduce underage drinking.  In fact, a 2008 study by Fell et al. (a true believer in the 21 drinking age no less) found no effect of such laws, at least not for criminal ones.  That is not surprising since even district attorneys find these laws difficult to enforce, including the notorious law in Massachusetts. 

But a new study by Dills (2009) appears to have found a lifesaving effect for social host laws among 18-20 year olds, at least according to the author.  And it supposedly remained even after several other variables (drinking age, 0.08 BAC limit, seat belt law, zero tolerance, beer tax, etc.) and fixed effects were controlled for.

However, this claim does not appear to stand up to closer scrutiny.  After reading the paper ourselves, we find the following issues with the study:

  • The fatalities were divided into three categories:  drinking, drunk driver, and sober.  The fact that data from the 1977-2005 were used would likely introduce biases relating to BAC testing rates.  Testing rates were much lower in the 1970s and early 1980s, and determination was often subjective.
  • Restricting the data to 1982-2005 (the only years for which that FARS has alcohol-related data, and likely less biased) reduced the size and significance of the effects of both social host laws and the drinking age.  The former was only significant at the 10% level, while the latter was not even statistically significant at all. 
  • None of the models showed a "dose-response" relationship when the effects of various drinking ages (18, 19, 20, and 21) were tested.  In fact, some even had the "wrong" sign.
  • Many of the covariates such as BAC limit, beer tax, zero tolerance, and seat belt laws were statistically insignificant, suggesting something wrong with the models.
  • Dram-shop laws were not controlled for, and since many social host states have these as well, this may be a potent confounding factor.  Some past studies have found effects of dram-shop laws, while others have not.
  • Other variables that were not controlled for include sobriety checkpoints, roving patrols, 0.10 BAC laws, harsher DUI penalties, administrative license revocation, police per capita, and several others.
  • There was no distinction between statutes and case law, which suggests a potential endogeneity problem.
  • There was no over-21 comparison group.
  • In general, states that adopted social host laws already had declining fatalities before adoption.
  • Using survey data among 18-20 year olds, effects of social host laws were not significant (even at the 10% level) for drinking, "binge" drinking, and drunk driving in the past 30 days when other variables and state trends were controlled for.  For the frequency of drunk driving per respondent, it was only significant at the 10% level despite a very large sample size of over 52,000 people.
  • Effects on those under 18 were not tested in any sense.
For those who don't know, statistical significance refers to the likelihood that a result did not occur by chance.  However, it only controls random errors, not systematic ones (such as bias or confounders).  Traditionally, a 5% level is chosen, meaning that if the p-value (the probability of getting another result at least as extreme) is below 0.05, it is considered statistically significant.  Results with a p-value above 0.05, such as many of the results in the Dills study, are traditionally rejected.

In other words, the evidence from the study in support of social host laws is rather weak, and is likely to be a spurious correlation.  In fact, the reported 9% decrease in drunk driving fatalities is both too small to be conclusive evidence of causality (especially when statistical significance is examined), and too large to be plausible given that the majority of people are likely unaware of the existence of these laws, especially civil ones (which are usually only sporadically enforced).  Most likely, social host laws are acting as a proxy for something else, such as tougher DUI laws and/or enforcement.

To our knowledge, there has been only one other study of social host laws to date. A 2000 study by Stout et al. did manage to find a significant negative correlation between all-ages civil social host laws and both self-reported "binge" drinking as well as self-reported drinking and driving among adults over 21 in national survey data from 1984-1995.  While numerous variables were controlled for, the following were not:  state fixed effects, state trends, blood alcohol limit, sobriety checkpoints, overall DUI enforcement, and drinking age.  Again, it could have been a proxy for something else.  And traffic fatalities or any other consequences of drinking were not examined in the study, so questions relating to those are left unanswered by that study.  Generalizability is also limited, and it says nothing about the persistence of the reported effects or whether they are applicable to anyone under 21, especially in today's world.  Those who use the study to justify social host laws as worthwhile should bear in mind that the same study found that mandatory fines and especially mandatory jail for a first DUI offense to be more effective in reducing self-reported drinking and driving than social host laws.

What about the "collateral damage" that occurs from social host laws?  For one, a host (however broadly defined) can be fined, sued, or even jailed--in some cases for several years.  And civil liberties often need to be violated to enforce such draconian prohibitions.  But what about the "children," you know, the ones these laws were ostensibly written to "protect"?  In the five years since San Diego passed their own local social host ordinance in 2003 (California itself has none), there have been more police responses to parties, and more alcohol-related teen hospital admissions.  In other words, there was likely just as much drinking if not more so, but the bigger teen drinking parties of the past seem to have broken up into many more smaller (and more dangerous) ones with presumably more booze to go around.  And only the bold and reckless (and/or ignorant) are hosting them now that it is a crime.  Looks like the Law of Eristic Escalation in action yet again.

