Wednesday, January 23, 2013

If It Smells Like Junk Science, It Probably Is

The news of the latest study about the 21 drinking age now appears to be going viral.   According to this study, which is now available (only to subscribers) online ahead of print, folks who were young adults in states that allowed them to drink legally before age 21 at that time were statistically more likely to become more frequent "binge" drinkers later in life compared to those who were not allowed to drink legally until age 21.  The research, which used data from surveys in 1992 and 2002 taken by those who were born between 1949 and 1972 (i.e. were young adults in the 1970s and 1980s), interestingly found no difference in overall alcohol consumption or frequency between the two groups, but apparently found that those allowed to drink before 21 had more "binge" days and fewer "non-binge" days per month compared to those who were not allowed to drink until 21.  The former were 19% more likely to "binge" more than once per month compared with the latter, and the differences were largely (if not entirely) driven by men and those who never attended college.  So what should we make of this study, which is not yet available for the general public to read?

First of all, we at Twenty-One Debunked always put the term "binge drinking" in scare quotes when we are referring to the 5+ or 5/4+ drinks definitions, as we believe that such definitions are grossly inaccurate measures of the very real problem of truly dangerous drinking, and can potentially mask actual trends in the latter.  (More information about this issue can be found in our previous posts here and here)  And we know based on the article's summary that a 5+ drinks threshold is the one used in this study, as is the case in virtually every other pro-21 study out there.  Strike one.

Secondly, no information is provided about which, if any, confounding factors are controlled for.  This is crucial because there are numerous other differences between people who grew up in different parts of the country and/or at different times.  One should also note that the effect size is fairly small as well, with a relative risk (or odds ratio) of 1.19 overall (1.31 for men who never attended college).  In epidemiological research, relative risks below 2.0 are especially likely to be due to a combination of chance, bias, and/or confounding, and thus should be taken with at least a grain of salt (if not a whole pound).  Strike two.

Finally, the study really adds nothing else new to the scientific literature beyond what was mentioned above.  Zip, zilch, nada.  And nothing about whether there were any between-group differences in actual problem drinking.  The authors (as well as MADD member Ralph Hingson) refer to other past studies (including a 2009 study which we had debunked years ago) by other authors in an attempt to connect the dots.  But given enough dots, one can pretty much connect them any way to form any picture one chooses.  Strike three, you're out!

Thus, our preliminary analysis of the study (to which we were unable to gain full access--stay tuned for updates!) suggests that the study reeks of junk science, and clearly should not be used to set public policy.  However, let us be clear that even if it (and the 2009 study about increased risk of alcoholism) somehow were 100% true, which we seriously doubt, we at Twenty-One Debunked would still support lowering the drinking age to 18.  Why?  The 21 drinking age is nothing less than a hate crime against young people, plain and simple.  In our society we know, for example, that certain ethnic groups are statistically more prone to alcoholism than others, yet we do not arrest, jail, revoke privileges, or publicly humiliate members of such groups for the simple act of drinking alcohol in the name of "public health."   That, of course, would be illegal discrimination since it violates the 14th Amendment's guarantee of equal protection of the law, and no amount of "scientific" research can justify it.  And even known alcoholics over 21 are not jailed simply for being alcoholics--they simply hold too much political power for that.  But 18-20 year old men and women, despite being legal adults in virtually every other way, are apparently a much more acceptable target for "public health" fascism run amok, no matter how responsibly they drink.

The injustice must end NOW.  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, January 19, 2013

A Better Alternative to Choose Responsibility's Proposal

Most people in the anti-21 movement are at least vaguely aware that the organization Choose Responsibility (with which we are NOT affiliated) has a proposal to lower the drinking age to 18, but with a notable catch:  in order to be allowed to drink alcohol, 18-20 year olds must take and pass an alcohol education course, and will be granted a "drinking license" that can be revoked for alcohol-related misbehavior.   While there may be some theoretical merits to the "drinking license" idea, there are several flaws that would become apparent upon any attempt to implement it:

1) It has become a lightning rod for criticism from both sides, especially the pro-21 groups like MADD and GHSA.
2) It makes the entire movement look quixotic (i.e. idealistic but impractical, like Don Quixote).
3) It makes the movement look ambivalent about lowering the drinking age and about whether 18-20 year olds can be trusted with alcohol.
4) It adds unnecessary complexity to the issue.
5) It would be a bureaucratic nightmare to actually enforce.
6)  As any libertarian (or even quasi-libertarian) would tell you, it kind of screams "Big Brother". (What's next, a license to breed?)
7) Other countries with a drinking age of 18 don’t have a drinking license rule.  (Dubai apparently does, but their drinking age is 21).
8) But most importantly, since it applies only to 18-20 year olds and not those over 21, it is just as ageist as the current 21 drinking age.

