Recently, over 120 college and university presidents called on Congress to “consider” lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. The Amethyst Initiative is the brainchild of John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College, who’s also the founder of Choose Responsibility. Actually, the initiative doesn’t advocate lowering the drinking age per se, but does instead ask that the debate over doing so be open and robust, something it has not been in a long time. The neo-prohibitionists, of course, are apoplectic after so many years of bullying lawmakers with little or no dissent allowed. Nearly 25 years after the age was increased nationally (at least that was the effect of tying the age to federal highway funds), many people are questioning the laws’ effectiveness. More troubling for the anti-alcohol advocates is that many of the people asking for the debate are not as easily dismissed and controlled as in the past.
As a result, we’re seeing increased efforts on the part of anti-alcohol organizations to spread fear, skewed statistics and propaganda. Case in point is an editorial by a media-savvy M.D., Darshak Sanghavi, whose recent hit piece in Slate, Quicker Liquor, Should we lower the legal drinking age? , begins reasonably enough but quickly goes off the rails revealing itself as more churlish propaganda.
What initially makes my blood boil about such propaganda from the medical community is that it disguises opinion as fact. His article is essentially an op-ed piece but with the column’s subtitle as “Health and Medicine Explained” and his imprimatur of “Medical Examiner” it sounds like the doctor is dispensing well-settled facts instead of what it is in reality, well-crafted use of scary sounding statistics that add up to nothing more than neo-prohibitionist propaganda. Ever since my son’s autism diagnosis, my faith in the medical community has sank like a stone. I no longer automatically trust that doctors are more concerned about their patients than themselves. You expect trade organizations for various industries to consider their interests of paramount importance and above all other considerations. But for some reason, we don’t expect organizations of doctors and the like to be as selfishly single-minded. But of course they are, because they’re human just like you and me. They care about their own families, their careers, and themselves no less they anyone else. And so medical organizations today make pronouncements that sound like they’re good for us, but in reality are often in the interests of the medical community instead.
So when Dr. Sanghavi uses phrases like “in truth” he’s really imparting opinion, citing specific studies that support his agenda. Alcohol advocates could cite equally reputable studies that say just the opposite. Lying with statistics is nothing new—though the science of how do it is getting more sophisticated—and so much of any study has to do with its methodology, its framing and the sample. That’s true on both sides, I freely admit, but again because Dr. Sanghavi has “Dr.” in front of his name and I have “Mr.,” the general public will tend to believe him over me every time, regardless of which one of us makes the stronger case. And with what’s essentially a public policy question and not an issue of medical fact, that strikes me as an underhanded tactic. But when he compares anyone advocating lowering the drinking age to drug addicts, it’s clear the gloves have come off.
Sanghavi goes on to cite scary statistic after scary statistic, but after saying how wonderful raising the drinking age has been for society concludes that binge drinking is still rising alarmingly. Hmm? How can that be? He also concedes that education does work, yet that also contradicts his assertion that other countries with more permissive drinking laws—where often drinking begins at home with education—don’t have lower binging levels. Hmm?
His solution naturally is the time-honored suggestion that everyone else who’s over 21 and who drinks responsibly should shoulder the expense by paying more for their beer. I’m not going to debate where beer taxes should be relative to other products, but the notion that making them more expensive for minors to buy is a reasonable solution, is patently ridiculous, especially as it punishes everybody else. Again, beer is singled out because it’s the “preferred choice of underage drinkers.” Not so fast, doc. As I wrote about last week, a recent CASA survey of teens age 12-17 showed a very clear preference not for beer, but hard alcohol sweetened with something else. Beer’s preference in the survey exactly equaled that of wine, at only 16%. But beer as the bogeyman in the neo-prohibitionist playbook is such a staple of the cause that I suspect it’s very difficult for them to shift gears, even as their own evidence contradicts their arguments.
But as for raising taxes, and by extension prices overall, from the point of view of people who clearly hate alcohol, I guess they figure it doesn’t matter if the rest of society suffers. He compares this position to chemotherapy: it “can’t cure terminal cancer, but it can make patients hurt a little less and perhaps survive a little longer.” Sanghavi adds that therefore since “the current drinking age undeniably reduces teen binge-drinking,” we should keep 21 the minimum age. Yet just a few paragraphs before he says the following.
There are more binge drinkers on campuses today. Among college students, the percentage of “frequent-heavy” drinkers remained stable from 1977-89, at about 30 percent. However, bingeing began increasing steadily throughout the late 1990s, long after the legal age was increased.
So which is it? Does the current drinking age reduce binge-drinking as he concludes or not, as he emphatically states earlier?
But his conclusion also included this bit of wisdom. “Of course, in the end a lot of teens will binge-drink, no matter what the law says. But that’s not an argument against making the legal age 21 years old to buy and consume it.” Actually, I’d say that’s exactly what it is. It’s clear that at 21 it’s not working in the way anyone intended. That’s the very point 128 college and university presidents are trying to make, that current policy needs a radical change. Even Candy Lightner, the founder of MADD—who Sanghavi cites—believes that she may have been wrong and in any case believes the organization she started has veered far from its original and intended purpose. If the age of consent were lower, say where the most of the rest of the civilized world sets it, at 18, and laws were amended to allow alcohol education in both the home and in school, dramatic results may indeed be possible.
But such reasonable thinking is, in the end, not what Sanghavi will tolerate, calling such ideas “snake oil” and the people who suggest them “peddlers.” But he’s the medicine man dispensing propaganda. Using the status of a medical doctorate to lend authority to an argument of public policy; now that’s deceptive salesmanship.
Lew Bryson says
Good response, Jay (although I think you let him off easy…).
This kind of statistics-slamming is exactly why an open debate is what we need; let the first thing to be debated be the validity of these oft-quoted “studies.” All I ask is honest debate.