Monday, March 24, 2008

A case for increasing the minimum age for legal drinking

The proposal to increase the drinking age in Victoria from 18 to 21 is back on the table. It will be considered by the State government if current policy efforts to restrict binge drinking fail.

I strongly support the move to restrict youth access to alcohol with such a policy. Alcohol is a neurotoxin that has particularly damaging effects on the brain at ages up to 25. In addition those who start drinking early are more likely to become alcohol dependent and drinking is a major cause of traffic accidents particularly among the young – they are much more at risk than older drinkers. Most importantly alcohol abuse at young ages delays development of the thinking parts of the brain.

The claim that such policies are sometimes ineffective is true but irrelevant. Making it illegal to consume alcohol at age less than 21 increases the user costs of gaining illicit supplies and provides an obstacle to youth drinking. It also sends out a negative message that can be backed up with empirical evidence of the neurotoxicity of alcohol for consumption at young ages.

I also strongly support bans on the advertising of alcopops and related alcoholic drinks that appeal to youth. Industry codes of conduct won’t work since the adult alcohol consumption market is declining and the industry depends on addicting young drinkers for its growth. I agree with Chris Berg of the IPA that advertising of alcopops is informative advertising which introduces young consumers to new products. But the information provided is misleading in that it does not warn adequately of the health risk dangers of drinking while young and falsely suggests a range of benefits associated with drinking alcohol.

By the way it is claimed that keeping the US drinking age at 21 cuts the road toll among 18-20 year olds by 13%. Despite this many US states are thinking about reducing the age limit.

The Federal proposal to put warning labels on alcohol containers can do no harm. The literature on deterring kids from smoking however suggests that the best way to deter kids from drinking excessively however is to portray drunken kids as losers which of course they are. The best costs to emphasise are those that relate to current fitness and social acceptability. Absolutely there should be no suggestion that excessive drinking is something that adults only can engage in.

To the standard charge when I make these posts that I am a hypocrite because I drink myself (or did* drink) I say balderdash. That has literally nothing to do with the issue being discussed which relates to the case for allowing young people to damage their brains. The issue of my own hypocrisy – or indeed stupidity - is irrelevant to this.

* I’ve been off the booze for 2 months 24 days. Researching the booze issue has changed my own attitude to the stuff.


derrida derider said...

The claim that such policies are sometimes ineffective is true but irrelevant

Like hell it is. This is how an awful lot of really bad law gets made, Harry. Criminalising things that are embedded in a culture and are consequently not seen as crimes discredits the law and leads absolutely inevitably to corrupt coppers and officials.

Further, making it illegal prevents it being regulated, worsening rather than easing any harmful effects.

And that's just the pragmatic arguments. There are some of us who think that the state should not, on principle, constrain adults any more than necessary, and a 20 year old is an adult in law.

hc said...

Derrida, Irrelevant in the sense that user costs of gaining access are increased and such consumption is viewed as a social bad. I cannot believe such measures will increase drinking.

I can't see how regulating illegal drinking differs from regulating legal drinking. In fact it is difficult to do either. No loss therefore in making it illegal.

Who cares what the law says. That is a convention. There is strong specific evidence of neurotoxic effects in people ageed under about 25. Raising the drinking age to 21 is going halfway.

davidp said...

Hi Harry,

Are there good estimates of the costs of specifically youth (18-21) binge drinking? For example, are crimes or injuries related to alcohol concentrated among this age group (and by how much). I think an estimate of the overall number would be interesting (though I appreciate it is not straightforward to calculate).

Further, if possible, it would be interesting to know how these costs are associated with individuals. Is a lot of binge drinking by people who do it a few times (or in controlled circumstances) and most of the individual costs, crime and any externalities from a few binge drinkers? If these few are unlikely to respect such a law then a ban is less likely to deal with the externalities and individual costs.

