A new chorus of critics says it’s time to lower the drinking age.
By Radley Balko
April 12, 2007
It’s been 20 years that America has had a minimum federal drinking age. The policy began to gain momentum in the early 1980s, when the increasingly influential Mothers Against Drunk Driving added the federal minimum drinking age to its legislative agenda. By 1984, it had won over a majority of the Congress.
President Reagan initially opposed the law on federalism grounds but eventually was persuaded by his transportation secretary at the time, now-Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Over the next three years every state had to choose between adopting the standard or forgoing federal highway funding; most complied. A few held out until the deadline, including Vermont, which fought the law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court (and lost).
Twenty years later, the drawbacks of the legislation are the same as they were when it was passed.
The first is that the age set by the legislation is basically arbitrary. The U.S. has the highest drinking age in the world (a title it shares with Indonesia, Mongolia, Palau). The vast majority of the rest of the world sets the minimum age at 17 or 16 or has no minimum age at all.
Supporters of the federal minimum argue that the human brain continues developing until at least the age of 21.
Alcohol expert Dr. David Hanson of the State University of New York at Potsdam argues such assertions reek of junk science. They’re extrapolated from a study on lab mice, he explains, as well as from a small sample of actual humans already dependent on alcohol or drugs. Neither is enough to make broad proclamations about the entire population.
If the research on brain development is true, the U.S. seems to be the only country to have caught on to it.
Oddly enough, high school students in much of the rest of the developed world — where lower drinking ages and laxer enforcement reign — do considerably better than U.S. students on standardized tests.
The second drawback of the federal drinking age is that it set the stage for tying federal mandates to highway funds, enabling Congress to meddle in all sorts of state and local affairs it has no business attempting to regulate — so long as it can make a tortured argument about highway safety.
Efforts to set national speed limits, seat belt laws, motorcycle helmet laws and set a national blood-alcohol standard for DWI cases have rested on the premise that the federal government can blackmail the states with threats to cut off funding.
The final drawback is pretty straightforward: It makes little sense that America considers an 18-year-old mature enough to marry, to sign a contract, to vote and to fight and die for his country, but not mature enough to decide whether or not to have a beer.
So for all of those drawbacks, has the law worked? Supporters seem to think so. Their primary argument is the dramatic drop in the number of alcohol-related traffic fatalities since the minimum age first passed Congress in 1984. They also cite relative drops in the percentage of underage drinkers before and after the law went into effect.
But a new chorus is emerging to challenge the conventional wisdom. The most vocal of these critics is John McCardell Jr., the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont. McCardell’s experience in higher education revealed to him that the federal age simply wasn’t working.
It may have negligibly reduced total underage consumption, but those who did consume were much more likely to do so behind closed doors and to drink to excess in the short time they had access to alcohol. McCardell recently started the organization Choose Responsibility, which advocates moving the drinking age back to 18.
McCardell explains that the drop in highway fatalities often cited by supporters of the 21 minimum age actually began in the late 1970s, well before the federal drinking age set in.
What’s more, McCardell recently explained in an online chat for the “Chronicle of Higher Education,” the drop is better explained by safer and better built cars, increased seat belt use and increasing awareness of the dangers of drunken driving than in a federal standard.
The age at highest risk for an alcohol-related auto fatality is 21, followed by 22 and 23, an indication that delaying first exposure to alcohol until young adults are away from home may not be the best way to introduce them to drink.
McCardell isn’t alone. Kenyon College President S. Georgia Nugent has expressed frustration with the law, particularly in 2005 after the alcohol-related death of a Kenyon student. And former Time magazine editor and higher ed reporter Barrett Seaman echoed McCardell’s concerns in 2005.
The period since the 21 minimum drinking age took effect has been “marked by a shift from beer to hard liquor,” Seaman wrote in Time, “consumed not in large social settings, since that was now illegal, but furtively and dangerously in students’ residences. In my reporting at colleges around the country, I did not meet any presidents or deans who felt the 21-year age minimum helps their efforts to curb the abuse of alcohol on their campuses.”
