On the heels of a growing debate and movement to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18, MADD has issued an “Action Alert” to its members and affiliate neo-prohibitionist groups asking them to let their friends, family and legislators know the “facts.” Though in reality what they’re hoping to do is reinvigorate the moral zealots and remind legislators that common sense and following the will of the people are anathema to staying in office. Politicians don’t like to be portrayed as being for underage drinking, but that’s exactly what would happen to anyone with the temerity to express an opinion other than their own.
They must be feeling the heat from people speaking out against the current drinking age, because their rhetoric seems more vicious than usual. And their press releases use the word “fact” an awful lot despite not really offering anything new or anything that is actually a fact. To my way of thinking, if you can reasonably debate something claimed to be a fact, then it’s not really a fact in the first place. Here are the three points on which they hang their latest argument:
- Almost 50 high-quality studies have found conclusively that the 21 minimum drinking age decreases alcohol-related fatalities by 16 percent
- The brain continues to grow into the early/mid-20s and that drinking before this can damage the brain irreversibly
- In most countries with lower drinking ages, intoxication is much more common among young people than in the United States
So let’s look at these so-called “facts.”
1. There’s nothing conclusive about these studies and many experts believe that alcohol-related fatalities were already in decline before the drinking-age was effectively raised in 1984. Then there’s how you define “alcohol-related fatalities,” which in many cases includes passengers who’d been drinking or even victims. So that means that if a sober person accidentally ran over someone who’d been drinking, it was counted as an alcohol-related fatality. That hardly sounds like a high-quality study to me. Most, if not all, of these studies suffer from the same sorts of problems. They’re hardly ironclad facts that everyone agrees upon.
2. This is a beautiful one. Fear is always a great tool of propagandists. Apparently all of the people of the rest of the world have damaged brains, as does everyone of my generation who drank before reaching the age of 21. Except that virtually every other country’s kids beat the pants off of us at math, science and other academic measurements. Imagine how smart the rest of the world would be if only they didn’t allow their kids to drink. I guess they’d all be super-geniuses. If this was really the danger they make it out to be, no country on Earth would allow drinking before the brain fully formed. I’m going to assume this is only a problem if someone drinks to great excess and that would more properly be curbed by making it legal earlier and teaching responsibility and moderation both through parental modeling and learning in the home.
3. This claim is mostly based on a European study that appeared to show higher “intoxication rates” but the study itself, in it’s conclusion, said only that “the pattern of alcohol consumption reveals that frequent drinking is most prevalent among students in the western parts of Europe, such as the British Isles, the Netherlands, Belgium but also in Austria, the Czech Republic and Malta. Very few students in the northern parts of Europe drink that often (my emphasis).” “Frequent drinking” and “intoxication” are two very different things. The definitions are not necessarily comparable and, as such, these are hardly facts.
One interesting side note is that the only example given by MADD (on their new propaganda website Why 21) — which they also call the best example — is to “look at what happened in New Zealand.” They continue:
“In 1999, New Zealand lowered its purchase age from 20 to 18. Not only did drunk driving crashes increase, but youth started to drink earlier, binge drinking escalated, and in the 12 months following the decrease in legal drinking age, there was a 50 percent increase in intoxicated 18- and 19-year-old patients at the Auckland Hospital emergency room. Clearly, Europe has serious issues with youth alcohol use.”
Hmm, how to put this delicately? Apparently being a teetotaler makes you unable to know anything about geography. Last time I checked, New Zealand wasn’t anywhere near Europe, not even in the same hemisphere. Talk about keeping your facts straight, they don’t even know what countries are in Europe. Is it possible many neo-prohibitionists are also flat-earthers and don’t believe in maps? That would certainly fit my perspective of many of them.
Another howler in the Myths & Facts at Why 21 is in their explanation about why being able to vote or die in the military are not sufficient reasons to also be allowed to drink. They note that different “rights have different ages of initiation,” such as the minimum age to get a hunting license, drivers license or even get married. They then state that “these minimum ages are set for a reason” and list the reason for the drinking age as the following:
In the case of alcohol, 21 is the minimum age because a person’s brain does not stop developing until his or her early to mid-20s. Drinking alcohol while the brain is still developing can lead to long-lasting deficits in cognitive abilities, including learning and memory.
Anybody ever heard that as the reason why the drinking age is 21? Me neither. That certainly wasn’t how they sold it in 1984. Back then it was supposedly to reduce drinking and driving. But the WMD story didn’t fly I guess so now it’s regime change in the guise of developing brain scares. Again, if this was anything other than smoke and mirrors, the rest of the world would have sat up and done something about it, too. Can you really believe that only Americans love their children enough to protect them? Who is naive enough to believe Europeans or the rest of the world wouldn’t rush to protect their own kids’ developing brains if a true threat actually existed?
Another thing that doesn’t fly is the ages for hunting licenses, driving, buying tobacco and legal consent for sex and marriage. All of those occur before one becomes a legal adult, which happens at age eighteen. So those rights are regulated to people who are not yet considered adults. It’s done by adults to protect people who it is believed need such protection. The over 18 examples they give are the ages one can be elected to Congress and minimum age requirements imposed to rent a car or hotel room. The minimums for Congress (25), the Senate (30) and President (35) were set down at a time when living to 35 made you an elder statesman. I can see no reasonable sense in which this is comparable to the drinking age. Trying to insure more experienced men and women would represent us in government bears no relationship to at what age you can drink a beer. And the minimums to rent a car or stay in a hotel are industry standards and are about liability and risk management. They have nothing whatsoever to do with rights or the law. It’s not illegal to rent a car if you’re under 25, it’s just that no major car company will take your business. It’s a decision fueled by commercial interests, not a mandatory law imposed by our government.
So as far as I can tell, all of the under-18 regulated behaviors and the over-18 ones MADD uses in their rationalization, be they constitutional or business-oriented, are in no way related to the idea of what it means to be an adult. And that, I think, is the crux of the argument. I don’t think anyone would dispute that to vote or to fight and possibly die defending our nation makes you an adult. If participating in our democracy or fighting for it doesn’t make you an adult, then I don’t know what else possibly would or, indeed, could. At 18 you can also enter into contracts, gamble, hunt, buy cigarettes, drop out of school, have sex and/or get married without your parents consent. Really, the only legal good I can think of that’s denied eighteen-year olds is alcohol. And as the rest of the world does not deny its adults in this way, one can only conclude that fanaticism and moral zealots have gotten their way. That a few souls have decided it’s time to show the MADD Emperor’s nakedness, I can only say “what took you so long.”