We at Twenty-One Debunked do not support any type of social host law, civil or criminal, as they contravene the very idea of personal responsibility and likely do more harm than good by forcing alcohol deeper underground, making it more dangerous than it has to be.  At the very least, we do not think that such laws should apply to drinking by those over the age of majority (18), regardless of the current legal drinking age.  Of course, we want that to be 18 as well.  And we have repeatedly noted that social host laws are just another pathetic attempt to prop up the greatest alcohol policy failure since Prohibition.  We would be better off going after those who actually do drive drunk and endanger the public, regardless of age.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Let's Talk About Canada

When advocates of lowering the drinking age bring up Europe for comparison, they often paint themselves into a corner.  America and Europe are very different, so in many ways it's apples and oranges.  But European countries are not the only ones that have lower drinking ages.

We do in fact have a good yardstick for what would have happened had the drinking age not been raised to 21 in the 1980s.  It's called Canada.  Their drinking ages have remained at 18 or 19, depending on the province, for the past three decades.  And it is the country that most resembles America in many ways, especially in terms of its car culture.  So let's talk about Canada then.


It is often claimed by proponents of the 21 drinking age that raising the drinking age saved lives.  While alcohol-related traffic fatalites did decline, correlation does not prove causality.  First of all, the trend began in 1982, two years before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act that forced all states to raise their drinking ages to 21 by 1987.  Perhaps the trend began even earlier, as total 18-20 year old fatalities began declining in 1979-1980, but 1982 is the first year that FARS has reasonably reliable data for alcohol-related fatalities.  And Canada saw a remarkably similar trend, as you can see in the graphs below (courtesy of NHTSA).

Percent Change from 1982-1997
US: drivers age 16-20 in fatal crashes with positive BAC (FARS)
Canada: driver fatalities age 16-19 with positive BAC (TIRF)
Percent Change from 1982-1997
US: percentage of drivers age 16-20 in fatal crashes with positive BAC (FARS)
Canada: percentage of driver fatalities age 16-19 with positive BAC (TIRF)

Interestingly, the decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities since 1982 occurred at about the same rate in both countries, with no evidence of divergence in the expected direction despite the fact that Canada did not raise the drinking age to 21.  In both countries, drivers under 21 saw some of the largest declines of all compared with other age groups, though all ages saw some decline over the long run.  Moreover, progress continued for Canadian teens from 1997-2005, while unfortunately it stalled for their American counterparts during that time, only resuming after gas prices began to skyrocket (which Americans were not used to) and the economy began to sag.  In 2005-2006, the rate of total 15-24 year old traffic fatalities (per 100,000 people) for the USA was 25.5, and 16.9 in Canada, the latter being 33% lower than the former.

In other words, the downward trend in fatalities can be explained entirely by other factors, which likely include, inter alia:

  • Tougher laws and penalties for DUI
  • Better DUI enforcement
  • More education and awareness of the problem of impaired driving
  • Designated driver programs
  • Seat belt laws
  • Safer cars and roads due to improved engineering
  • Demographic changes
  • Changes in gas prices
In fact, some things, such as the 0.08 BAC limit, were already in place in Canada well before 1982.  The BAC limit in the US was still 0.12-0.15 in most states in 1982, and since then all 50 states, DC, and Puerto Rico lowered it to 0.10 and eventually to 0.08.  Zero-tolerance laws for younger drivers, which were enacted in all 50 states and DC by 1998 (beginning in the 1980s), were nonexistent until well into the 1990s in most Canadian provinces, and until very recently no province's law was as strict as in the USA.  Also, graduated driver license rules for younger drivers had eventually become stricter than Canada's in several states.  If anything, fatality rates for all ages should have declined faster in the US relative to Canada, but for some reason they did not.

Worse still, according to a 2004 book by Leonard Evans, former safety researcher for General Motors, America has been lagging behind several other countries in terms of traffic safety.  The table below shows the change in the number and rate of total traffic fatalites (all ages) over time in the US and three other countries that maintained lower drinking ages since 1979.