The federal drinking age has become somewhat sacrosanct among public health activists, who’ve consistently relied on the accident data to quell debate over the law’s merits.
They’ve moved on to other battles, such as scolding parents for giving their own kids a taste of alcohol before the age of 21 or attacking the alcohol industry for advertising during sporting events or in magazines aimed at adults that are sometimes read by people under the age of 21.
But after 20 years, perhaps it’s time to take a second look—a sound, sober (pardon the pun), science-based look—at the law’s costs and benefits, as well as the sound philosophical objections to it.
McCardell provides a welcome voice in a debate too often dominated by hysterics. But beyond McCardell, Congress should really consider abandoning the federal minimum altogether, or at least the federal funding blackmail that gives it teeth.
State and local governments are far better at passing laws that reflect the values, morals and habits of their communities.
but in britain…
Britain should consider making the legal drinking age 21 as it has “lost the plot” when it comes to regulating alcohol, policy pundits claim.
15 April 2007
The UK has one of the worst problems in Europe with a fifth of children aged 11 to 15 drinking at least once a week.
Public Policy Research (PPR), the journal of the IPPR think-tank, says it is time to practise “tough love”, such as reviewing the minimum drinking age.
The government said there were already tough measures in place.
But columnist Jasper Gerard argues in PPR: “When it comes to booze, society seems to have lost its senses.”
He says current regulations are failing to tackle the growing trend of underage and binge drinking.
By raising the age threshold, he claims: “It is at least possible that those in their early and mid teens will not see drink as something they will soon be allowed to do so therefore they might as well start doing it surreptitiously now.”
Alternatively, he proposes getting 18-year-olds to carry smart cards which record how much they have drunk each night and making it an offence to serve more alcohol to anyone under-21 who had already consumed more than three units.
He conceded that no measure would stamp out youthful drinking entirely, but said it was time for a crackdown.
Alcohol Concern agreed that further action was needed, but did not think raising the legal drinking age would help, pointing out that other countries which have already done this, including the US, still have a problem with youth drinking.
But a spokesman added: “There is a sense that the regulatory landscape is lopsided.
“Licensing reform, resistance to a debate on taxation, the cancellation of the Alcohol Misuse Enforcement Campaigns which raised the profile of underage drinking issues – all happening at a time when alcohol-related harm is rising – seem to suggest the government is more concerned about making sure the drinks industry operates with as little interference as possible than with seriously grasping the nettle.”
However, David Poley, chief executive of the Portman Group, said the drinks industry was already subject to “very strict and effective” regulations.
He said: “What we really need to do is change the drinking culture through education rather than making drinking a social taboo by raising the legal drinking age.”
A government spokesman said: “The majority of people drink sensibly and responsibly and the government has no plans to raise the minimum drinking age.
“Instead, we are using a combination of effective education and tough enforcement to change the behaviour of the minority that don’t.”
He said there had been campaigns to cut sales to underage drinkers and restrictions on TV advertising of alcohol, as well as education programmes in schools about the dangers of drinking.
“Talking” CCTV cameras that tell off people dropping litter or committing anti-social behaviour are to be extended to 20 areas across England.
4 April 2007
They are already used in Middlesbrough where people seen misbehaving can be told to stop via a loudspeaker, controlled by control centre staff.
About £500,000 will be spent adding speaker facilities to existing cameras.
Shadow home affairs minister James Brokenshire said the government should be “very careful” over the cameras.
Home Secretary John Reid told BBC News there would be some people, “in the minority who will be more concerned about what they claim are civil liberties intrusions”.
“But the vast majority of people find that their life is more upset by people who make their life a misery in the inner cities because they can’t go out and feel safe and secure in a healthy, clean environment because of a minority of people,” he added.
The talking cameras did not constitute “secret surveillance”, he said.
“It’s very public, it’s interactive.”
