The Electric Commentary

Wednesday, August 25, 2004

I'll drink to that.

Fisking time!

Jim Gogek has an editorial in the New York Times today (Bugmenot is working again) about the failure of the government to curb underage drinking. Anyone who’s ever worked for a beer company (like me) knows exactly how to solve this problem, or at least the social ills attributed to it – legalize it. Of course, no one at a beer company could ever say this (except Pete Coors, who has been refreshingly frank on this issue in the Colorado race for the Senate), as it would be "irresponsible" and lead to lawsuits, but they all know that it is true. The limited prohibition of alcohol to the underage has predictably similar results to the widespread prohibition in the early twenties. The activity that is banned continues to go on, but it becomes dangerous. The reason that it becomes dangerous is that it is removed from public scrutiny.

I grant you that gangsters are not running alcohol lines into high schools, but when teenagers drink they must do so without supervision. This is a recipe for disaster.

Say you have 16-year-old son. He’s generally a good kid, but he is also subject to the normal temptations and subsequent bad judgement of all 16-year-olds. You are currently in the process of teaching him how to drive. At first he was nervous and skittish, but now he thinks that he knows it all, displaying the invincible attitude typical of his demographic. The next time out he comes up to an intersection too fast and, in a nice bit of irony to drive the point home, knocks over a stop sign. What do you do?

Sure you may suspend his driving privileges for a while to punish him for being irresponsible, but ultimately, you go back on the road with him. You hope that he learns from it, at least enough to run to the grocery store for mom so you don’t have to. There are a lot of responsibilities that kids grow in to; driving is just one example. Why then do we completely prohibit the consumption of alcohol for teenagers and young adults, and therefore remove the ability to learn to drink properly.

Imagine if you were simply issued a car at the age of 21 with no drivers ed. OK, scratch that, you probably think that you would have performed fine. Instead, imagine that your most irresponsible friend was issued a car at 21 with no training. You know the kind of person I’m talking about. I refer to him as "bar fight guy." Sure he might be a bad driver now, but in those first few weeks with his new car, he will probably be downright dangerous, and with no one there to correct his developed behavior, he may never improve. Without instruction in an activity, poor execution can become habitual.

This would be stupid policy for cars, and it is stupid policy for alcohol. Let’s get to the article.

Putting Caps on Teenage Drinking
Published: August 25, 2004
La Mesa, Calif. — A year ago, at the request of Congress, the National Academy of Sciences issued a nationwide strategy to reduce underage drinking. It hasn't been adopted, and since then more than 3,000 Americans have been killed and nearly 1 million injured in traffic crashes, shootings, stabbings, beatings, drownings, burns, suicide attempts and alcohol poisonings - all linked to underage drinking.

Hysteria! Will somebody please think of the children! Frankly, these numbers are not even that bad. 3,000 is pretty low, and notice the non-committal language: all LINKED to underage drinking. This connection appears tenuous, however, without the proper hysterical mindset, a savvy New York Times reader might actually think about the contents of an article.

And there have been more than 1.1 million property crimes and nearly 400,000 incidents of high-risk sex among youths, according to research conducted over the years by our institute.
Are these incidents also connected with underage drinking?

How many incidents of high risk sex among youths would there be without underage drinking? There would certainly be fewer incidents, but how drastic would the reduction be? Is drinking the problem, or is it binge drinking? Are 18 year olds drinking a can of Natty Light, stealing bicycles, and using said bicycles to attract the ladies?

This week, nearly 1,000 prevention advocates and alcohol law enforcement officers are meeting at a conference in San Diego to promote the recommendations from the National Academy report. But despite their dedication to the cause, they probably won't succeed - without a lot more help from Washington. A few federal agencies have taken small steps, and two pieces of legislation have been developed but sit languishing. Lawmakers may be too preoccupied right now to tackle a thorny social problem. And the power of the alcohol lobby makes everybody in Washington skittish.

