Sunday, December 30, 2012

Have a Safe and Happy New Year

With the New Year's Eve festivities approaching, we at Twenty-One Debunked want to remind everyone to celebrate responsibly.  There is absolutely no excuse for drunk driving at any age, period.  We cannot stress this enough.  It's very simple--if you plan to drive, don't drink, and if you plan to drink, don't drive.  And there are numerous ways to avoid mixing the two.  Designate a sober driver, take a cab, use public transportation, crash on the couch, or even walk if you have to.  Or stay home and celebrate there.  Or don't drink--nobody's got a gun to your head.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Would a Price Floor Be a Good Idea Here?

Recently, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has begun to support the idea of setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol, which currently does not exist in Britain.  The rationale is that it would cut down on excessive drinking and related problems.  Clearly, Britain’s binge-drinking culture (affecting all ages, not just youth) is nothing short of outrageous, even by American standards, though it has improved somewhat in the past decade.   The alcohol taxes in the UK have actually risen faster than inflation in recent years, but supermarkets continue to get around that by selling cheap alcohol at a loss (aka "loss leading") to attract more customers, in a race to the bottom that the overtaxed and declining pubs can never possibly win.  So a price floor seems like a great idea, at least in the UK.

Would that also be a good idea on this side of the pond as well?  Certainly the proposed price floor of 0.40-0.50 pounds per British unit of alcohol (which would be $1.12-$1.42 per American standard drink) would be a bit steep, at least for off-premise alcohol.  A case of 24 beers would be at least $27, similar to the price in Ontario, Canada, and about double the current price for the cheapest beer in much of the USA.  Not only would that idea be unlikely to fly in this country, it may not even be necessary to make set the floor that high to reap significant public health benefits.  Alcohol prices are currently significantly lower in the USA than in the UK (mostly due to our very low alcohol taxes), and the cost of living is lower in the USA as well.  American teenagers and young adults are also significantly poorer than their British counterparts, at least those in the bottom 90%. 

Twenty-One Debunked currently supports (and has always supported) raising and equalizing the alcohol taxes to $21 per proof-gallon for all alcoholic beverages, the same level as the distilled spirits tax was in 1991 adjusted for inflation.  That would push up the price of beer by about $1.20 per six-pack and $4.80 per case, wine by $1.00 per 750-mL bottle, and liquor by $1.00 per 750-mL bottle.  Microbrewers would be exempt from any such tax hike, since their products are already pretty expensive and as small businesses they would be the least able to absorb a tax hike.   A price floor would probably be a good complement to such a policy, and $1.00 (at most) per standard drink would make sense for non-bulk alcohol.  For bulk alcohol (more than an 18-pack of beer or more than 1 gallon of wine or more than 750 mL of spirits), a floor of $0.50-$0.75 would be better, especially since we support keeping the purchase age at 20 or 21 for bulk alcohol while lowering it to 18 otherwise.  This combination of policies is really not all that different in principle from the main idea discussed in Kenkel (1993), yet far more practical and equitable overall.  And bars and restaurants would likely benefit, since pre-gaming with cheap off-premise booze would be reduced.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Happy 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 Thanksgiving Eve, also known as "Blackout Wednesday."

Thus, two years ago 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 (or until the sun goes down, whichever occurs earlier). Then, one may drink, but one must give thanks that prohibition no longer applies to him or her. Other ways to observe 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 continue to observe this holiday until the drinking age is lowered to 18 in all 50 states.  And remember, whether you choose to observe it or not, never drink and drive.  It's just not worth the risk.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Will Saskatchewan Lower the Drinking Age?

In the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, there is now a movement to lower the drinking age from 19 to 18.  In that province, the drinking age was 21 until 1971, when it was lowered to 18, and was raised to 19 in 1976.  (The neighboring provinces of Alberta and Manitoba have had a drinking age of 18 since the early 1970s, as does Quebec.)    It is not clear whether the movement will succeed, but if it does it would certainly be good for our own movement to lower the drinking age to 18 in the USA.  While we think a drinking age of 19 is significantly better than 21, our ultimate goal is to lower the drinking age to 18 across the board.

Speaking of Canada, it appears that Alberta's tough new drunk driving laws are having a positive impact overall.  The early data show that in the first month of the new crackdown, police are finding fewer people driving under the influence.  As for the putative fear of lost liquor sales, many bars and restaurants are responding by offering more food on their menus and encouraging their patrons to eat.  Thus, overall revenues at such establishments do not appear to have been hurt significantly despite patrons being more cautious about mixing alcohol and driving.  We can really learn a lot from our neighbor to the north.

Friday, November 9, 2012

What About Weed?

This Election Day, two states (Washington and Colorado) made history as the first states to legalize cannabis (weed) for non-medical use since it was banned in the 1930s.  Notably, both states have chosen an age limit of 21 rather than 18.  Thus, it is worth discussing how Twenty-One Debunked stands on cannabis-related issues, which until now have really not been much of a priority for us.

In a nutshell, our creed shall apply to cannabis the same as it does for alcohol, provided that cannabis is already legal or just about to be legalized.  That means that we support an age limit of 18 rather than 21 for purchase and/or possession, and no criminal penalties or criminal record for anyone simply possessing or consuming it.  Passing around a joint or bong should be treated no differently than passing around a tobacco cigarette or a bottle of beer.  Growing one's own cannabis (within reason) should be treated no differently than growing one's own tobacco or brewing one's own beer or wine.  In addition, we support reasonable taxation, regulation, advertising restrictions, and strict quality control of any legally-sold cannabis, and we support tough penalties for driving under the influence. 

However, in states where cannabis is still illegal, our creed shall remain irrelevant and Twenty-One Debunked will not push for legalization in such states since we really have no dog in the fight.   We will leave that cause up to the True Spirit of America Party (TSAP), which strongly supports full legalization of cannabis in all 50 states and especially at the federal level.  But Twenty-One Debunked shall remain neutral on the issue of legalization of any substances other than alcohol.

Let us make it clear that you do NOT have to support legalization of cannabis to join our movement, which is primarily concerned with the drinking age and other alcohol-related issues.  For those pragmatists who do support legalization but believe the age limit should initially be 21 in order to get the bill or initiative to pass (and then lowered to 18 at some point in the future), we see no harm in you joining either.  But those ageists who strongly support legalization only for those over 21 (and harsh penalties for 18-20 year olds who indulge) are probably NOT going to be an asset to our movement to lower the drinking age to 18.  Liberty for "just us, not all" has never been our style, and never will be.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

If it Ducks Like a Quack

After celebrating our recent victory in New Zealand, we almost forgot about the other country down under.  While there does not appear to be any real serious chance of Australia's drinking age being raised, the head of the Australian Medical Association just revealed himself as the king of quacks by calling for his country's drinking age to be raised to not 21, but 25.   Dr. Steve Hambleton claims that the brain continues to develop until age 25, and that exposure to alcohol before that age can change a person's addictive potential.   He also claims that raising the age limit would reduce drunken violence, which is apparently a serious problem in Australia.

But once again, theory collides pretty hard with reality.  First of all, the most recent studies have found that brain development (especially the prefrontal cortex) actually continues well into the 30s and 40s, and possibly even beyond that.  Secondly, as for the risk of alcoholism, the best study we have found that addresses the issue, Agrawal et al. (2009), finds that drinking before 18 (and especially before 15) does appear to increase the risk of later alcoholism, but there was no significant difference between those who began drinking at 18, 19, 20, 21, or even 23+.  So 21 or even 25 is completely arbitrary.  Thirdly, some states of India have a drinking age of 25 while others are 18 or 21 and a few are "dry" for all ages, and there is currently no evidence that the parts with higher drinking ages have fewer drinking problems than the parts with lower drinking ages.  In fact, the parts with an age limit of 25 find it VERY hard to enforce, with up to 90% of bar patrons on a busy night being "underage."  How Australia could possibly pull it off remains an unanswered question.  Finally, setting the drinking age seven years higher than the age of majority is serious violation of the civil rights of 18-24 year old legal adults, unless of course Dr. Hambleton is willing to raise the age of majority for everything else (good and bad) to 25 as well.  Which we think is unlikely, by the way.