It would also be of interest to calculate these numbers for other forms of addictive behavior - like marijuana and obesity. Marijuana may be associated with less (violent) crime. Obesity in youth may be associated with greater long-term health costs. This may provide guidance for regulation.

I would like to be pretty sure that such a law would be addressed to the areas where there are the greatest costs (and that such a law would actually reduce these costs) before introducing it.

conrad said...


you need go to the US states where it is restricted to 21 and have a look at the consequences, where, as far as I can tell, at public events where alcohol is banned, the main effect is substitution to other more damaging party drugs, like ecstasy. It doesn't stop the binge drinking culture either, which is essentially the same as here. This is quite unlike some places in Europe, incidentally, where alchohol is far cheaper and where almost everyone drinks from their teenage years. Thus the main thing you need to target are cultural aspects of drinking -- just banning things is almost impossible (what are you going to do with the offenders, for example?).

The obvious example here where targeting cultural aspects has worked is smoking -- I imagine using similar logic, 30 years ago your preferance would have been to ban cigarettes, but that wasn't necessary. They just made smoking have about as much social benefit as having acne, despite the great influence from overseas advertising. You might like to compare that with other drugs that have not been targeted in such a way, but rather targeted in a ban-it and tell people it will kill them (e.g., marijuana, ecstasy). They're still as popular as ever.

hc said...

David, There is strong evidence of particularly high incidence of drink-driving related injuries among youth. Young people with a particular alcohol concentration are more likely to kill themselves than older people with the same concentration when driving. There are aggregate estimated figures.

There is evidence of increasing binge drinking by youth even as overall drinking trends are stable or declining. There is evidence it is widespread in Australia (Alcohol Fact Sheets).

There is convincing evidence that early heavy drinking is a significant factor associated with eventual alcoholism.

Long-term alcohol consumption is the second largest cause of death and hospital admission due to drug consumption.

A search under 'alcohol and youth' on this blog will give sources.

The work on neurotoxicity is new though there is plenty of evidence on that. It is connected to work stressing the slowness of development of brain maturity (to at least age 25).

I agree with you (and Conrad) that the effects of substitutions need to be accounted for. Currently drugs such as ecstacy and marijuana are illegal which to some extent limits the substitutions. I think the evidence is that such things as traffic accidents are also associated with consumption of such substitutes. Of course there is some evidence of complementarities - so reducing alcohol consumption among youth would cut consumption of these other drugs.

davidp said...

Hi Harry,

Thank you for your detailed reply. The aggregate statistics are interesting and suggestive of the costs. I am wondering though if there have been any studies using individual data on binge-drinking. For example, here are two patterns that might have different implications about regulation etc.

100 episodes of binge drinking - composed of 70 people who binge once (and never again) and 3 people who binge 10 times. Though we would be worried about the likelihood of accident for the 70, the question is what to do about the 3. Some more targeted intervention (or stronger penalties etc) (if intervention is to take place) would be preferable.

Case Two:

100 episodes of binge drinking: 10 people binge once and 15 people binge 6 times - this seems to be a stronger case for intervention as a good proportion of the people are doing this.

Another important question for intervention is sorting out the reasons why it is going up. Is it just higher incomes in general or changes in the laws or enforcement of laws or the consequences of drinking to excess?

Yobbo said...

"Binge Drinking" is nothing more than a new term for "Drinking To Get Drunk".

Young adults have a problem with it because they are still finding out where there limits lie.

Changing the legal age to 21 won't change anything, all it means is that adults will have to go through this learning process 3 years later than before.

Trying to raise the minimum drinking age above the voting age is one of the most stark and disgusting examples of the tyranny of the majority that has ever been seen.

Ros said...

Derrida says it far better than I could.

Nevertheless will make the point that my brother many years ago at the age of twenty went for underage drinking. He is a very moderate drinker. But he has never forgotten the humiliation of his conviction. And then it was not an embedded part of our culture.