First of all, you should always be suspicious when someone attempts to justify a position through sheer force of numbers. So 1,000 people are meeting in San Diego, so what?

And here is the meat of the argument. We need more laws to curb this underage drinking! Sure it’s illegal, taboo, and frowned upon by most of society, but with just a few more laws, we can finally get a handle on the problem, because if there is one characteristic that teenagers all share, it is respect for the law. Also, there is no way that further government condemnation of alcohol will make it cooler than it already is. That would never happen.

Moreover, lobbyists do not make Washington skittish, and especially not these lobbyists. One of the fundamental truths in Washington is that no matter which way a legislator decides to vote, there will be money coming in from someone. Most people get campaign finance backwards. They imagine a quid pro quo in which first the legislator votes, and then a contribution is made. The reality is exactly the opposite. Interest groups make donations to candidates who will vote for them in order to keep them in office. In other words, they support candidates who share their ideology. So, no one fears lobbyists in Washington because legislators who benefit from certain interest groups will almost always agree with their position already. This is especially true of alcohol-related issues. It is a surprisingly ideological battleground, largely due to the somewhat unique nature of the 21st Amendment. But I digress…

To do so little in the face of this preventable death and injury toll - particularly when the victims are children - is astonishing. The report provided specific proposals, from a national media campaign and the establishment of an independent prevention foundation, to curbs on alcohol advertising and increased enforcement to stop sales to minors. So far, the federal government has set up an interagency committee that's supposed to send a report to Congress later this year on what to do about underage drinking. Without real political commitment, that report - like the National Academy study - will be ignored.

Once again, won’t somebody please think of the children! Look at what Gogek proposes here. A national media campaign, just like the campaign against drugs and smoking, but for alcohol.

(Note: Have you ever noticed that the anti-smoking commercials are much more shocking and harsh than the anti-drug commercials. Think about it. The anti-smoking ads typically speak of cancer, death, speaking through a voice box, lying, greedy corporate executives, and various other unseemly problems. The anti-drug ads, on the other hand, tend to show consequences that are only tangentially related to the actual drug use. This is especially true of anti-pot campaigns. There are two that stick in my mind.

One takes place at a party. Two teenagers, a boy and girl, are sitting on the sofa sharing a joint. Eventually, she passes out and he starts to take advantage of her. She makes some weak resistance, but is too incapacitated to do anything about it. The second ad shows an SUV ordering food at some fast food joint’s pick-up window. They can be heard laughing and playing loud music. They are clearly stoned. They pull out of the restaurant and ram a passing car.
Notice that the negative consequences of the anti-drug ads are unrelated to the actual effects of the drug. The message is not that pot causes cancer or laziness or dread-locks, but that it causes rape. This strikes me as a terrible message that undermines the seriousness of rape. The second ad, while not as disingenuous as the first, still dodges the issue. We all know that drugs impair your judgement and reaction time. Did we need an ad to tell us that? So why is the legal drug treated so much more harshly than the illegal one?)

These ads have accomplished nothing. The kids that want to follow the rules will. They generally have responsible parents, and common sense. The kids that want to be rebellious will see this as a perfect target to attack. I now look forward to a bombardment of anti-drinking ads, especially since I will be paying top dollar for them.

The two underage drinking bills won't move any time soon. The more comprehensive one, introduced in July, is utterly underwhelming: it would provide a paltry $19 million to combat a problem that costs the nation about $62 billion a year. The financing is for research, prevention projects and support for the interagency committee. The bill also includes a one-time appropriation of $1 million for a national media campaign. Compare that to the federal youth antidrug media campaign, which in fiscal year 2005 alone will receive $145 million. All told, the federal government spends 25 times more on illegal drug abuse prevention than on underage drinking prevention, despite the fact that alcohol kills six times more youths than all other drugs combined.