If Australia really wants to solve its legendary drinking problem, which is almost as bad as New Zealand's and affects ALL ages, they would be better off keeping the drinking age at 18 and enforcing it better while raising the alcohol taxes, setting a price floor, reducing the number and density of alcohol outlets, improving alcohol education and treatment, and most importantly, cracking down VERY hard on DUI and especially drunk violence and disorderly conduct.  Australia has seen great success in reducing drunk driving fatalities, but drunk violence and extreme binge drinking remain serious problems.  It is mainly a cultural problem, which can really only be solved by changing the culture.  And raising the drinking age will NOT accomplish any beneficial culture change--in fact it will most likely make it worse, if the USA is any indication.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Victory in New Zealand

Last night, the New Zealand Parliament apparently listened to reason and voted to keep the drinking age unchanged at 18.  This is the second time since 2006 that any attempt to raise the drinking age over there has failed.  While the rest of the Alcohol Reform Bill is still being hammered out, we can thankfully rest assured that the NZ drinking age will remain 18 for the foreseeable future.  As a result, we at Twenty-One Debunked hereby honor all of those who voted to keep it 18, especially Nikki Kaye (National) and all of the Greens.
To be honest, we at Twenty-One Debunked were a bit worried that New Zealand would actually go through with raising the drinking age to 20, and in doing so ruin any chances that we in the USA could lower our drinking age to 18.   After all, a good 3/4 of the adult population in NZ supported raising the drinking age to 20 or even 21, which is roughly the same percentage over here that favors keeping the American drinking age at 21.  That is, 18-20 year olds are an outvoted minority who would have been subject to tyranny of the majority had it been up to a popular vote alone.  But that's precisely why all modern democracies, even relatively direct ones like Switzerland and several US states, still have legislatures to make laws (and courts to interpret them) rather than literally put everything up to a popular vote.  Remember, what is popular is not always right, and what is right is not always popular.  Albert Einsten knew that quite well.

And it's not like raising the drinking age would have actually done much good.  Next time someone claims that lowering the drinking age to 18 in 1999 created a "crisis" in problematic drinking among teens and young adults that wasn't there before, be sure to show them this link to set them straight. Long story short: from 1996/1997 to 2006/2007 it did not significantly increase among 15-24 year olds, but did increase among people over 25. But I guess it's easier to scapegoat young people for adult problems rather than actually try to solve them.  Fortunately, the NZ Parliament was smart enough to see through the lies and do the right thing, at least as far as the drinking age is concerned.

As for the rest of the Alcohol Reform Bill still being debated, we at Twenty-One Debunked generally support those provisions, even though they may be rather weak.  There is still no definite provision for minimum pricing of alcohol, which according to international evidence would likely have had the largest impact on New Zealand's legendary drinking problem.  But some provisions, such as giving communities more say over alcohol outlets and reducing trading hours (currently 24/7), are clearly a step in the right direction.  Ultimately, New Zealand's drinking culture needs to change, and Parliament needs to step up to the plate and pass sensible laws that encourage that to happen, but without violating the civil rights of any individual or demographic group.  But will they have the intestinal fortitude to do so?

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Listen Up, Kiwis--Keep It 18

New Zealand will vote on whether or not to raise the drinking age to 20 sometime in the next week or two.  It will be a conscience vote rather than a bloc vote, so there is no reason to vote along party lines.  We at Twenty-One Debunked have the following things to say to the New Zealand Parliament:

Take it from us in the USA, where the drinking age has been 21 since the 1980s.  We can honestly tell you that raising the drinking age does NOT and will NOT work. All it does is force drinking underground and make it more dangerous than it has to be. Just go to any American college campus and you will see that the emperor isn't wearing any clothes. Ditto for high school keggers.

Next time someone claims that lowering the drinking age to 18 in 1999 created a "crisis" in problematic drinking among teens and young adults that wasn't there before, be sure to show them this link to set them straight.  Long story short:  from 1996/1997 to 2006/2007 it did not significantly increase among 15-24 year olds, but did increase among people over 25.  But I guess it's easier to scapegoat young people for adult problems rather than actually try to solve them.

Listen, if NZ really wants to tackle its legendary drinking problem, which affects ALL ages and not just young people, it would be best to raise the alcohol taxes, set a price floor, reduce alcohol outlet density and advertising, crack down hard on drunk driving/violence/disorderly conduct, and increase alcohol education and treatment.   You may also want to lower the BAC limit for drunk driving to 0.05 to match Australia as well.  But leave the drinking age alone, and actually enforce it better and close the loopholes.   Keep the drinking age 18, but require ID from anyone who looks under 30, and require TWO forms of ID for anyone who looks under 18, period. Crack down hard on those who buy for minors, and stores that sell to minors (or don't check ID).  And close the loophole that allows furnishing to minors under 18 other than one's own children. 

Also, the split age proposal is still problematic because allowing 18-19 year olds to buy alcohol only in bars and not off-premise in stores would encourage drunk driving among that age group, particularly in rural areas with inferior public transport infrastructure and taxis that cost an arm and a leg.  (Remember, this is not Sweden we're talking about.)  If you want to reduce the availability to those under 18 from older friends and strangers, simply enforce the existing laws better and close the furnishing loopholes, full stop.  Alternatively, you could consider putting a cap on the amount of alcohol that an 18-19 year old can purchase at the store in the same day (i.e. no kegs/cases/large liquor bottles, and no more than one off-premise transaction of any kind per day) to discourage purchasing for minors (and high school keggers) while still allowing 18-19 year olds the ability to buy alcohol for personal use legally.

Most importantly, a cultural change is desperately needed in New Zealand across the board as far as alcohol is concerned.  Take a look at other countries with a drinking age of 18 or even lower, especially southern Europe.  You can learn a lot from them.  They generally do not fetishize alcohol by treating it as a major rite of passage. They treat it as a neutral substance that can be good or bad depending on how it’s used, and all drinkers are held to the same high standards of conduct regardless of age. Alcohol-related misbehavior is seen as a conscious choice, and (unlike in predominantly Anglo-Celtic cultures like NZ) alcohol is never accepted as an excuse for doing anything that would be considered unacceptable when sober. As a result, overindulgence and lager-lout behavior is decidedly “uncool” over there, rather than glamorized like it is NZ and other Anglo-Celtic countries.  Remember that every attempt to create a culture of abstinence has failed miserably (six o'clock swill, anyone?), so it's best to aim for a culture of moderation instead.  It's what Aristotle would have wanted. 

Finally, if you feel that that 18-20 year olds are not mature enough to be trusted with a beer, how can you possibly trust them with a gun, voting, raising kids, or any of the other numerous rights and responsibilities of adulthood? If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar. 'Nuff said.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Alcohol + Energy Drinks = Casual Sex?

The latest moral panic involving young people and alcohol is the idea that alcohol mixed with energy drinks (AMEDs for short) increases the odds of casual sex and/or drunk sex.  It was inevitable that this moral panic, like all others in history, would eventually be about sex.  But is it true?

A new study of college students found that those who mixed alcohol with energy drinks were statistically more likely to engage in casual sex and to be drunk during their most recent sexual encounter.  However, that correlation does not necessarily prove a causal relationship, especially since it is a cross-sectional study.  Even the author of the study acknowledges that.  And one bright spot of the study was that consuming AMEDs did not affect the likelihood of the students using condoms during their most recent sexual encounter.

A recent review of the scientific literature on the topic of AMEDs suggests that the dangers have been greatly exaggerated. After surveying numerous studies of the effects of combining the two beverages, the authors concluded that there was, contrary to popular opinion:
  • virtually no hard evidence that adding energy drinks to the mix significantly alters the behavioral effects of alcohol
  • no reliable evidence that energy drinks significantly affect the perceived level of intoxication by drinkers
  • zero evidence that mixing energy drinks with alcohol increases the odds of alcohol or drug abuse or dependence, and
  • no significant adverse health effects for healthy individuals from combining energy drinks and alcohol in moderation.

In fact, a recent Australian study of young adults surprisingly found that mixing alcohol with energy drinks actually resulted in less risk-taking behavior and disinhibition effects than drinking alcohol alone, despite the fact that more alcohol was consumed during the AMED sessions than in the alcohol-only sessions.  The reasons for this finding are not clear, but it certainly throws a monkey wrench into the specious claim that AMEDs lead to more risk taking than drinking plain alcohol. 