In contrast, our proposal for Twenty-One Debunked would allow 18-20 year olds the same drinking rights as people over 21 currently enjoy, with the following safeguards:

1) The age limit for the zero tolerance law for DUI will remain as it is now, at 21. That should alleviate any fears of increased DUI among 18-20 year olds.  In fact, it would be better if it was broadened to include all ages for the first 5 years of driving.
2) The purchase age for kegs, cases, and other large bulk quantities of alcohol will remain at 21 (or at least be no lower than 20). That should alleviate any fear of increased high school keggers.
3) DUI laws would be tightened for all ages and enforcement would be significantly increased.
4) Any person of ANY age who is convicted of DUI, drunk violence, drunk vandalism, furnishing to minors under 18, or repeated drunk and disorderly conduct would be blacklisted and banned from purchasing alcohol (or even entering a bar) for a year or until they turn 21, whatever is longer. And their ID would have to read “Do not serve alcohol under penalty of law” in big red letters. In addition, problem drinkers can also have themselves voluntarily added to the blacklist for a period of time, much like problem gamblers are currently allowed to do.
5) Alcohol education would be increased for all students at all levels.  Some successful models to follow can be found here and here.
6) In addition, the federal alcohol taxes should be raised and equalized to the inflation-adjusted 1991 spirits level ($21 per proof-gallon) for all alcoholic beverages, proportional to alcohol content.

Do all or even some of these things and there will really be no need to have a drinking license.  However, some folks in our movement may still be concerned about the absence of the alcohol education requirement as found in CR's proposal, especially for newly-legal drinkers in the first year or two of the new drinking age of 18.  That can easily be addressed by doing the following:

7)  Phase-down the general drinking age from 21 to 18 over a period of a few months, rather than immediately.  For example, lower it to 20 after 30 days, 19 after 60 days, and finally 18 after 90 days from the passage of the new law.
8)  For the first year or two of the new policy, require 18-20 year olds to obtain a certificate from an alcohol education course in order to be allowed to purchase alcohol or enter a bar.  The course should be an online one such as AlcoholEdu, which has shown dramatic results despite taking only a few hours to complete.  Simple, yet highly effective.
9)  For anyone who is currently 17 or younger, require such individuals to take and pass that alcohol education course before their 18th birthday (or very shortly after), whether they plan on drinking or not.  Those who do not fulfill this requirement would have their driver license or state ID card temporarily suspended or voided until they pass, and/or be prevented from graduating high school until they pass.  Take it as many times as you wish, but charge a fee for the third time and afterwards.

Note how this is very different from CR's proposal since there would be no special drinking license, and after the first year or two the right to buy alcoholic beverages would no longer be tied to the education requirement.  Also, the course would be a lot simpler and shorter than CR's proposed course, and far easier to implement.  We at Twenty-One Debunked are not wedded to any of these last three ideas (#7, 8, and 9), and would still support lowering the drinking age to 18 without them.  But it's still something to consider.  Not only would it help to change America's drinking culture, but it would also make it easier politically to lower the drinking age.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Latest MTF Results Are In

The 2012 Monitoring the Future survey results are finally in.  We see that, in a nutshell, alcohol use and "binge" drinking* has reached historic lows for grades 8 and 10, while there has been a slight increase from the previous year's record low for grade 12.  Cannabis use has leveled off after rising for five straight years, use of most other substances either held steady or declined, and tobacco use has fallen to record lows.  In fact, cannabis is now more popular than tobacco (but still less so than alcohol) among today's youth, and has been for the past three years in a row.  Note that this reversal of rank was more due to a decrease in tobacco use rather than due to an increase in cannabis use, since the use of both substances are down from their respective peaks in the late 1970s.

So what should we make of these results?  While the pro-21 crowd would like to take credit for the massive decrease in alcohol consumption among teenagers since 1979, one must remember that teen drinking also plummeted in Canada (and more recently in the UK) despite not raising the drinking age to 21.  Also, tobacco continued its long-term decline while for alcohol there are some signs of a turnaround, despite the smoking age remaining at 18 in nearly all states.  Thus, the relationship between the drinking age (and its enforcement) and the levels of teen drinking is not nearly as cut-and-dried as the pro-21 crowd would like us to believe.  In fact, some studies have found that the opposite may be true for dangerous drinking practices among teens and young adults.

*We at Twenty-One Debunked always put the term "binge drinking" in scare quotes when we are referring to the 5+ or 5/4+ drinks definitions, as we believe that such definitions are grossly inaccurate measures of the very real problem of truly dangerous drinking.  More information about this issue can be found in our previous posts here and here.