We need more money! The call of the legislative social engineer during mating season. Actually, this paragraph is very informative. We’re spending $145 million on those stupid anti-drug commercials! Does anyone seriously think that some kid sees an ad and decides not to smoke pot or have a drink because of it? I once had this idea to start a company that made generic rubber superballs. I would then start an ad campaign claiming that the government wanted to ban them, and soon. I would say they were hazardous to health, dangerous if thrown, a choking hazard, sort of like that old "happy fun ball" skit on Saturday Night Live. I bet I couldn’t keep them in stock. Then I would build a big money bin like Scrooge McDuck. But I digress...

Shouldn’t the government spend 25 times more combating the use of an illegal substance than they do combating a legal substance? Doesn’t that make sense? As for the claim on that last statistic, I believe that the prohibition of alcohol on those 21 and younger is more responsible than anything else is. After all, drinking in and of itself will not kill anyone, and especially a teenager. In fact, it’s quite healthy in moderation. It is binge drinking that is unhealthy and sometimes deadly, and binge drinking is a rebellious act. Binge drinking occurs when someone is presented with the opportunity to drink, it is taboo for him or her to do so, and another opportunity to do so may not present itself in the near future. The natural human response to this situation is to take advantage of the current situation to the fullest extent possible.

Prohibition will result in dangerous behavior utilizing the product that is prohibited. Write it down.

The other bill focuses on only one facet of prevention - the illegal purchase of alcohol. It would help bars and liquor stores buy new technology that can detect fake ID's and would finance state alcohol law enforcement departments so they can do their jobs. This bill doesn't have a sponsor yet.

Maybe because it is a bad idea. Assuming that this is a problem at all, it is an unsolvable problem for one simple reason – kids can always get an adult to buy it for them. It is not necessary to have a fake ID to buy booze, just a cool older brother, or better yet, a 21-year-old guy who lives in your dorm. All of the expensive technology in he world will not stop this, so why waste money on it?

Meanwhile, advocates in community coalitions and in some government agencies are being pushed backward. Underage drinking prevention groups have had their grants reduced or eliminated by strapped state and local governments. A federally financed information system to track state alcohol laws and policies faces significant cuts. Alcohol law enforcement departments, chronically underfinanced and understaffed, have been hit by budget cuts in many states. Maine decided to get rid of its department altogether, leaving liquor law enforcement there in chaos.

Perhaps they are being cut because they are ineffective. And why does the federal government need to track state laws? They are the exclusive responsibility of the state. And good for Maine. Another aspect to this enforcement is that for every officer combating the heinous crime of underage drinking there is one less officer to combat violent crime, or something actually dangerous.

As the history of tobacco control demonstrates, when the government fails to address a serious social and health problem, trial lawyers step in. In the last nine months, class-action lawsuits have been filed against alcohol producers by major law firms in the District of Columbia, California, Colorado and North Carolina, among other states. These suits, similar to those filed against the tobacco industry in the 1990's, allege that the alcohol industry unjustly profits from what they term unfair and deceptive marketing practices aimed at underage drinkers. The failure by Congress and the Federal Trade Commission to address industry marketing tactics has left the door open for litigation.

I hope this litigation falls flat on its face, but it probably will not.
I have never seen an argument like this before. We should regulate so that people will not sue? First of all, regulations tend to create causes of action, not eliminate them. This makes litigation more likely, not less likely. Once an industry faces significant regulation, any violation of a regulation will leave them open to lawsuits. This is just common sense. Stating that under-regulation of tobacco led to tobacco lawsuits is ludicrous. The industry went for years without a major lawsuit. It is only recently, when regulations have become more stringent, that a successful lawsuit was finally maintained. It is also worth noting that the government itself was the plaintiff. This paragraph seems misplaced. The message is that if you’re sick of lawyers, then you should support regulation. It is a stupid point.