Of course, it should go without saying that both alcohol and energy drinks, alone or in combination, can indeed be harmful when consumed to excess. Also, one should always remember that caffeine (in energy drinks or otherwise) absolutely does not make a drunk person less impaired or more able to drive. The best take-home message from all this is that moderation is the key.

One should also note that despite the explosion in energy drinks (and mixing them with alcohol) over the past decade, teen pregnancy has recently reached a record low, and surveys do not show an increase in sexual activity among teenagers or young adults in the past 10-20 years (in fact they generally show decreases).  Thus, the fears of this moral panic appear to be largely unfounded.  But it's still wise for drinkers to always carry condoms with them on their nights out, just in case.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Update on Guam

Two years ago, we at Twenty-One Debunked were chagrined when Guam unfortunately raised the drinking age from 18 to 21.  While not all the necessary data are in yet, we have enough preliminary data to give some sort of an update on Guam since the drinking age was raised.

At least one Guam news website trumpets the July 2010 law change as a success.  For example, they note (correctly) that according to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS), 13.6% of Guam's high school students engaged in "binge" drinking, compared to 19.2% in 2007, the last available year in the survey before the law change.  This drop by nearly a third sounds impressive until you consider the following facts:

  1. The decline in high school "binge" drinking actually began in 2001, from a high of 24.9%.  The drop from 2001 to 2007 was almost as large as the drop from 2007 to 2011.
  2. The figures also declined in the nation as a whole, from 29.9% in 2001 to 26.0% in 2011 to 21.9% in 2011.
  3. Due to the fact that the surveys were not done every year, we have no idea when the decline in Guam began to accelerate.
  4. For grades 9 and 10, the differences in "binge" drinking rates between the years 2007 and 2011 were not statstically significant, despite the fact that the differences were significant for the nation as a whole. 
  5. In fact, 9th and 10th graders in Guam actually saw increases in self-reported riding with a drinking driver, while the mainland saw decreases.  So much for the trickle-down theory.
  6. Guam's teen drinking and "binge" drinking rates have been consistently below the national average, even when their drinking age was 18.
  7. Compared with 2007, high school students in Guam saw increases in boozy sex as well as unprotected sex in 2011.
As for whether there were any effects on drunk driving arrests or crashes, it is too soon to tell since 2011 data are not yet available.  Even the 2010 data are problematic since the drinking age changed in midyear and there are not enough age-specific data yet for alcohol-related crashes and deaths.  We will keep you posted on this. 

The most recent Uniform Crime Report for Guam is for 2010.  In it we see that total DUI arrests dropped significantly from 2009 but nonetheless remain higher than 2008.  DUI arrests for 18-19 year olds were 42 in 2008, 52 in 2009, and 35 in 2010, which was a slight decrease from 2008.  (Data for 20 year olds in 2010 was lumped in with 21-24 year olds, so it could not be used.)  Juvenile crime (i.e. under 18) saw zero progress overall in 2010, and in fact nearly doubled from 2009.  Specific crimes that rose in 2010 among juveniles included not just DUI but also murder, rape, assault, robbery, vandalism, liquor law, and drug abuse violations among others.

One must also remember that in 2010 Guam had a major crackdown on drunk driving with tougher new penalties (after many years of a very lax policy), and also increased education and awareness about the alcohol problems on the island.  Also, the new drinking age of 21 appears to be more heavily enforced that the previous drinking age of 18, which was poorly enforced.  That's a lot of variables to consider.

Finally, we should note that if Miron and Tetelbaum's groundbreaking study of the 21 drinking age is any guide, any apparent benefits of Guam raising the drinking age to 21 should disappear beyond the first year or two of adoption.  And while tourism actually went up in 2011 (except for Japanese tourists after the tsunami) contrary to our predictions, it is still too soon to say that raising the drinking age to 21 had no adverse effect on tourism.  For example, the US military buildup on the island generated increased economic growth that could have potentially masked (or delayed) any declines in tourism that would have otherwise occurred.  The Fijian experience is instructive in that it took fully three years for Fiji to see that tourism was suffering due to the 2006 drinking age hike to 21, and then it was lowered back to 18 in 2009.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Is Alcohol Really a Gateway Drug?

While the "gateway drug" theory has historically been associated more with cannabis than any other substance, many of the theory's proponents have also fingered alcohol and tobacco as possible culprits in somehow inducing hapless youth to "graduate" to harder drugs and eventually become hopeless junkies, tweakers, and/or crackheads.  In this post we revisit the decades-old theory with a fairly new twist.

A new study of high school student survey data claims to find that alcohol, as opposed to cannabis or tobacco, is the real "gateway" drug.  The study found that of all of the numerous psychoactive substances asked about in the Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey, alcohol was the one that was the single most likely to predict (statistically) the use of the others with the greatest accuracy.  Ergo, if there is such a thing as a gateway drug, alcohol would most likely be it.

If there is such a thing, that is.  And that's a pretty big "if" if you ask us.  For starters, the historical background of the gateway theory has a rather tainted pedigree.  The gateway theory as applied to cannabis turns out to be a virtually whole-cloth fabrication in the early 1950s by Harry Anslinger (the man responsible for cannabis being federally banned in 1937) who needed a justification for its continued ban and even harsher laws against it after the original Reefer Madness claims (murder, rape, insanity, and death) had been debunked by the La Guardia Committee Report in 1944.  So he flip-flopped and claimed that cannabis led its users to heroin addiction, which even he himself actually said was not the case in the 1930s.  But it turns out that a more general version of the theory is even older than that.  It can be traced back to at least 1910, when it was believed that indulging in smaller pleasures (such as eating spicy food) would lead one to crave larger pleasures (such as opium).  And that in turn would eventually lead one to the drunkard's grave.   Thus, the latest manifestation of the gateway theory, besides being recycled garbage, has actually come full circle (with alcohol at the start of the sequence rather than the end).  And nearly every major study of drugs and drug policy for the past century has been far more likely to refute the theory than to support it.

If not a causal relationship between alcohol (or cannabis) and later use of harder drugs, what explains the apparently strong association between the two?  One study by RAND in 2002 found that there was a more parsimonious explanation based on a mathematical model of:  1) the age at which each substance was typically first available to an individual, 2) individuals' propensity to use substances, which varies and is assumed to be normally distributed among the population, and 3) chance or random factors.  This explanation was equally accurate at predicting drug use progression compared with a model that assumed a causal relationship.  In the case of cannabis, another likely alternative explanation of the supposed gateway effect is the black market itself, as users are exposed to harder drugs through many of the same dealers who sell them their weed.  This was one of the reasons why the Netherlands adopted their policy of tolerance for cannabis (which can be purchased in "coffeshops" in many towns), and to this day the Dutch have significantly less of a problem with hard drugs than the USA and many other Western nations. 

Additionally, when young people are lied to about the dangers of alcohol and cannabis, they may eventually assume that all anti-drug messages are bunk and experiment accordingly.  Unfortunately, honest alcohol and drug education is not nearly as commonplace as it should be in this country.

So where does the issue of the 21 drinking age figure into all of this?  For starters, the authors of the study that links alcohol with subsequent use of other substances predictably claim that the longer alcohol use is delayed, the fewer problems there will be with not just alcohol abuse but the abuse of other substances as well, and they recommend zero tolerance for teen drinking.  This study would thus most likely be seen as vindication for the pro-21 crowd.  However, one can also look at the study's results a bit differently and see that the supposed gateway effect occurs despite (or perhaps even because of) the 21 drinking age.  For example, forcing alcohol underground makes it more likely to be used in the same environment as other substances, thus increasing young drinkers' exposure to the other substances.  The fact that "underage" drinkers are already breaking the law may encourage them to break other laws as well.   Also, at least some 18-20 year olds may find other substances easier to get than beer, and will thus be more likely to use them as substitutes.  In fact, a recent study found that when alcohol retreats, cannabis advances (and vice versa), and that is discussed in a previous post on this blog.  Therefore, one could say that the 21 drinking age acts as a "social gateway" to other drugs in a somewhat similar manner as cannabis prohibition, albeit much more modestly since there is not much of a real black market in alcohol (save for the modern-day speakeasies known as frat houses).  Indeed, it may not be a coincidence that American teens are more likely to use illicit drugs than their European counterparts despite being less likely to drink or smoke cigarettes.

