Thursday, August 21, 2008

Over 100 US college presidents call for drinking age of 21 to be revisited

It's interesting that at a time when the Scottish Government, and leading policy think tanks are seriously mooting raising the drinking age in the UK to 21 , in the US there is an emerging campaign led by college presidents to make a change in the opposite direction. The recently launched Amethyst initiative is a petition of over 100 US college and university presidents calling for the 21 age limit to be revisited. Their consensus statement is as follows:

It’s time to rethink the drinking age

In 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which imposed a penalty of 10% of a state's federal highway appropriation on any state setting its drinking age lower than 21.

Twenty-four years later, our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that…

Twenty-one is not working

A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed.

Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.

Adults under 21 are deemed capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries and enlisting in the military, but are told they are not mature enough to have a beer.

By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.

How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?

We call upon our elected officials:

To support an informed and dispassionate public debate over the effects of the 21 year-old drinking age.

To consider whether the 10% highway fund “incentive” encourages or inhibits that debate.

To invite new ideas about the best ways to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol.

We pledge ourselves and our institutions to playing a vigorous, constructive role as these critical discussions unfold

I know nothing about the campaign beyond the website I stumbled upon, and of course there are 1000's of colleges in the US and I have no idea how representative the signatories are. But what did strike me was that many of the points made in the statement above are equally applicable to other drugs:

"A culture of dangerous, clandestine binge-drinking - often conducted off-campus - has developed."

The parallel: Clandestine drug use is more dangerous.

"Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students."

The parallel: Abstinence only education doesn't seem to have worked with drugs

“By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law."

The parallel: The need for students to go outside the law to get access to drugs fosters their disrespect for the law in general and for the authorities behind the law

"How many times must we relearn the lessons of prohibition?"

The parallel: Fairly obvious

Age controls are an important element of any legal drug regulatory regime and there will always be a difficult balancing act between dissuading use, not inadvertently creating unintended negative consequences, and respecting the freedoms of consenting adults (itself another age issue). It's not easy and the statement above seems to point to one key point - that any system needs have its effectiveness objectively evaluated on a regular basis. These issues can never be written in stone.

I therefore wonder what the college and university presidents might say if they were approached to apply these same arguments about the prohibition of other drugs? Could this newly-established group -- dedicated only to rethinking the drinking age at present -- be another potential ally, or will it merely perpetuate the hypocrisy of our world by saying that prohibition doesn't work for alcohol or tobacco, but that it should apply to other drugs? That evidence based policy applies to alcohol and tobacco control but that illicit drug prohibition is cast in stone for all time.


Anonymous said...

This is an area where the local councils and government can demonstrate that they know how to listen to and get advice from the right people – instead of big business.

I witnesses the dawn of 'binge' drinking in the early 1970s. Local councils put up no opposition to the new (back then) craze of 'theme pubs'. This was essentially a 'change of use' and in retrospect, permission should have be refused.

No longer could could young sonny Jim get introduced to the social pleasantries of spending an hour after work in the pub with his dad and perhaps a neighbour on the way home. In these new theme pub no longer were teenagers subjected to the social pressure to learn when enough was enough. Importantly also, they lost the guidance of how to gain the social skills of avoiding situations going bad, caused by others drinking to much.

It was recognised many, many years ago that any inn's landlord needed to keep 'a good house' to foster this behaviour amongst its patrons and provide a safe environment with safe consumables. This was the very reason why 'licensing' was brought in. Yet by the 1970s the local council's and local magistrates started to ignored history and the reason that their own jobs existed and allowed these rowdy establishment to keep there licences. This was despite the protest from both the local local police and local residence, who now had the growing problem of over-packed pubs consisting of a single cohort of drunken youths spilling out on to the streets at closing time.

The result is today, there are very few places where the 'family' can go out together for a social drink, which is within walking distance of home. The social pressure on people 'to conform by wanting to be accept' has been replaced by ineffective laws.

Round about the same time, a some of the original reasons for the laws on brewing itself, came to be ignored, under the banner of not standing in the way of new technology. The culprit here are the refrigerated sterilised beers and lagers forced out by carbon dioxide gas. The taste has been engineered to stimulate just the rear taste buds. If one takes the time and trouble to watch, one will see, that the drinker of a modern 'pint' has to 'gulp' the drink, to get it on to these taste buds – if you don't understand what I mean, go into a real ale pub and watch the different way that a traditional beer is drunk and how a cold larger is drunk. Therefore, if the theme pub also has few seats, music too loud to talk over, then the only thing let to do is stand there and drink and drink. This has deviated a very long way -in my view- from what licensed premises were originally licensed for.