It is the control freak losing it. We may ask our young people like our soldiers and policemen and nurses to make life and death decisions on our behalf, and then say listen kiddo you are too young too drink! That was what was said back then, (Vietnam for example) and it deserves to be said again. If they are able to make decisions about whether or not to shoot someone, they can make decisions about whether or not to drink alcohol. I am trying to imagine the mess in which there is an age limit. Ban the kids from the mess or require them to only be present under the control of a responsible adult. It is nonsense.

Most certainly dreamt up by people who deserve to be called obnoxiously puritanical.

hc said...

I was waiting for someone to come up with Ros's remark which amounts to - you are old enough to die in war but not old enough to damage your brain with alcohol. The issues are unrelated Ros - it is never attractive to send young soldiers off to war. Neither is it attractive to limit the development of their brains.

Its just standard Yobbo. It will make a difference Sam. Delaying even heavy binge drinking fore a few years can make a difference - the closer towards about age 25 the lower the neurotoxic effects and the lower the chance of eventual alcoholism.

Anonymous said...


Perhaps it is time to change the name of your site in case people think you are promoting a well known red wine.

More seriously, is there clear evidence that binge drinking is a bigger problem than it was in the 1950s or 1970s? Or is it just more publicised now?

If you are worried about traffic accidents, then you introduce heavier penalties for drink driving.

I agree with you on alcopops.

When you have many parents buying large quantities of alcohol for their underage children's parties, it suggests there is a major attitudinal issue amongst parents who are not educating their children to become moderate drinkers.

Mark U

conrad said...

"Another important question for intervention is sorting out the reasons why it is going up"
"More seriously, is there clear evidence that binge drinking is a bigger problem than it was in the 1950s or 1970s? Or is it just more publicised now?"

The stats are on the ABS site, and it isn't clear to me at all that binge drinking is going up. What you see is an overall increase across all age groups -- including older groups where binge drinking is not nearly as common. My bet is that most of that is explicable via people switching to wine from beer.

conrad said...

I should say that that is the recent trend, not the 50s data.

Be careful of the ridiculous definition of risky consumption

Ros said...

Didn’t say old enough to die Harry, said old enough to make a decision about whether or not to kill. A very different decision. To make the point somewhat more definitely.

“So inside the mammalian brain of most healthy human beings is this powerful resistance to killing your own kind. We can see it throughout history.…We saw it in World War II when only 15 percent of the riflemen would fire their weapon at an exposed enemy soldier. In Vietnam, around 95 percent were firing, but there was a lot of spraying and praying.” David Grossman,Lt Colonel US Army-Ret

My father used to speak of his time in Tobruk when he was in signals. That meant crawling around in daylight, horrendously dangerous, the odds of being killed far greater than staying in the trench. But he wasn’t making decisions about lining up another human being and shooting him, for which he was grateful.

Despite the incredible harm it does to a human being to kill we ask young men and women to make the decision to kill or not kill another human being, Grossman again,

“But if there's any doubt about it, if you're killing without conscious thought and there's debate, there's doubt, there's hesitation, to overcome a resistance of that magnitude and to not have [a] support structure on the other end, you've got two strikes against you. The potential's there to be devastated and psychologically destroyed by that act.”

Yet you would argue that those same young men and women should not make the decision to drink, or not, that we will decide for them because they are not capable of making that decision.

In the meantime the US Marines have joined the US Navy and lowered the drinking age for Marines to 18 in their home bases.

Here’s a thought, alcohol is decidedly harmful to the unborn consumed to excess, does terrible things to the foetal brain. Despite the fact that the majority of women don’t drink to excess when pregnant lets make it illegal for pregnant women to drink. Indeed women it seems are more susceptible to the deleterious effects of alcohol than men, so at the same time as we tell young adults they may not consume alcohol, maybe we should set a limit on women consuming in public spaces, unless accompanied by a responsible man, relative of course.

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