In other words, we ought not to put too much stock in the rather dubious gateway theory, except to note how it could be one more way that the 21 drinking age yet again does more harm than good.

Monday, July 2, 2012

What the Obamacare Ruling Means

NOTE:  This post is on both the TSAP blog and the Twenty-One Debunked blog

The recent Supreme Court ruling on the Affordable Care Act ("Obamacare") was a mixed bag overall.  The individual mandate (which the TSAP does not support) was upheld, but as part of the government's taxing power rather than under the Commerce Clause.  While it is clearly a stretch to say it is constitutional because it is a tax (just think of poll taxes), and thus unfortunately provides a roadmap on how to make an end-run around some parts of the Constitution in the future, at least the Court recognized that the Feds do not have unlimited power under the Commerce Clause.  Thus, the ruling took some of the wind out of the sails of the dangerous Gonzalez v. Raich precedent in 2005.

One thing the Court did strike down was the primary mechanism for ensuring state compliance with the Medicaid expansion, namely the withholding of existing federal Medicaid funds as a penalty for noncompliance.  This was basically the same form of coercion used by the feds to force states to raise the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s, which was upheld by South Dakota v. Dole in 1987.  Since then, this power has been used to coerce the states to follow other mandates as well, and not just ones related to highways.  Thus if there is any silver lining to the Obamacare ruling, it is the fact that it may make it easier for states to lower the drinking age (and possibly even legalize cannabis) without federal interference.

As we have noted before, the TSAP supports a single-payer healthcare system similar to what Canada currently has, which is also what President Obama originally wanted as recently as 2008.  Anything less would be uncivilized.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

BC's New and Improved DUI Laws Take Effect

Last year, we noted the success story of British Columbia, Canada in reducing DUI fatalities by over 40% in a single year.  This notable achievement, which nonetheless occured without raising the drinking age one iota, was most likely due to the province adopting (and enforcing) tougher DUI laws that provided for immediate roadside suspensions and impoundment of vehicles of alcohol-impaired drivers.  To wit, if a driver is stopped by police and blows:

0.05-0.08 BAC, 1st offense = 3 day license suspension, 3 day impoundment
0.05-0.08 BAC, 2nd offense = 7 day license suspension, up to 7 day impoundment
0.05-0.08 BAC, 3rd offense = 30 day license suspension, up to 30 day impoundment

0.08+ BAC, any offense = 90 day license suspension, up to 30 day impoundment

There are also stiff fines and towing and storage costs, and an ignition interlock device must be installed (at the driver's expense) when the impoundment ends. Thus, total costs can range from $600 to $4060 (OUCH!!!) depending on the severity and number of offenses, and that alone can be a strong deterrent in itself for many people.  And all of this is in addition to the possibility of criminal charges (and jail time) for those who blow above 0.08 BAC.  Thus, it's not at all surprising that DUI deaths went down dramatically.

However, despite its apparent success this law was not without its detractors.  In November 2011, part of the law was struck down as unconstitutional due to the lack of an adequate appeals process.  In addition, there were also concerns about the accuracy of roadside breathalyzers.  The province was given six months to fix these flaws or else the law would effectively become a dead letter. 

And fix it they did.  The new and improved version of the law, which is now in effect, now requires that the police offer drivers the option of being tested on a second breathalyzer if they fail the first, and the lower of the two readings is what will stand.  Also, the accuracy of breathalyzers used by police must now be confirmed by sworn reports from the officers, and drivers retain the right to challenge their suspensions and impoundments via an administrative review.  Thus, all of the tough penalties from before are officially back on the menu, so drunk drivers beware.

In addition, the neighboring province of Alberta has already adopted similar laws to BC, and those laws will go into effect on July 1 and September 1 of this year following a massive publicity campaign over the summer.  And there is really no good reason why laws like this would be unconstitutional in the USA either--in fact, many states already have administrative license suspension (ALS) laws, with varying degrees of enforcement.

The truth is in.  Swift justice works.  So what are we waiting for?

Thursday, May 31, 2012

Teen Drinking Plummets--In the UK

In the USA, teen drinking has been falling since about 1980, with the exception of a brief increase from 1993-1997, and has reached a record low in 2011 according to the Monitoring the Future survey.  While many pro-21 folks like to claim credit for the decrease, they might want to rethink their position after reading the latest news from across the pond.  In the UK, where the drinking age is 18, teen drinking (including "binge" drinking) has also declined recently despite not raising the drinking age to 21.  In fact, weekly drinking among 11-15 year olds dropped by half since 2001, while disapproval of peers' drinking has increased.  Drinking among 16-24 year olds has also dropped significantly since 1998.  Unfortunately, at the same time, the drinking habits of people over 25 have gotten worse--kind of like it has over here.

So why haven't the mainstream media been talking about this good news?  For starters, bad news tends to sell more than good news.  But even more importantly, this news contradicts the popular belief that teenagers and young adults are the biggest contributors to the nation's drinking problem, and exposes the problem for what it really is.  And that doesn't sit well with older adults too well--in either country.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Still More Things Underage Drinkers Didn't Do (Part 5)

See previous posts as well.   It's been a while, and in the past few months or so:

An underage drinker did NOT drunkenly drive her Mercedes-Benz through a 96 year old woman's house.

An underage drinker did NOT drive while drunk (and coked-up) and crash her Jeep, severely injuring her three kids and sending two elderly people in another car to the hospital.

An underage drinker did NOT drive drunk with her 2 year old daughter in tow, try to outrun the cops, and crash into a tree, all while pregnant.

An underage drinker did NOT drunkenly crash into an AutoZone store and then attempt to speed off.

An underage drinker did NOT kill a 6 year old child in a crash after driving with a BAC of more than  double the legal limit.

An underage drinker did NOT injure a police officer by dragging him along the roadway while driving drunk.

An underage drinker did NOT steal an ambulance from a hospital and drunkenly crash it into two parked cars.

An underage drinker did NOT drunkenly strike a blind man in a crosswalk.

And that, my friends, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Happy Memorial Day!

This Memorial Day, let's not forget those who died for our country BEFORE they were old enough to drink legally.  A list of all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for America before the age of 21 since 2001 can be found here.  Let's also not forget the countless others who came back wounded as well.

Let America be America again, and lower the drinking age to 18.  If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Just How Dangerous Are Alcohol/Energy Drink Combinations?

Recently, there has been a great deal of scare stories regarding the supposed dangers of alcohol mixed with energy drinks (AMEDs for short).  In 2010 this led to the banning of premixed canned AMEDs such as the notorious Four Loko, which still is on the market but without the caffeine and taurine.  Of course, drinkers (and bartenders) are free (for now at least) to mix energy drinks with alcohol after obtaining them separately.  But are such fears (and laws based on them) actually warranted, or are they exaggerated?

A recent review of the scientific literature on the topic of AMEDs suggests that the dangers have been greatly exaggerated.  After surveying numerous studies of the effects of combining the two beverages, the authors concluded that there was, contrary to popular opinion:
  • virtually no hard evidence that adding energy drinks to the mix significantly alters the behavioral effects of alcohol
  • no reliable evidence that energy drinks significantly affect the perceived level of intoxication by drinkers
  • zero evidence that mixing energy drinks with alcohol increases the odds of alcohol or drug abuse or dependence, and
  • no significant adverse health effects for healthy individuals from combining energy drinks and alcohol in moderation.
Of course, it should go without saying that both alcohol and energy drinks, alone or in combination, can indeed be harmful when consumed to excess.  Also, one should always remember that caffeine (in energy drinks or otherwise) does not make a drunk person less impaired or more able to drive.  The best take-home message from all this is that moderation is the key.

In the case of Four Loko and similar drinks, it appears that the real issue was not that it contained alcohol and caffeine in combination, but rather that it contained such large amounts of each per can.  One 23-ounce can apparently contained the equivalent of 5 shots of vodka and 3 cans of Red Bull, and typically cost less than $3.00.  Such cheap and highly potent concoctions don't exactly promote moderation.  But unfortunately that fact was lost in all the hysteria over alcohol and energy drinks.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Hand Sanitizer Hype

Anyone who has looked at the news in the past two weeks is probably familiar with the latest moral panic:  teenagers drinking hand sanitizer to get drunk.   Apparently, most hand sanitizers (which unlike beer don't have an age limit) contail large amounts of ethanol (i.e. drinking alcohol), up to 60-70% in fact--making it nearly as strong as 151.  So strong, in fact, that some teens ended up in the emergency room with alcohol poisoning as a result.  (WARNING:  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME!)  And the media are clearly eating it up.