CountryMLDA1979 Fatalities2002 Fatalities% Change
% Change
(per vehicle)
% Change
(per VMT)
Canada18 or 195,8632,936-49.9%-63.5%N/A


Of course, highway fatalities are not the only concern raised about the drinking age.  Proponents of the 21 drinking age also claim it reduced teen drinking and "binge" drinking (5+ drinks in an occasion).  But that trend, as measured by the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, began in 1979, which was several years before most states adopted the 21 law.  And raising the drinking age may lead to reduced reporting in surveys even in the absence of actual behavioral change.  So all teen surveys ought to be taken with at least a grain of salt, if not a pound.

The province of Ontario (with a drinking age of 19 since 1979) has a similar survey (OSDUS) going back to the 1970s, though not all the measurements are the same.  The following table, again courtesy of NHTSA, shows the changes in Ontario during the most relevant time period (1979-1991 unless otherwise stated) compared with the USA.  The American data are for grade 12 only, while the Ontario data are for grades 7-13 combined, so they are not directly comparable.  The trends, however, are strikingly similar.

Drinking Behavior19791991% Change,
Annual drinking: USA88.1%77.7% -12%
Annual drinking: Ontario76.9% 58.7% -24%
Daily drinking: USA6.9%3.6%-48%
Daily drinking: Ontario0.9%0.4%-56%
5 or more drinks: USA
(past 2 weeks)
5 or more drinks: Ontario
(past 4 weeks)
5 or more drinks: USA
(past 2 weeks, 1979-1993)
5 or more drinks: Ontario
(past 4 weeks, grades 7, 9
and 11 only, 1979-1993)
Drive after drinking: USA
(past 2 weeks)
Drive after drinking: Ontario

Of course, that is only one province.  What about the rest of Canada?  Unfortunately, most Canadian provinces do not have longitudinal data going back that far, or even before 1996, so we are stuck with doing a crude cross-section using current data for our international comparison.  The following table consists of the past-month prevalence of "binge" drinking (5+ drinks in an occasion) for high school seniors as reported in recent surveys, in selected states and provinces.  American data were taken from the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey, while Canadian data were taken from various provincial surveys. 

LocationBinge Drinking
(Grade 12)
Drove after drinking
(Grades 9-12)
USA (overall)36.5%10.5%212007
North Dakota47.0%18.7%212007
South Dakota47.3%13.0%212007
Atlantic Provinces49.7% N/A192007
Ontario 48%11.6%192007

Puerto Rico (USA)33.2%7.3%
Guam (USA)30.3%7.8%182007
Northern Mariana 
Islands (USA)

Care was taken to compare apples to apples, and that is why the YRBS was used for American data instead of the Monitoring the Future survey.  Canadian surveys and YRBS report past-month "binge" drinking, while MTF reports it for past two weeks (and thus contains lower numbers).  The Manitoba figure was for the past-year, as comparable data for past month were not available, and can thus be considered an upper bound for past-month "binge" drinking.

Note the similarity between the northern states and Canadian provinces which are geographically and demographically similar--they generally tend to be around 50%.  There does not appear to be a significant correlation between the drinking age and "binge" drinking rates.  Remember again that the American data are more likely underreported than the Canadian data due to the drinking age difference and cultural factors.

Also note the below-average numbers for the US territories of Guam and Puerto Rico, both of which have a drinking age of 18.  In fact, even the temperance-oriented Robert Wood Johnson Foundation concedes that Puerto Rico was able to reduce both alcohol-related traffic fatalities and underage (under 18) drinking since the 1990s without raising the drinking age.  From 1982 to 2009, Puerto Rico saw a whopping 84% decline in teenage (16-20) drunk driving fatalities, while the nation as a whole saw a 74% drop, in both cases to record-low levels.  Now that's a great American success story.

In other words, it appears that Miron and Tetelbaum (2009) were spot on when they said that the drinking age appears to have "only a minor impact on teen drinking," just like they were right about its lack of a lifesaving effect on the highways. 


As for allegedly creating a nation of brain-damaged, alcoholic felons by allowing 18-20 year olds to drink, this myth does not hold water either.  In international standardized tests, Canadian 12th graders beat their American counterparts despite the former having similar or lower scores in 4th grade.  In fact, nearly all the countries that beat us set the drinking age at 18 or even lower!  The alcoholism rates in both the USA and Canada are also roughly equivalent, and the adult per capita alcohol consumption rate is actually slightly lower in Canada.  Alcohol-related death rates, both in terms of liver cirrhosis as well as "alcohol use disorder", are also lower in Canada according to the World Health Organization.  In fact, Canadians live on average three years longer than Americans.  And the rates of violent crimes, especially the most serious ones like homicide, tend to be significantly lower in Canada as well.
In short, puritanical America, with our 21 drinking age, appears to be the less healthy society of the two.  And while correlation does not prove causation, the aforementioned statistics certainly won't convince anyone that our illiberal policies are doing much good in reducing alcohol-related problems or improving public health and safety.  We need to see the forest for the trees, something America chronically fails to do in terms of alcohol policy.

