Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Case Closed? Not So Fast

A new study by William DeJong claims that the debate on the 21 drinking is over, and that the evidence is overwhelming that the policy saves lives and reduces teen and young adult drinking.  His literature review, titled Case Closed:  Research Evidence on the Positive Public Health Impact of the Age 21 MLDA in the United States, looks at research conducted mostly from 2006 to the present.  While on the surface DeJong's paper appears to be decently written, upon closer examination one can see several flaws that undermine his thesis.

First and foremost, his treatment of Miron and Tetelbaum's groundbreaking 2009 study (which thoroughly debunked the supposed lifesaving effect) is sorely lacking.  He literally devotes a mere two sentences to casually mentioning and blithely dismissing its results.  DeJong seems to think that the reason that the coerced states saw no significant effect while the voluntary-adopting states did was due to enforcement differences and/or cohort or other differences between the two groups of states.  That's very funny considering how Miron and Tetelbaum took great pains to control for just about every conceivable variable that would likely have a significant effect, in addition to state and year fixed effects.  Additionally, even if the handful of voluntary adopters did enforce the 21 drinking age to a greater extent, even they saw that their fairly weak lifesaving effect lasted no more than a year or two following the law change (while it actually seemed to throw gasoline on the fire in many of the coerced states).  Miron and Tetelbaum also found that the effect of raising the drinking age on high school drinking was fairly small, likely due to reporting bias, and basically confined to the voluntary-adopting states.  All of which puts a massive hole in DeJong's theory to say the least.  Strike one.

Secondly, while DeJong does talk a bit about Europe and New Zealand, he does not devote a single word to Canada.  As Twenty-One Debunked has noted repeatedly, Canada saw a similar or faster decline in alcohol-related traffic deaths as the USA despite NOT raising the drinking age to 21.  And while young Canadians do tend to drink a bit more than their American counterparts on average, the rates of "binge" drinking in Canada are roughly equivalent to the demographically and geographically similar US states that they share a border with or are otherwise fairly close to.  Canada also boasts a lower alcohol-related death rate than the USA as well as less crime and violence, and the alcoholism rates in the two countries are roughly equivalent.  That's another huge hole in his theory that cannot be easily explained away.  As for New Zealand, note that we have already debunked the fairly outdated studies that DeJong refers to.  Strike two.

But probably DeJong's biggest flaw of all is his logic or lack thereof.  He claims that the evidence to date supports the idea that not only should we not lower the drinking age, but that enforcement should be toughened.  Leaving aside all the studies that debunk the supposed benefits of the 21 drinking age, his logic is based on shaky ground.  He takes various outdated correlations and presumes them to be causation, he blithely dismisses any evidence to the contrary, and essentially denies that there is any good alternative policy aside from tougher enforcement.  Which is very funny considering how much research (including some of DeJong's own previous research) finds that social norms marketing techniques are at least as effective in reducing high-risk drinking among college students as tougher drinking age enforcement is.  Strike three, yer out!

Unfortunately, DeJong does appear to be right about one thing.  The movement to lower the drinking age to 18 has been losing a great deal of momentum over the past few years, and since about 2011 is now essentially on the back burner once again compared to other, more pressing issues like the economy and of course cannabis legalization.  Scratch that, the movement is now on life support, and the coroner is just waiting to be called.  So we need to redouble our efforts, like yesterday.  And let's hope that DeJong's declaring the debate to be over actually has the opposite effect and re-ignites the drinking age debate once again.  Now let's get to work!

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.


  1. William DeJong didn't give enough importance to the Miron and Tetelbaum study because he knew that study would sabotage his research. His report didn't mention Canada, that country shouldn't be ignored, despite the fact that there has many similarities and that Canada has reasonable drinking ages. Hopefully, young people in Canada will always be responsible when it comes alcoholic beverages. I fear that the troubled culture about alcoholic beverages over here might erode alcohol responsibility in Canada. This blog and my blog are never going to forget about the importance of lowering the drinking age to 18. Hopefully, the debate about the drinking age strengthens again this year.

    1. You brought up a great point about the possibility of America's drinking culture having a negative influence on Canadians. Unfortunately, since about 1994 or so it seems that such a spillover effect has already happened to some extent. While Canada still has significantly fewer alcohol problems than the USA does overall, they appear to have been catching up to us despite making more progress than us from about 1980 to 1993. Though very recent years suggest that their more rapid progress may have (hopefully) resumed once again, and only time will tell.

      The UK's legendary drinking culture is notoriously worse overall than most other countries except perhaps New Zealand and the former Soviet-bloc countries like Russia. Fortunately, since the early 2000s the British have made considerable amount of progress in reducing their alcohol problems, at least among young people. But unfortunately that hasn't reversed their (and our) pernicious influence on other European countries. While it may very well be just be the latest moral panic (and deviancy amplification spiral), many younger people in countries like France, Italy, and especially Spain have recently begun emulating the more intense and irregular British (and American) style of drinking, which is likely a result of cultural diffusion from heavy tourism to such countries.

  2. Indeed. I think that the debate about the drinking age is strengthening in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan areas. I have read articles from the Baltimore Sun and the Washington Post which mention Maryland's Attorney General briefly being at a party for high seniors. I read one of those articles from the NYRA website news stub. Fortunately, the Attorney General said that it wasn't his job to punish high school seniors for drinking alcoholic beverages.

  3. I found a great article about the differences between the UK and USA, and why their drinking cultures are so different from one another. And no, it's not the drinking age.