But is there really any reason to panic?  Probably not.  For one thing, overall teenage drinking is actually at a record low according to the Monitoring the Future survey and other surveys.  Secondly, alcohol "surrogates" are nothing new--vanilla extract, mouthwash, and cough medicine all typically contain alcohol and have no age limit to purchase them despite the fact that they are (ironically) more harmful than normal alcoholic beverages.  There have always been at least some people consuming them, and there is zero hard evidence that surrogates in general are any more popular among young people today than they were a generation ago.  In fact, very few teens actually end up resorting to drinking sanitizer or any other surrogate alcohol, and so far the number reportedly ending up in the ER from sanitizer remains in the single digits.  But just like moral panics and media hype about glue-sniffing in the 1960s actually made the practice more popular among teenagers, there is the same potential for hand sanitizer to follow such a trend if the media keeps at it long enough.

One thing is clear, however.   The idea that the drinking age should be 21 (as opposed to 18) to keep booze away from high-schoolers now appears to be even more of a canard in light of the fact that kids of any age can just drink sanitizer (and other more harmful surrogates) to catch a cheap buzz when all else fails.  It appears that this "trickle-down" theory is just as bogus as the other one.

If all this sounds similar to what happened during Prohibition, you would be correct.  "Paint remover" (industrial denatured alcohol) and various patent medicines like "ginger jake" were among the surrogates used by drinkers in the 1920s, with disastrous consequences.   Sadly, as many as 10,000 people died as a result, and their blood lies on the hands of the feds who mandated the deliberate poisoning of alcohol surrogates while simultaneously denying legal, quality-controlled alcoholic beverages to the people for thirteen years in a row.  The results were all too painfully predictable.  And unfortunately, those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

When Alcohol Retreats, Cannabis Advances (And Vice-Versa)

A number of studies suggest that alcohol and cannabis (marijuana) are economic substitutes, meaning that when one increases, the other tends to (albeit unequally) decrease.  The past five years are one example of such opposing trends.  Thus, one apparent unintended consequence of raising the drinking age to 21 was a modest increase in cannabis use among 18-20 year olds and high school seniors.

The most recent study by Crost and Guerrero (2011) found that, using a regression discontinuity approach, upon turning 21 young adults tend to increase their drinking and decrease their cannabis use, both in terms of probability and frequency.  The authors estimate from this pattern that the 21 drinking age law decreases past-month alcohol use by 16% while increasing past-month cannabis use by 10% among 18-20 year olds.  The apparently larger effect size for alcohol may reflect greater reporting bias of drinking (which is illegal before 21 but legal afterward) relative to cannabis use (which is illegal for all ages), so the real effect on alcohol may be considerably smaller.  This study dovetails nicely with an older study by DiNardo and Lemieux (2001), which found that raising the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s led to a decrease in self-reported alcohol use accompanied by an increase in self-reported cannabis use by high school seniors, though both effects were fairly small.  It also dovetails somewhat with the webmaster's own (albeit unscientific) observations of his peers' behavior in high school and especially college.

Further evidence for substitution effects can be found in another recent study by Anderson and Rees (2011).  This study found that legalization of medical cannabis was associated with a modest increase in self-reported cannabis use among young adults aged 18-25 (but not among people under 18) and a modest decrease in alcohol sales and consumption.  Even more notably, legalization of medical cannabis was associated with a 9% decrease in traffic fatailites, which was most likely a result of reduced alcohol consumption.  Also, the same DiNardo and Lemieux study mentioned before found that state-level decriminalization of cannabis was associated with a decrease in drinking among high school seniors, even though there was no corresponding increase in cannabis use (actually, both went down).  Interestingly, in contrast to the effects of the drinking age, higher beer taxes were found to reduce both alcohol and cannabis use.

So is this apparent substitution effect of the 21 drinking age a good thing or a bad thing?  While it is true that unadulterated cannabis is generally safer than alcohol by just about any objective measure of harmfulness, neither substance is absolutely safe for everyone, and most of the pro-21 crowd would probably not be very thrilled about an increase in cannabis use.    Furthermore, reporting bias may very well overstate the effects of the drinking age on alcohol (but not cannabis) use, and thus the net effect is uncertain.  Even though probability and frequency of drinking may be reduced somewhat by a 21 drinking age, the intensity of the clandestine drinking that remains may very well increase to more dangerous levels for a variety of reasons.  More ominously, though there have been no direct studies to our knowledge of the effects of the drinking age on hardcore drug (cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine, etc.) or prescription drug abuse among teens and young adults, it is nonetheless plausible that there may be some substitution of those more dangerous substances for alcohol as well.  After all, the crack epidemic of the late 1980s and early 1990s roughly coincided with the drinking age being raised to 21, and the more recent increase in prescription drug abuse coincided with increasingly tougher enforcement of the 21 drinking age.  And while the gateway drug theory is largely a bogus concept, as long as cannabis remains illegal, users will continue to expose themselves to dealers who may also be peddling more dangerous wares.

While Twenty-One Debunked does not take an explicit position on whether cannabis should be legalized, it should be noted that our parent organization, the True Spirit of America Party (TSAP), fully supports cannabis legalization for all adults 18 and over.  And Twenty-One Debunked believes that, if and when cannabis does become legal, the age limit should be 18 rather than 21, for many of the same reasons that we believe that the drinking age should be lowered to 18.

Friday, March 16, 2012

The Invisible Knapsack

Two decades ago, Wellesley College professor Peggy McIntosh coined the term "invisible knapsack" to refer to the subtle and not-so-subtle advantages that come with white privilege and male privilege resulting from inequality.  She describes such privilege as being "like an invisible weightless knapsack of special provisions, maps, passports, codebooks, visas, clothes, tools and blank checks".  The idea is that while we are generally taught that racism and sexism put some people (i.e. women and people of color) at a disadvantage, we are often taught to remain blissfully unaware of its corollary advantages that accrue to white males.  Hence, the "invisible knapsack" of privilege.

We at Twenty-One Debunked couldn't help but notice just how much this metaphor also relates to America's 21 drinking age and the "over-21 privilege" that results.  Being well over 21 myself, as the webmaster and founder of Twenty-One Debunked I have put together a list of advantages in the invisible knapsack of over-21 privilege that people like myself carry every day.  As a person over 21, as long as I have an ID to prove it:

  1. I can buy alcoholic beverages at any store that sells them, in any quantity I wish.
  2. I can enter pretty much any bar or nightclub of my choosing without fearing that people of my age group cannot get in or will be mistreated in the places I have chosen.
  3. If I do not want to associate with people under 21, I may frequent numerous establishments that ban younger people from entering.
  4. I am never asked to speak for all of the people in my age group, nor do I have to worry about my individual behavior reflecting on my entire age group.
  5. I can legally host a drinking party with my friends, as long as all the guests are over 21.
  6. I can join my co-workers for happy hour after work, and even talk about it at work, without any sort of shame.
  7. When I go out with people under 21, it is generally understood that one (or more) of them will be the designated driver instead of me.
  8. Generally speaking, I can drink alcoholic beverages fairly openly without having to worry about getting arrested, fined, jailed, expelled, having my driver's license revoked, or being publicly humiliated.
  9. As long as I am not driving, I can legally get as drunk as I please in many states. 
  10. Even in states where public drunkenness is technically illegal, the cops are unlikely to arrest me unless my behavior is really out of control.
  11. If I get in alcohol-related trouble on campus, I will likely face lesser penalties, and I will not have to worry about my parents being notified without my consent.
  12. If I think one of my peers may have alcohol poisoning, there would be no reason for me to hesitate to call 911 for fear of the law (and vice-versa).
  13. I can have a drink or two (or maybe even three!) before driving without having to worry about being over the legal limit for DUI.
  14. Even if I drive while over the limit, I can be assured that drunk drivers in my age group will NOT be the highest law enforcement priority.
  15. If I choose to drive drunk, I can know that I am statistically more likely to kill someone under 21 than the other way around.
  16. Even if I had several convictions for DUI or drunken violence, I can rest assured that I will still be allowed to buy and consume alcohol.
  17. I enjoy less scrutiny over my own behavior, because I live in a society in which young people are scapegoated for adult problems.
  18. I do not have to worry about being a good role model when it comes to drinking, since people under 21 can be punished (often severely) for emulating me.
  19. Finally, I have a much better chance of being taken seriously on the issue of lowering the drinking age, without being accused of selfishness or immaturity.
And the list goes on.  As we see, the 21 drinking age is not just about disadvantaging people under 21, but giving unearned advantages to people over 21 as well.  And while some of these advantages are positive rights that should be extended to everyone (or at least all adults over 18), others are not "rights" at all, but wrongs that are an unfortunate byproduct of setting arbitrary age limits and of adultism in general.  Still others could be considered either rights or wrongs depending on the context.  And let's not forget the luxury of being able to ignore the issue entirely.

