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.