Bold government initiatives can be effective. This summer, we're celebrating the 20th anniversary of the minimum drinking age of 21, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984. That legislation has saved an estimated 20,000 lives. An adequately financed, nationwide plan to reduce underage drinking, adhering to the National Academy report, would save even more lives. But so far, it looks like underage drinking will only be fought by impoverished advocacy groups, a scattering of state officials and trial lawyers who see the story of tobacco litigation about to repeat itself.

I’m celebrating nothing, and believe it to be one of Reagan’s failures.

It is now 2004. Gogek claims that this legislation has saved an ESTIMATED 1000 lives a year. In a country of 250 million, that is statistically insignificant. I assert that if the drinking age were abolished and parents put a focus on responsible drinking that binge drinking would cease to be a problem in all but a few cases. I’m encouraged by his last few sentences. It is a travesty that in this country an 18-year-old can be sent off to war but he or she can’t buy a beer.

This is an issue where regulation has clearly made things worse. Throwing money at the problem and increasing regulation will only make it worse, and continue the spiral, until finally no one will be allowed to drink.

Of course by that point it won't matter anyway, since we'll all be too hammered to care.


  • "The limited prohibition of alcohol to the underage has predictably similar results to the widespread prohibition in the early twenties. The activity that is banned continues to go on, but it becomes dangerous."

    Like marijuana. The fact that marijuana is sold in unconventional venues sometimes makes it dangerous (especially for kids and novices) to buy.

    "Also, there is no way that further government condemnation of alcohol will make it cooler than it already is. That would never happen."

    *cough* marijuana *cough*

    "But I digress…"


    "The anti-drug ads, on the other hand, tend to show consequences that are only tangentially related to the actual drug use."

    My personal favorite is the "If you buy drugs, you are supporting terrorists" ad. So if I buy some pot from hippie Bob the indoor farmer, I'm supporting terrorism? Look out, those stoners are terrorizing the snack bar!

    "Does anyone seriously think that some kid sees an ad and decides not to smoke pot or have a drink because of it?"

    Hey, it worked on me. I now realize how serious and irresponible smoking a joint, listening to music, and going to bed is.

    "Another aspect to this enforcement is that for every officer combating the heinous crime of underage drinking there is one less officer to combat violent crime, or something actually dangerous"

    Don't you have something better to do, officer?

    I can't believe that the NYT would even publish an editorial of this nature. Wait..yes I can. The whole additude toward alcohol in general in America is convoluted. It's put on such a pedistal because it is regulated so much. I dated a girl from Greece who didn't drink to the point of getting drunk until she was 24 years old, but she had been drinking in bars since she was 14. She could have gotten stinking drunk at 14, but chose not too, in part she said, because neither her friends nor her parents acted like it was a big deal. The federal government can throw as much (wasted) money at the "problem" as it wants to: underage drinking will always be cool and it will, without a doubt, continue. I'm with Paul...Legalize it!

    Oh, and pot...legalize that too, for all the same reasons, plus some. But I digress...

    By Blogger RyanSimatic, at 2:55 PM  

  • I agree, many regulations on alchohol are foolish. Yet the idea of a minimum drinking age, in theory, is not. Prohibition in the 1920s, for all of its failures, was successful in decreasing the amount of alchohol consumed by Americans. Age prohibitions are also successful at decreasing the amount of alchohol consumed by kids. Say the drinking age is lowered to 16. A 14 year old could likely have easier access to booze than he now does. On balance, less drunk kids most likely = increased better public safety/ public health. This assumes those kids who drink don't recklessly evade detection enough to compensate for the decrease in drinking. If anythiing, I think evading detection by staying in the park and your parents' basement probably increases safety overall. Yes, the anti-drinking regualtion is costly. However, more highway deaths, kids falling off balconies, pregnancy (probably), and the resources that would be needed to address these things would also be costly. Besides, even if you lowered the drinking age, you would still have to regulate those above and below that age who would continue to abuse alchohol.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:31 PM  

  • But at what cost? Prohibition probably decreased drinking, but it certainly increased dangerous drinking (both in excessive consumption and in product quality).