So, are the advantages found in this invisible knapsack really worth it?  Many people over 21 would say yes, but upon closer examination these advantages actually come at a hefty price, even for people over 21.  Just think about social host liability laws, other annoying ancillary laws, millions of tax dollars wasted on enforcement, loss of social cohesion, and precedent that can be used to make our supposedly free country even more of a police state.  In fact, the only people over 21 who, on balance, really benefit from the status quo are the ones who least deserve to benefit--those who drive drunk or otherwise behave irresponsibly when it comes to alcohol, as well as those parents who would rather stick their heads in the sand than teach their kids how to drink responsibly.

Do you hear that?  That's (hopefully) the sound of the pro-21 crowd throwing up all of the proverbial Kool-Aid they drank long ago.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Do Movies Drive Adolescents to Drink?

Just in time for the new movie Project X, a new study comes out that suggests that movies with scenes of alcohol consumption apparently leads to more "binge" drinking among teenagers.  The cross-sectional study, conducted in six European nations (Germany, Iceland, Italy, Netherlands, Poland, and Scotland) did in fact find a statistically significant correlation in five of the six countries, and the mainstream media are really eating it up.

However, correlation is not the same as causation.  Famous 18th century philosopher David Hume's criteria for causation requires three criteria:  1) association (correlation), 2) temporal precedence (which came first), and 3) isolation (from all potentially confounding variables).  While the first one was found, the second was not (a cross-sectional study can never determine temporality), and while the third one was attempted, it is very difficult to do in practice, especially with a single study.   So, even the authors concede that the study does not in itself prove causation due to the lack of data on temporal precedence, which really is the sine qua non of causation.  And while criterion #3 (isolation) is arguably a very stringent standard to apply, this study doesn't even meet many of the Bradford-Hill criteria favored by epidemologists.   So we have good reason to be skeptical of this study.

Due to the lack of data on temporality, reverse causation remains a plausible explanation (i.e. “binge” drinkers are more likely to prefer to watch movies about drinking and partying like Animal House, Van Wilder, Superbad, and the new Project X rather than the other way around). And there is always the possibility of residual confounding.  Interestingly, the study only looked at whether participants ever consumed 5 or more drinks in an evening, not whether they currently do or how often.  Also, one of the countries (Iceland) saw no significant association (in fact, it had the "wrong" sign) after adjustment for confounders.  But we at Twenty-One Debunked must point out even if the relationship is truly causal, it does not follow that censorship is the answer.   Better education about both alcohol AND media literacy seems to be a better solution for a country that is supposed to be a free society.

In the USA and Canada (neither were included in the study), we know that self-reported teen drinking and “binge” drinking (except perhaps for American college students) has significantly declined in the past decade or so in spite of the apparent increase in these types of movies.  In fact, high school drinking is at a record low in both countries as of 2011.  In a similar vein, teen pregnancy rates in the USA, though still the highest in the industrialized world, are also at a record low despite the fact that TV and movies today are by far the raunchiest in history.

Perhaps we should listen to the wisdom of sociologist Mike Males.

Monday, February 27, 2012

A Critique of Barnum et al. (2012)

A new study by Barnum et al. (2012) on drinking age law enforcement was recently published online this month.  In this first-of-its-kind study, using data from 1975-2006 they find that birth cohorts exposed to tougher enforcement of PAULA (possession of alcohol under the legal age) laws (as measured by underage drinking arrest rates) from ages 15-20 had modestly lower arrest rates for assault and vandalism between the ages of 15-24.  This remained true even when age effects, period effects, relative cohort size, and percentage of nonmarital births were controlled for.   But was it really a causal relationship?

While the authors appear to be convinced that this relationship is causal, we at Twenty-One Debunked note that there are plenty of reasons that this relationship could easily be spurious.  For example:
  • Several other potentially important variables were not controlled for, including ones that may not have been captured by age and period effects.
  • State-to-state variation was not explored at all.
  • Arrest rates may have given biased estimates due to underreporting and changes in reporting rates and police practices over time, which can yield specious inferences.
  • The strengths of the underage drinking laws themselves were not explored, only the enforcement of such laws as measured by arrest rates.
  • Cohorts exposed to drinking ages of 18, 19, 20, and 21 were all lumped together, with no attempt to distinguish between them.
  • No other crimes were explored besides assault and vandalism, and no distinction was made between types of assault (i.e. simple vs. aggravated).
  • Allocating more resources towards arresting underage drinkers (and those who commit other victimless crimes) takes away from resources used to fight real crime, including assault and vandalism.  So, an increase in the former could lead to a spurious decrease in arrests for the latter in the absence of any real change in the latter.
Even if we accept the authors' conlcusions at face value, arresting underage drinkers does not appear to be a particularly cost-effective crime reduction strategy from a public safety standpoint.  The study reported that for every full unit increase in underage drinking arrests, there was only a 0.125 unit decrease in assault arrests and a 0.134 unit decrease in vandalism arrests.  Other sources note that on average, for every 1000 or so incidents of underage drinking, only one PAULA arrest occurs, making it a highly inefficent use of resources.  Law enforcement resources would thus be better spent actually targeting real crimes rather than victimless ones like underage drinking.

The example of San Francisco is highly instructive in this regard.  In 1990-1992, they were a crack-infested, gang-ridden hellhole.  By 2000, violent crime had plummeted by half (and even more so for juveniles), and by 2009 they became one of the safest big cities in America.  And how did they manage to do this?  Did they employ a "broken-windows," zero-tolerance approach to the most minor offenses, especially by young people?  Hardly!  In fact, beginning in 1992 (the city's peak year for violent crime), they stopped enforcing their youth curfew law (which was completely abolished in 1995), and since then they have actually cut back on arresting young people for "status" offenses (such as underage drinking) and cannabis possession, making such offenses the lowest priorities.  In other words, "don't sweat the small stuff."   Meanwhile, the police freed up more resources to tackle serious crime, and managed to build better relations with the community.  While the exact reasons for the drop in crime are not entirely clear, and several other cities nationwide saw similar improvements, it certainly casts doubt on the authors' thesis that cracking down on underage drinking reduces crime.

Interestingly, 'Frisco teens also show significantly lower rates of violence, "binge" drinking, driving after drinking, drinking in general, cannabis use, huffing, and crack/cocaine use compared with the national average according to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey.   Furthermore, the rates in San Francisco are comparable to or lower than those in NYC (and dropped at a similar or faster rate) despite the latter city's notoriously heavy-handed police tactics under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Who Says Alcohol Education Doesn't Work?

Whenever the issue of lowering the drinking age comes up, proponents often feel compelled to fill the "void" by offering other policy solutions.   Aside from getting tougher on drunk driving (and drunk violence), the most common alternative touted is increased alcohol education.  Predictably, the opponents respond with claims that "education doesn't work" to actually change behavior or reduce alcohol-related harm.  And because it is nearly impossible to prove a negative, when pressed repeatedly they offer the caveat that there is simply "not enough evidence" either way to draw a firm conclusion about their effectiveness. 

Fortunately, nothing can be further from the truth.  The main reason why many alcohol "education" programs (especially school-based ones such as DARE) have tended to show little to no success is that they tend to be little more than a temperance lecture.   They typically fail to distinguish between use and abuse, and are often based on faulty assumptions.  In fact, many such programs are just plain disingenuous and often resort to exaggerated scare tactics.  Also, nearly every study of alcohol education programs looks only at short-term effects, and the absence of short-term effects does not imply the absence of longer-term benefits.  Some programs just need to be given more time to have their desired effects.

