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19 August 2008

Lower the Drinking Age

There's a movement among several big-name college presidents to push for lowering the legal drinking age to 18. Their argument is that the current limit leads to binge drinking because it pushes drinking into the shadows. They argue that drinking is happening regardless of the law, but the illegality of it makes it impossible to take steps to encourage more responsible drinking.

My own instinct is to support this effort, as I tend to oppose the use of the criminal justice system to intervene in normal human behavior (such as drinking), and I like to drink (and so feel a sense of brotherhood with my much younger fellow drinkers). But what about the central argument about the most effective way to combat young-adult drinking problems? Here's a list of studies on young-adult/teen drinking. There doesn't seem to be much there for to support these college presidents. One study in particular I found interesting: COLLEGE STUDENT BINGE DRINKING AND THE "PREVENTION PARADOX".

This study found that the amount of social harm caused by binge drinkers is minor because such behavior is actually quite rare. Instead, the greater harm comes from the more moderate drinkers, because these are so numerous. The study argues that steps to reduce drinking among those not identifiable as problem drinkers would pay bigger dividends to society. This study, I'm afraid, suggests that the college presidents and I are all wet on this issue.

But one important aspect of the 21-year-old drinking age is that it leads to zero-tolerance for driving and drinking among those under 21. Any measurable alcohol at all will lead to big trouble for the under-21 driver. So even if the drinking age is lowered, we should retain this zero-tolerance approach for those under-21.


Anonymous Dano said...

I think there is zero tolerance for over 21 year old drinking and driving. I know a couple of other people who would agree.

Handcuffs for everyone.

August 20, 2008 5:56 PM  
Blogger Rick Darby said...

It makes sense to limit the opportunities for under-21s to drink, and the quantities they consume on any one occasion. But "zero tolerance" (except for drunk driving) probably does more harm than good. Does subjecting a young person to arrest and putting him into the criminal justice system match the harm (if any) resulting from a standard booze-up?

Some people just naturally prefer to drink moderately. Some learn the hard way — by doing stupid things when they're tanked, or contemplating the awful payback of a hangover. It's not clear that this learning is any easier for a 21-year-old whose lips have never touched liquor than for an 18-year-old.

To minimize the damage to, and by, especially young drinkers, a little societal hypocrisy and inconsistency goes a long way.

It should be legal, but inconvenient for an 18-year-old to get drunk. We should put barriers in his way. For instance, let him drink in restaurants and bars, where a waiter or bartender can refuse to serve him any more if he gets plastered, but not let him go to a liquor store and walk out with a fifth of whiskey.

Learning to handle booze is part of growing up. Unfortunately, we seem to be increasingly living in a society that encourages long-drawn-out adolescence.

August 21, 2008 4:54 PM  
Blogger ziel said...

Rick, that's probably a good idea. Cutting down on the cases and kegs while allowing pubs where drinking would be necessarily limited would be a better approach.

August 21, 2008 10:00 PM  
Blogger agnostic said...

I read that 2008 summary article, and it looks like parental supervision plays a decent role. Kids who live at home are less likely to drink, especially those who weren't drinkers in high school (the ones who would do it only if unsupervised).

Of course, we're so individualist and migratory that we go to colleges far away from our parents' home, so it's hard to do anything about this problem. That's probably one reason you don't see so much rowdy and drunken behavior in countries where the kids stay at home through college, going to the best school within commuting distance.

When I have kids, the rule will be: I'll help out with college if you live at home, and otherwise you're on your own!

As for drunken driving, colleges could start up a shuttle service on Friday and Saturday nights (until 3 or 4am) so that no one could possibly drive drunk. Pay for it by taxing fraternities and sororities first, and then spread the rest around student body-wide fees.

Lowering the drinking age to 18 could work if it turned frats and sororities into temporary pubs / bars when they hosted a party. Like, to get approval, they need to hire a neutral bartender who will refuse drinks to those w/o ID or who've clearly had too much, as well as a bouncer or two to prevent drunken fighting.

August 22, 2008 4:47 PM  
Anonymous james Francis (the other one) said...

"Lower the drinking age; raise the tattoo age"

August 24, 2008 1:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

If you're old enough to enlist in the military...and die or be should be old enough to have a drink and a smoke...

Lower the drinking age and prosecute those who supply alcohol to the under 18 (high school) crowd.

Zero tolerance for any driving, boating, skiing, etc. drunk--at any age.

--Esmerelda Pearl

August 29, 2008 3:09 PM  

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