    I would also argue that children should be introduced to alscohol before they can drive. They are likely to be irresponsible about it early on in their exeperiences. Your arguments assume that the taboo culture that causes binge drinking would move down to 14 year olds, however, I wouldn't even necessarily prohibit 14 year solds from drinking anyway, and if I did, that is still a more desirable situation, as 14 year olds lack the independence of 16 year olds.

    My larger goal is to eradicate the causes of binge drinking culture. I believe that if you eliminated the drinking age altogether that after a short adjustment period people would stop consuming alcohol in excess altogether, at which point drinking would cease to be a problem at all. It is only a problem now because we make it one.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 8:43 AM  

  • (Danny's friend Phil here)

    did Prohibition really increase binge drinking? I don't think that people will decrease their drinking if there are less prohibitions on alcohol, even after an adjustment period. Europeans binge drink far more than Americans, except they don't call it binge drinking, they just call it drinking. Just look at places like Russia, Germany, and Ireland.

    I don't think prohibitive laws increase abuse, if anything, they disourage it, by signaling to citizens that whatever is being prohibited should be used in moderation, and by increasing prices. Laws that say you can't buy booze before noon signal to people that it is not good to drink early in the day. This in turn is reflected in society's general morals. If such attitudes already existed in society, they get strengthened and reaffirmed by the law.

    Using myself and people I know as examples, I started "binge" (more than five drinks in one "sitting," whatever that means) drinking when I was 15, and I still continue to do so today. I did it less in high school because of parental restrictions and the desire to not drive home drunk from beer parties. I continue do so now because it is fun and its negative externalities on me and those around me are low enough to justify it. The law has little effect on my desired amount of consumption, so far as I can tell.

    While I agree that if you lower the age to say, 14 years olds, you will get a lot more experienced and probably some "safer" drinkers by the time they start driving. However, I don't think that this number of safer drivers will come close to outweighing the larger number of drunk and slightly to moderately impaired kids running and driving around. Many of these kids won't be any safer to either themselves or others, instead, they'll be able to get more trashed because they will no longer throw up after 5 beers in one hour.

    while prohibitions don't work against motivated drinkers, they do work to control and decrease consumtion of those who have a low to moderately high motivation to drink. I assume that this makes society healthier and safer in general.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:33 AM  

  • Hi Phil,

    thanks for the comments, they are appreciated. My "Response to comments" time is limited today, but just to answer a few things:

    1.I think that the laws influence on people's behavior is overrated, and moreover, when you outlaw something that many people want, you foster a disrespect for the law in general.

    2.That European drunkeness is overstated, and primarily based in culture, not in any liberal drinking policy. I suspect that the numbers would not change a bit if the drinking age were increases. the top European countries for binge drinking are rather easy to guess. All of the UK (Scotland and Ireland too), Germany, and Sweden. Drinking is universally higher in Northern climates simply because people are forced indoors.

    3. I read a lot of Reason Magazine. It's a pet project of theirs. They have an obvious libertarian bias, so take it for what it's worth:

    4. I'm not really against binge drinking, but I think it's useful to know how to do it and to know your limits, which is why I favor learing to drink with your parents when you are still young. I believe that the law actually does dissuade this, as parents are put into a position of teaching drinking v. respect for the law, and drinking doesn't seem that imporant.

    5. I'm more concerned with Drunk Driving, which is an actual problem. I believe that learning to drink before learning to drive would reduce this problem. There will always be morons who do it anyways, but it can be reduced. I favor the elimination of "bar time" for this reason as well.

    By Blogger PaulNoonan, at 10:35 AM  

  • 1,000 cops in San DIego trying to stop house parties and party crews from underage drinking. nope it is not gonna happen..

    or you will see that we are all drinking and having a good time at any house party in chula vista or san diego or 619,858,760 .. cali is our home and party crew like bbh and bros b4 hoes and lgd will do big things. see the dvd

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 12:03 PM  

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