On the contrary, there ARE effective programs out there, ones that have been proven repeatedly to reduce dangerous drinking behaviors in both high school and college.  Some of them have even won awards for their effectiveness.  Examples of which include:

1)  The Hobart and William Smith Colleges' Alcohol Education Project, whose foundation is social norms marketing.  Devised by H. Wesley Perkins, it has been proven to reduce risky drinking behavior among college students in general, especially high-risk groups such as student athletes.   Immediate and persistent reductions in heavy drinking and its consequences were noted following implementation of this program.

2)  Web-based programs such as AlcoholEdu by Outside the Classroom.   Both the high school and college versions of the program have shown measurable benefits in reducing risky drinking behavior as well as changing students' attitudes about alcohol.  The user-friendly programs only take at most a few hours (typically two hours) to complete, and show immediate and often persistent effects despite the very short length of the programs. 

So why doesn't every high school and college utilize programs such as these?  One reason could be that some neoprohibitionists continue to denounce them as ineffective, though such claims are dubious at best.  Another reason is resistance to change, which can be observed in several other aspects of life as well.  But whatever the reason, it is simply false to claim that "education doesn't work".  Because it does--as long as it is conducted properly.  And our children--that is, our future--deserve nothing less.

On the other side of the pond, British social anthropologist Kate Fox has an even more controversial view of why many traditional alcohol education programs have had such meager success.  That is, exaggerating the "disinhibitory" effects of alcohol may actually promote alcohol-related misbehavior, and make alcohol seem more exciting and interesting to young people than it actually is.  Perhaps she is right.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

The Twenty-One Debunked Creed

It has recently occured to us that, despite the fact that Twenty-One Debunked has existed for nearly two years, we have had yet to post an explicit and concise statement of what it is we actually believe aside from our relatively vague-sounding call to lower the drinking age to 18.  Ergo, here it is, the Twenty-One Debunked Creed:

We believe that 18-20 year olds are adults, not children, and should have the same rights and responsibilities that people over 21 currently enjoy, whether it involves alcohol or otherwise.

We believe that all adults over 18 are sovereign in body and mind, and that the onus is on the state to show that this is not true for a particular individual.  We believe it is wrong to punish all for the actions of the few.

We believe that consumption of alcoholic beverages by consenting adults age 18-20, in and of itself, is a victimless crime and is not sufficiently different from the same by adults over 21 to justify its prohibition.

We are 100% against driving under the influence of alcohol at ANY age, or any other acts that actually harm others (or create a definite and significant risk of harm to others), and believe there is absolutely no excuse for doing so.  We support tougher penalties and enforcement for those who drive or operate machinery while impaired, as well as those who commit acts of violence or other crimes while under the influence.  Alcohol-related misbehavior is a conscious choice and should be treated as such.

As much as we are fighting for the right to drink, we will fight twice as hard for the right NOT to drink, as well as the right to not be harmed by irresponsible drinkers of ANY age.

We believe that the United States of America was intended to be a free country, and those who can't handle living in a free society should take advantage of the best freedom we have to offer--the freedom to leave.

And that's the basic creed, in a nutshell.   It has much in common with the philosopher John Stuart Mill's essay On Liberty.  That is:
The only part of the conduct of any one, for which he is amenable to society, is that which concerns others. In the part which merely concerns himself, his independence is, of right, absolute. Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.
But what about the children, you ask?   Again, we defer to Mill's wisdom:
It is, perhaps, hardly necessary to say that this doctrine is meant to apply only to human beings in the maturity of their faculties. We are not speaking of children, or of young persons below the age which the law may fix as that of manhood or womanhood. Those who are still in a state to require being taken care of by others, must be protected against their own actions as well as against external injury.
And generally speaking, the age of majority (adulthood) is currently 18 in the USA.  While we do not take a position on whether the drinking age should at some point in the future be made even lower than 18 (e.g. 16 like in some European nations), we currently do not believe that it is a worthwhile goal at the present time.   If and when the drinking age is lowered to 18, we support all reasonable efforts to enforce the new drinking age, but even so we do not support the use of harsh criminal penalties on the underage drinkers themselves.   Nor do we support any sort of social host laws that punish those who simply allow underage drinking on their private property without physically furnishing the alcohol.  Also, we believe that parents should be allowed to give alcohol to their own under-18 children (within reason).

What about those compromises we have mentioned or alluded to in other posts about zero tolerance laws and other alcohol restrictions on 18-20 year olds?  Actually, those are primarily based on pragmatism more than anything else.  For zero-tolerance DUI laws, we support keeping the status quo (age limit of 21) for now as any attempt to lower the drinking age would be certain to fail if that was changed as well.  However, we support reducing the penalties for very low BAC drivers (i.e. below 0.05) while at the same time dramatically raising them on higher BAC drivers of any age (see previous post).  The fact that driving after one drink is punished the same as ten drinks for drivers under 21 in some states is just plain ludicrous.   And while Twenty-One Debunked ideally wants the drinking age lowered to 18 across the board, we feel that another reasonable compromise would be to keep the purchase age at 20 or 21 for kegs, cases, or any other large bulk quantities of alcohol while otherwise lowering it to 18.   That should alleviate any hyped-up fears of increased high-school keggers, while still allowing 18-20 year olds to buy their own six-packs and go to bars.  But we will not make any other compromises, period.  And unlike Choose Responsibility, we do NOT support the idea of requiring a drinking license for 18-20 year olds.  If you're old enough to go to war, you're old enough to go to the bar.  'Nuff said.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A New List of 39 Recommendations (Updated)

In 1982, President Reagan appointed a special commission to study the problem of drunk driving in America. They came up with 39 recommendations, #8 of which was to raise the drinking age to 21 in all 50 states. Of all the recommendations, that was the one that got the most attention, often at the expense of the others. Most of the other 38 were just simple common sense measures, and many of these were implemented to some extent in both the United States and Canada. 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 fact, the decline was slightly faster in Canada (ditto for the UK and Australia as well, who remained at 18).  And fatalities declined in all age groups, not just those under 21.  While the problem of drunk driving has been greatly reduced in both the US and Canada, it remains persistent.  We still hear all too often about innocent people killed by drunk drivers who already have multiple DUIs on their record, in addition to countless others who simply weren't caught until it was too late.