Perhaps we can learn a thing or two from our neighbor to the north?


2011 UPDATE:  Errata have been found (and updated) for some surveys.  Also, additional data have been (and will be) added to this post from time to time--stay tuned. 

Saturday, January 30, 2010

A Teachable Moment

Too young to drink legally, but old enough to be sued?  Welcome to the world of the American teenager.

In Massachusetts in October 2008, a 17 year old honor student, Taylor Meyer, went out drinking with several friends after a football game, and unfortunately did not survive.  They went to some house parties and eventually the woods by a swamp, Taylor wandered off, and her body was found in the frigid swamp a few days later.  The details of what actually happened in the woods are not yet known, and it is thus a bit premature to speculate on the roles of her friends that night.  Though it is highly unlikely anyone forcibly poured the booze down her throat, and the autopsy showed that the death was consistent with drowning rather than foul play.

Now, in 2010, Taylor's mother is suing seven of the girl's friends, five of which are under 18 and six of which are under 21, for wrongful death.  She says it is about "accountability" rather than money, and the amount she is suing for was not disclosed.  Nevermind the fact that those teens are, due to their age, deemed too irresponsible and immature to drink legally.  If that's the case, how can they be mature enough to be held legally liable for a friend's self-inflicted death?  Look, you can't have it both ways--either they're adults or they're not.  The hypocrisy is so thick you can cut it with a knife.

Unfortunately, this is what happens when alcohol is forced underground. Many preventable deaths occur as a result of the 21 drinking age, just like during Prohibition.  So why is no one in the MSM saying this?  If anyone should be sued, it should be the government, as well as fanatical groups like MADD, for helping to create a more dangerous environment for young people.  Those folks have WAY more blood on their hands than they care to acknowledge.

Our litigious culture feels the need to sue for just about everything, and this is just one of many examples. Personal responsibility has sadly become a forgotten virtue in our society, and parents increasingly abdicate their responsibility for their children as well.  They often expect the state to raise them, and when things go wrong it is always someone else's fault.  Alas, this has become the new "normal" for America.

The mother in this case, however, believed she was doing the right thing.  From what she said, she (like many American parents of teenagers) appears to have raised her daughter on a "zero tolerance" model with respect to alcohol, perhaps even more so than average.  And she is left wondering what more she could have done, such as check her daughter's Facebook.  The problem with the "zero tolerance" approach, however, is that there is little to no room for harm reduction.   Many teens, like Taylor, are going to drink either way.  And the 21 drinking age often creates a false sense of security for parents, as well as increased dangers for their teenage children.  Better alcohol education, and a more relaxed view of alcohol, could oddly enough have prevented this tragedy.  A feast or famine mentality, fear of getting busted, forbidden fruit attraction, and a schizoid drinking culture all combined, in this case, to spell disaster.

We can learn a lot from tragedies like these, and how to prevent them from happening in the future.

Friday, January 8, 2010

New Organization for Lowering the Drinking Age

We at Twenty-One Debunked are clearly not alone in wanting to lower the drinking age.  Within the last week, the nation's first commercial (aka .com), non-blog website, Drink at 18, launched.  (In contrast, we're still just a blogged site--they beat us to it!)  Though they are not in any way affiliated with us, we wish them the best.  The more supporters our common cause has, the better, since there is still a dearth of websites dedicated to lowering the drinking age (compare that to the number dedicated to legalizing cannabis).  Check the site out for yourself--it's good.

Are there any significant differences between us, besides the fact that our site is primarily devoted to debunking junk science (as our name implies)?  Perhaps we have a somewhat more detailed plan of action for lowering the drinking age, but Drink at 18 is new and still has time to formulate such details.  Rome wasn't built in a day.  And any other differences are mostly cosmetic, such as the fact that we don't sell merchandise (yet).  We salute you, Drink at 18.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

18 Year Old Elected Mayor--Too Bad He Can't Legally Drink

In the small town of Dawson, Iowa, an 18 year old high school senior named Colton Morman was just elected mayor.  This makes him one of the youngest mayors in US history.

We at Twenty-One Debunked believe that the idea that one can be old enough to be mayor but still not allowed to drink legally is absurd.  We wish him well.