The other thing that is easy to observe in those people, who's drinking habits one knows well, is the different affect, that different alcoholic drinks have on them. The psychotropic effect of a beer or larger is down to more than just the alcohol. There is a synergistic modification from the other ingredients. Getting this right has been an important part of good brewing probably since its invention. In times gone by, ales where made without hops and instead had herbs added to give them bitterness. These were know as Guit Ale. The herbs themselves had their own psychotropic effect (and are still legal unto this day) which is quite different to the psychotropic effect of hops. So, it can be seen that this overall psychotropic effect is quite important. Whilst the PR consultants of the modern brands may deny that it products are the cause of anti-social behaviour. The evidence is all around, that the present drinking culture and its consumables, have drifted a very long way from the original local drinking industry that used to work in harmony with the local population. A economic and social partnership that worked well for many, many generations. At one time, I thought it was just an urban legend, that English beers and lagers could not be sold in Europe. After all aren't they are owned on operated by continental brewery conglomerates. But apparently mainland Europe still sticks to very strict laws on what ingredients you can use for brewing. So these drinks are illegal to sell over there. The continentals may own the British breweries but they wont drink it products themselves.

It is an irony that since many 18-30 year no longer like this type of an evening out and their parents are now too old to appreciate the modern pub experience, so many of these pubs are now closing due to lack of customers -despite the longer drinking hours.

An observation I have also made of politicians is: that when they arrive at any function they always make straight for the bar. Instead of them listening to lobbyist who instil 'fear' 'uncertainty' and 'doubt' regarding any legal changes to the drink industry, they would do better to remain dry and copy Desmond Morris and just do a bit of 'man watching' to see how he behaves in his natural habitat and draw their own conclusions about binge drinking. Any idiot can pass laws in the hope people will obey them but it needs intelligence and good reasoning powers to formulate laws which work in society.

Paul C

Steve Rolles said...

very interesting stuff Paul. You should make a submission to the current alcohol strategy consultation.

Anonymous said...

A singularly English observation. Up here in the coldlands we have been well acquainted with binge drinking (whether of alcohol or milk laced with gas) for as long as pubs have existed. The nightly 10 o'clock swill (now thankfully gone thanks to increased opening times but in which 3 or 4 drinks were consumed in the 15 minutes prior to shutting) produced some truly fearsome rammies.
On the other hand family drinking, especially since the smoking ban is fast becoming the norm much to the consternation of grizzly Jimmy in the corner. This is not to say that suchiehall street (or indeed anywhere in Paisley) is a safe place to be at midnight on a friday night as there is still a disinclination to refuse alcohol to those who are already pissed. However this has been recognised as a real issue since our last licensing act and there are now mandatory training programmes for staff with a threat of loss of license if ignored or breached. Our social skills may take a bit of work yet but the current administration does seem to be taking seriously the idea of taking responsibility for intoxication and a product that is not an 'ordinary one. The licensing laws have been so badly administered over the years that it does I think provide a very useful exmple of the end product of too much laissez faire when dealing with intoxicants. The parrallels with drugs is clear and hrks way back to John Marks famous model demonstrating that the most serious problems come either with excessive prohibition (which disallows society to exert any meaningful control) or excessive liberalisation (which produces a host of a different sort of problem of the type currently seen with alcohol).

Anonymous said...

Interesting contribution from Paul, but I'm unconvinced that hops are psychotropic.

I started drinking alcohol in the early 60s and although the level of violence was certainly much lower, there was plenty of bad behaviour. Alcohol of whatever type makes people aggressive.

People who drink real ale tend to be more mature and are less likely to get into fights.

I think the reason British beer couldn't be sold in, say, Germany is the inclusion of finings in the mix, which are not permitted ingredients. The various herbs, which were known as gruit would also be prohibited beer ingredients in many countries.

Anonymous said...

Quote by Chris:
”but I'm unconvinced that hops are psychotropic. “

One of the constituent chemicals in hops has an effect on the central nervous system and so can/is by definition classified as psychotropic. An infusion of fresh hops (the active ingredient is very volatile so fresher the better) will have a noticeable effect on one consciousness.

Hops are still listed in the German Commission E monographs (this is a national formulary specifically for herbs) which German doctors can use as guidance for prescribing.
For more info see:
The American Botanical Council: HOPS

Paul C