More than a quarter-century later, a new set of 39 recommendations is long overdue. We know a lot more about the problem now than we did in 1982, and have a better sense of what works in the long run and what does not. The nature of the problem has also changed, with most of the deaths caused by so-called "hardcore" DUI offenders who drive drunk repeatedly.  By the time someone finally gets caught even once, they had already driven drunk an average of 88 times--often hundreds of times.  And it's an open secret that the vast majority (nearly 9 out of 10) of them are over 21, with 21-24 year olds being the worst offenders of all.  Thus a multifaceted and wholehearted approach is essential. But what is currently being done is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive, and progress has stalled until very recently.  And as long as we keep following outdated methods, we will surely fail to see any further progress in the future.  The updated list, devised by Twenty-One Debunked, is as follows, with those in red being the highest priorities:
  1. Lower the drinking age to 18, ideally in all 50 states and DC. The more states, the better.
  2. Raise and equalize all of the federal alcohol taxes to the 1991 real value of the liquor tax. That would be $21.33/proof-gallon for all beverages, proportional to alcohol content.   Use the bulk of the revenue for education, treatment, and DUI enforcement.
  3. Lower the blood alcohol limit to 0.05 BAC for administrative penalties, while keep the BAC limit 0.08 for criminal penalties, as some Canadian provinces have done.   Maintain a Zero Tolerance law (0.02 BAC) for drivers under 21 and/or all drivers with less than 3-5 years of licensed driving. 
  4. Increase the number of roving patrols and sobriety checkpoints for DUI enforcement, and their publicity.  Checkpoints should be considered a supplement to patrols, not a substitute.
  5. Increase alcohol education programs, but make them more honest and comprehensive. An excellent model is AlcoholEdu, by Outside the Classroom. This can also be combined with social norms marketing campaigns.
  6. Toughen the penalties for driving under the influence, with graduated penalties based on BAC.  See the chart below. 
  7. Make fines for DUI proportional to the relative risk at a particular BAC. For example, 0.15 would be 50-100 times higher than 0.05. 
  8. Restrict alcohol advertising to no more than what is currently allowed for tobacco. That means no TV, radio, or billboards.
  9. Increase alcohol treatment. Require all DUI offenders to undergo an alcohol assesment to determine if they have an alcohol use disorder. If so, force them into treatment via DUI court and monitor them electronically with a SCRAM bracelet, in addition to other penalties.
  10. Use fines and fees from offenders to pay for enforcement of DUI laws, to make the program completely self-sustaining.
  11. For the eight states that currently lack it, institute administrative license suspension/revocation. The administrative penalty for refusing a breathalyzer or any other test should be greater than or equal to that for failing it.
  12. Have mandatory jail time for all DUI offenses of 0.08 or greater, including first offenses. Make driving with 0.15 BAC or higher a felony on the first offense, and 0.08 or higher a felony on the second offense, punishable by up to 5 years in prison.
  13. Those who kill or seriously injure someone else in an alcohol-related, at-fault crash should get a mandatory minimum of 10 years in prison, permanent license revocation, and forfeiture of any and all vehicles owned by that person upon conviction.
  14. Do not allow plea bargains for any DUI offense.
  15. For anyone convicted of drunk driving, drunk violence, or repeated drunk and disorderly conduct, blacklist them from buying alcohol or even entering a bar for at least a year or until age 21, whichever is longer.  Do the same for anyone furnishing alcohol to anyone under 18 that is not one's own child.
  16. De-register any car owned (or registered) by a DUI offender, boot it, and confiscate the plates upon arrest.  Or better yet, impound the vehicle at the offender's expense.  When (if) they get their license back, or get a conditional license, give them special "scarlet letter" DUI plates. 
  17. Require ignition interlocks for all conditional licenses, and for any DUI offender that gets their license back, forever.
  18. Make ignition interlocks standard on all newly manufactured vehicles sold in the USA, with use and maintenance of these devices voluntary for non-offenders.
  19. Abolish the "assigned risk" pools for auto insurance, or at least forbid any DUI offenders from joining them.
  20. Repeal all "alcohol exclusion" laws for insurance, which have been shown to do more harm than good.
  21. Make it a federal crime to drive drunk across state lines.  Punishable by a mandatory 5 years hard labor in federal prison.
  22. Eliminate any rules of evidence that prohibit admission of chemical test refusals--it should be used against a DUI defendant in court.
  23. Make the road test tougher--an hour long like it is in the UK.
  24. Make licenses easier to lose for moving violations, especially during the first two years.
  25. Bring back free driver's ed classes for all high school and college students.
  26. Require all drivers involved in fatal accidents to be tested for alcohol and drugs.
  27. Lift state-mandated smoking bans in bars, which have been shown to increase DUI fatalities.
  28. Extend bar hours to 3 am or later, but have a one-way door policy after 1 or 2 to reduce late night bar-hopping. Or let the locals decide rather than the state.
  29. Raise the gas tax by a penny each week until it is $1.00 higher than it currently is.  Call it "a penny for progress."
  30. Improve public transportation, especially very late at night. Use the alcohol and gas taxes to pay for it.
  31. Lift any cap on the number of taxicabs wherever it exists, or better yet, subsidize taxi service to reduce the costs.
  32. Encourage the hospitality industry to set up "safe rider" programs, particularly in rural areas.
  33. Limit or reduce alcohol outlet density in cities and other high-density areas, but increase it in rural areas. More rural bars within walking distance = less drunk driving deaths.
  34. Dry counties and towns should go wet, especially if their neighbors are wet.
  35. Abolish all social host laws, both civil and criminal. Furnishing alcohol to minors should not include merely providing a safer location to drink.
  36. Put a price floor on alcoholic beverages, especially for off-premises sales.
  37. Kegs and cases of beer should be sold only in beer distributors, which should close at 10 pm. A purchase age limit higher than 18 may be desirable for such bulk quantities, which are very unlikely to be for personal use. Ditto for very large quantities (i.e. multiple liters) of hard liquor.
  38. Increase media campaigns against drunk driving, similar to the Australian model.
  39. Last but not least, park a police car in front of every bar possible to watch for drunks getting into their cars about to drive.  Then nail them.  It would be like shooting fish in a barrel.
Recomendation #1 implies that, at the very least, we should repeal the federal highway funding penalty for doing so, and let the states use their Constitutional rights to decide for themselves. Recommendations #3, #4, and especially #21 should take care of any potential adverse effects of unequal drinking ages across states or internationally, as well as dry counties that refuse to go wet.

To avoid collateral damage, recommendation #2 should not apply to microbrewers. Their beer is already relatively expensive anyway, and those who abuse alcohol tend to go for the mass-produced, cheap stuff.

If all 39 of these recommendations were followed, the alcohol-related fatality rates should be cut by at least half in the first year alone. If only the ones in red were followed, or even just the first six, there would still be a dramatic drop in fatalities in both the short and long term. Some of them, such as #1, are a bit counterintuitive (the whole purpose of this blog explains in detail why #1 is actually a good thing rather than something to fear).

When we say graduated penalties, the table below is a good guide to what they should be:

BAC ThresholdFirst offenseSubsequent offenses within 10 years
(under 21 or novice, administrative only)

$250 fine ($500 if over 0.05)
30 day suspension
(90 day if over 0.05)
3 day impoundment

$500 fine
6 month suspension (2nd), 1 year revocation or until 21 (3rd or 2nd over 0.05)
7 day impoundment
Ignition interlock 1 year or until 21
(administrative only)

$500 fine
3 day suspension
3 day impoundment

$750 fine (2nd), $1000 (3rd)
30 day suspension (2nd), 1 year revocation (3rd)
7 day impoundment (2nd), 30 day impoundment (3rd)
Ignition interlock 1+ year 
$1000 fine
Minimum 1 year revocation
(or until 21, whatever is longer)
Mandatory 30 days in jail, up to 6 months
Ignition interlock 5+ years after re-license
$2500 fine
License revoked for at least 10 years (forever for 3rd offense)
Mandatory 1+ year in jail (possible felony)
Possible vehicle forfeiture upon conviction
$5000 fine
Minimum 5 year revocation
Mandatory 6 months jail, up to 1 year
Ignition interlock forever
$7500 fine
License revoked forever
Mandatory 5 years prison (felony)
Vehicle forfeiture upon conviction
$10,000 fine
Minimum 10 year revocation
Mandatory 1 year in prison, up to 5 years
Ignition interlock forever
$20,000 fine
License revoked forever
Mandatory 5+ years prison (felony)
Vehicle forfeiture upon conviction

In addition to (and independently of) criminal penalties, those who blow above 0.08 or refuse the test should be given the following immediate adminstrative penalties upon arrest:

Test failure, first offense:  90 day suspension, 7 day impoundment
Test failure, second offense in 5 years: 1 year suspension, 30 day impoundment
Test refusal, any offense:  1 year suspension, 30 day impoundment 

Conditional licenses should only be given for grave reasons, be highly restricted, and require ignition interlocks.

All offenses would require completion of an alcohol education program and alcohol abuse screening, paid for by the offender. 

Driving with a  BAC above 0.08 with kids under 16 in the car should be an automatic felony, and treated like 0.15+.

In other words, though we've clearly wrestled the problem to the ground, we have unfortunately allowed ourselves to become complacent and distracted.  It's time to finish the job.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Common Sense in Alberta, Canada

The Canadian province of Alberta (just north of Montana) has had a legal drinking age of 18 since 1970, when it was first lowered from 21 along with the age of majority.  Recently, a few police chiefs have been talking about wanting to raise the drinking age to 19, which it currently is in most other provinces except for Manitoba and Quebec.  They claim it would reduce binge drinking, drunk driving, and other alcohol-related problems among young people.  However, the current Tory government of the province doesn't buy that line of reasoning, and states that they have no intention to raise the drinking age.   Premier Alison Redford says that the move is "off the table", and we at Twenty-One Debunked couldn't agree more.

Instead, the provincial government is moving forward with plans to toughen up their DUI laws and make them similar to the successful model found in their neighboring province, British Columbia.  A previous post discusses the BC success story in more detail.