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.