Vice Squad
Sunday, October 19, 2003
More on Underage Drinking from the National Academy of Science

A few days ago Vice Squad commented on underage drinking in the US, taking a look at
the Executive Summary of a recent book prepared under the auspices of the Institute
of Medicine of the National Academies of the Sciences. The book was prepared by a
committee of twelve alcohol policy experts with the assistance of five colleagues
The original Vice Squad post elicited a suggestion from one of the people involved
in producing the volume that I take a look at Chapter 1, and I have now done so.

The ambivalence about underage drinking mentioned in the previous post is the subject
of a section in Chapter 1. For all of its faults, "Just Say No" is an unambiguous message
sent to kids about illicit drugs and tobacco -- and essentially the same message is sent to
adults with respect to those substances. For alcohol, however:

"The message to young people is 'wait' or 'abstain now,' rather than
'abstain always,' as it is with tobacco and illegal drugs. Unlike the
policies for those other products, the ban on underage alcohol
use explicitly represents a youth-only rule, and its violation is often
viewed as a rite of passage to adulthood. The problem is exacerbated
because the age of majority is higher for alcohol than it is for any
other right or privilege defined by adulthood...[pp. 22-3]."

In the previous post I also suggested that the recommendations of the committee appeared
to be aimed more at reducing underage drinking per se as opposed to being targeted directly
at the chief harms associated with youth drinking. In Chapter 1, the committee argues that
selective prohibitions (of just risky behaviors associated with drinking, not underage drinking
in toto) are misguided: "...any such dangerous drinking prohibitions are extremely difficult to
implement successfully and would not exert a sufficient deterrent by themselves to prevent
the risky behaviors associated with underage alcohol use [p. 29]."

Lowering the drinking age for beer and wine to 18 might actually help sell the "youth-only rule"
of alcohol prohibition, of course. Whether targeting of harms is as futile as suggested in
Chapter 1 is hard to say. As with all significant changes to vice rules, the transition to a lower
drinking age (along with, perhaps, more enforcement against major harms such as drunk driving)
would have to be managed carefully. Minimum drinking ages do seem to "work," as this excerpt
from Chapter 9 of the report indicates:

"There is ample evidence that raising the minimum drinking age in the United
States [to 21, during the early to mid-1980s] reduced drinking and its associated
harms among youth. In all likelihood, these effects on underage consumption were
mediated in part through the reduced accessibility of alcohol to youths."

In some sense, the substantial evasion of the existing minimum drinking age represents
a de facto reform, one that is not well-managed. The adoption of many of the
recommendations of the Committee, along with a lower drinking age for beer and wine, might
codify the de facto situation while still reducing both drinking and harms among older teenagers.

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