Vice Squad
Monday, October 13, 2003
College Alcohol

Today's Chicago Tribune contained two articles related to college drinking. The first was the sad case of a 22-year old Bradley University student who died last month, presumably from acute alcohol poisoning. His BAC was reported to be somewhere between .33 and .41.

The second Trib article discusses technological improvements in picking out fake IDs used by underage would-be alcohol buyers. One new device is a scanner that reads the bar codes (no pun intended) that most states place on the back of their drivers' licenses. These scanners have apparently allowed police in Florida to arrest thousands of spring-breakers who tried to use a fake ID to buy some alcohol. (A reminder that free access to the online Chicago Tribune requires registration, and access to a story disappears seven days after that story is first posted.)

Alcohol consumption, especially in the binge manner favored by many teenagers and young adults, is very serious business, as tragedies like the one at Bradley continually remind us. And drinking by younger people even carries some risks beyond those faced by older people. Nevertheless, our (effectively national) drinking age of 21 is too high. No one really believes that nineteen year-olds drinking responsibly is a major problem. Nevertheless, we are willing to punish nineteen year-olds when they try to procure alcohol, even as we know that our efforts are not all that effective and that we don't really care -- provided that consumption and behavior is responsible -- if they actually succeed in consuming some. (American adults who came of age between the early 1970s and mid-1980s themselves were probably able to drink legally at an earlier age, often at 18.) Once again, we set up a trap, a type of "attractive nuisance" that practically demands law-breaking, and then punishes those unlucky few who actually get caught.

What should we do? First, we should get rid of the federal near-mandate and let states experiment with their own regimes. Second, states should focus on the most damaging harms associated with drinking, those associated with bingeing in general and bingeing and driving in
particular. I also think that there is much to be said for a regime that sets a lower age limit, perhaps 18, for beer and wine, and a higher one, perhaps 21, for distilled spirits. Yes, any alcohol is capable of causing great harm, but the distilled variety is sufficiently more potent that
I view it as almost a different beast -- distilled liquor has repeatedly led to major problems when it is first introduced into societies, even those that are comfortable with fermented beers and wines. (This distinction between the drinking age for distilled spirirts and for beer
and wine, not so incidentally, characterized the alcohol-control regime in Maryland when I was growing up.) And taxes on beer and wine could safely be raised quite a bit, as they have generally fallen substantially (in real terms) over recent decades. There are many other
potential alcohol policies that could offer an improvement, I think, but getting rid of our only-half-serious drinking age should be part of the reform mix.

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