Sunday, February 6, 2011

We Debunk the New Zealand Report

A New Zealand-based "pro-family" (read: socially conservative) group called Family First New Zealand has published a new report on why the drinking age in NZ should be raised to 21.  The report shows a picture of a (presumably teenage) female passed out drunk on the cover, no less.  However, there are several flaws with this one-sided report, known as Young People and Alcohol, and it is up to folks like us to debunk it.

The so-called new scientific evidence about neurological effects of alcohol that they cite involves either 1) animal studies, 2) studies of truly heavy drinking humans, and/or 3) adolescents who were under 18 or began drinking before the age of 18, having little to no relevance for 18-20 year olds.  In fact, we have known for a long time that alcohol is neurotoxic at high doses, and heavy drinking at any age is harmful--no surprise there.  And the few studies of fairly low-level alcohol use in adolescent humans generally had small sample sizes as well as small "effect sizes" with limited or unknown practical significance, and most such studies were cross-sectional rather than longitudinal.  Nor have the apparent adverse effects on the brain been shown yet to be irreversible.  Reporting bias can also skew the results, such as when heavy drinkers underreport how much they drink.  It is also worth noting that not a single neuroscientific study they cited that actually compared those who began drinking at 18 versus those who began at 21, and as well as the fact that no rodent studies would have the power to distinguish between this age difference.  And the single nonhuman primate (i.e. monkey) study they cited involved chronic heavy drinking during adolescence, not moderate drinking.

Other parts of the report were purely speculative and theoretical, and/or were based on old research that we at Twenty-One Debunked have already done a rather good job of, well, debunking.   Or the effects discussed were true for all ages, not just those under 21.  Ironically, one of the studies they cited was an Australian twin study that found that the risk of later alcohol dependence, while inversely related to age at first drink, dropped dramatically after age 15 and leveled off from 18 onward.  But what can we really expect from a report whose primary author, a self-described "enlightened Puritan American", also believes that television causes half of all violent crime in the USA, and that Facebook somehow causes cancer?

Comparisons between the USA (drinking age of 21) and Canada (drinking age of 18 or 19 depending on the province) also render the authors' claims highly questionable. 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, as are traffic fatalities despite the country's somewhat more rural nature. 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, for both teens and adults. 

Another serious flaw was that the authors assumed that the brain is fully developed by age 25, and implicitly much more so than at age 18.  While we concede that 21 is slightly closer to the actual age than 18, one would still be off by about two or three--wait for it--decades.  That's right--at least some parts of the brain (e.g. the corpus callosum and even the prefrontal cortex) continue to develop well into the 40s, and myelination (white matter growth) can continue to about 40 years of age.  Which partly explains why a 50 year old typically has a bit more difficulty thinking in new ways than a 20 year old, with the trade-off of (hopefully) somewhat better impulse control.  In fact, certain types of cognitive ability seem to peak as late as 53, while other types peak earlier, after which they decline.  And new research shows that even the middle aged brain is vulnerable to the long-term effects of excessive drinking.  As we have repeatedly said, 21 is an arbitrary drinking age in light of both science and ethics, and it has no place in a free society where 18-20 year olds are considered legal adults for essentially all other purposes.

The report's outright denial of the "forbidden fruit effect" of the 21 drinking age is even more astounding.  It ignores, for example, the fairly extensive research of college students by Dr. Ruth Engs and replicated by others that demonstrates that this phenomenon is real, at least for that demographic group.  Which is precisely what happened during Prohibition as well.  It's the Law of Eristic Escalation in action--impostion of order leads to escalation of chaos.  And it's no wonder that Big Booze, who routinely and vigorously fights any proposed alcohol tax hike, advertising restriction, or even some DUI laws, did not put up much of a fight when the drinking age was raised in the USA--they knew that (except for bars) they'd still have more than enough customers and could conveniently avoid having to confront America's notorious drinking problem among adults over 21.

While the report really does not make a strong case for a legal drinking age of 21, and many of the claims they make are inconclusive at best, we must not ignore any sound science when it is available.  We at Twenty-One Debunked feel that the best take home messages of this report are that 1) excessive drinking should be avoided at any age, and 2) that perhaps it is prudent for teens to delay the onset of drinking (or at least doing so regularly) to age 18 or older, and especially avoid drinking before age 15.  While we do not encourage alcohol use at any age, or the breaking of any existing laws, we disagree with the central thrust (about the legal drinking age) made by the authors of this biased report.

To the Kiwis reading this, take it from us Yanks:  the 21 drinking age does NOT work.  If you think it will make your nation's rather notorious drinking problem magically go away, think again.  The problem affects all ages, and scapegoating young people for adult problems is the refuge of the coward.

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