Vice Squad
Wednesday, October 15, 2003
College Drinking

Will Baude of Crescat Sententia, claiming inspiration from this previous Vice Squad
, has provided some interesting insights into comparative alcohol culture in
British and US universities.

Yesterday the Wall Street Journal ran a long article on attempts to curb problem
drinking at Florida State University. A sentence that pretty much encapsulates
the article's message: "What happened here in Florida's capital shows how difficult
it can be to curb student drinking in the face of industry resistance and
ambivalent academic leadership."

The Journal article (by Bryan Gruley) mentions a couple of other recent
contributions concerning underage drinking. One is part of the ongoing work
at the Harvard School of Public Health, available here. A second is a
recent book from the National Academy of Sciences, Reducing Underage
Drinking: A Collective Responsibility, edited by Richard J. Bonnie and
Mary Ellen O'Connell, available here. From p. 1 of the book's Executive
Summary: "The social cost of underage drinking has been estimated at
$53 billion including $19 billion from traffic crashes and $29 billion
from violent crime."

The Executive Summary lists the book's thirty-something recommendations,
many of them with multiple parts. Most of the recommendations seem sensible
to me, such as voluntary controls on alcohol advertisements that are viewed
disproportionally by youths and some calls for more research. Raising excise
taxes, as I suggested in my earlier post, is also one of the book's
recommendations, with special attention to raising the tax on beer.
Other than that, I didn't see any discussion of trying to separate beer
and wine from distilled alcohol via policy reforms.

There is a bit more of a punitive tone in the volume's recommendations than
I am comfortable with, I must say. There is an explicit endorsement of
increasing the deterrence provided by zero tolerance laws through improved
enforcement, though (in the Executive Summary, at least), no discussion of
what constitutes a zero tolerance law. By and large, the recommendations were
not so much focused on youth alcohol abuse or targeting the major harms,
I would say, but about reducing youth drinking in general.

Part of the reason that I am uncomfortable with a rigorously punitive approach,
despite the huge alcohol-related harms (by both adults and youths) in the US is
that the drinking age, as I indicated in the previous post, is too high. I don't
think that a 20-year old who drinks responsibly should have to fear much in
the way of legal penalties, nor do I think that his 21-year old girlfriend
who buys the bottle of wine to share with him over dinner should face legal
troubles, either. The "ambivalent academic leadership" referred to in the
WSJ column is ambivalent for a reason -- responsible drinking by 20-year olds
is not a major concern (whereas irresponsible drinking by people of any age
is a major concern, and even more of a concern with youths.) The researchers
responsible for the NAS volume had their hands tied, however: "The committee
conducted its work within the framework of the current national policy
establishing 21 as the minimum legal drinking age in every state [p. 2]."

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