Competitions would also be held at schools in many of the areas for children to become the voice of the cameras, Mr Reid said.
Downing Street’s “respect tsar”, Louise Casey, said the cameras “nipped problems in the bud” and reduced bureaucracy.
“It gets across the message, ‘please don’t litter our streets because someone else will have to pay to pick up that litter again’,” she told BBC News.
“Half a billion pounds a year is spent picking up litter.”
Mr Brokenshire told the BBC he had a number of concerns about the use of the talking cameras.
“Whether this is moving down a track of almost ‘scarecrow’ policing rather than real policing – actually insuring that we have more bobbies on the beat – I think that’s what we really want to see, albeit that an initiative like this may be an effective tool in certain circumstances.
“We need to be very careful about applying this more generally.”
The talking cameras will be installed in Southwark, Barking and Dagenham, in London, Reading, Harlow, Norwich, Ipswich, Plymouth, Gloucester, Derby, Northampton, Mansfield, Nottingham, Coventry, Sandwell, Wirral, Blackpool, Salford, South Tyneside and Darlington.
In Middlesbrough, staff in a control centre monitor pictures from 12 talking cameras and can communicate directly with people on the street.
Local councillor Barry Coppinger says the scheme has prevented fights and criminal damage and cut litter levels.
“Generally, I think it has raised awareness that the town centre is a safe place to visit and also that we are keeping an eye open to make sure it is safe,” he said.
But opponent and campaigner Steve Hills said: “Apart from being absurd, I think it’s rather sad that we should have faceless cameras barking at us on orders from who? Who sets these cameras up?”
There are an estimated 4.2 million CCTV cameras in Britain.
A recent study by the government’s privacy watchdog, the Information Commissioner, warned that Britain was becoming a “surveillance society”.
31 March, 2007
The Big Brother nightmare of George Orwell’s 1984 has become a reality – in the shadow of the author’s former London home.
It may have taken a little longer than he predicted, but Orwell’s vision of a society where cameras and computers spy on every person’s movements is now here.
According to the latest studies, Britain has a staggering 4.2million CCTV cameras – one for every 14 people in the country – and 20 per cent of cameras globally. It has been calculated that each person is caught on camera an average of 300 times daily.
Use of spy cameras in modern-day Britain is now a chilling mirror image of Orwell’s fictional world, created in the post-war Forties in a fourth-floor flat overlooking Canonbury Square in Islington, North London.
On the wall outside his former residence – flat number 27B – where Orwell lived until his death in 1950, an historical plaque commemorates the anti-authoritarian author. And within 200 yards of the flat, there are 32 CCTV cameras, scanning every move.
Orwell’s view of the tree-filled gardens outside the flat is under 24-hour surveillance from two cameras perched on traffic lights.
The flat’s rear windows are constantly viewed from two more security cameras outside a conference centre in Canonbury Place.
In a lane, just off the square, close to Orwell’s favourite pub, the Compton Arms, a camera at the rear of a car dealership records every person entering or leaving the pub.
Within a 200-yard radius of the flat, there are another 28 CCTV cameras, together with hundreds of private, remote-controlled security cameras used to scrutinise visitors to homes, shops and offices.
The message is reminiscent of a 1949 poster to mark the launch of Orwell’s 1984: ‘Big Brother is Watching You’.
In the Shriji grocery store in Canonbury Place, three cameras focus on every person in the shop. Owner Minesh Amin explained: ‘They are for our security and safety. Without them, people would steal from the shop. Although this is a nice area, there are always bad people who cause trouble by stealing.’
Three doors away, in the dry-cleaning shop run by Malik Zafar, are another two CCTV cameras.
‘I need to know who is coming into my shop,’ explained Mr Zafar, who spent £400 on his security system.
This week, the Royal Academy of Engineering (RAE) produced a report highlighting the astonishing numbers of CCTV cameras in the country and warned how such ‘Big Brother tactics’ could eventually put lives at risk.
The RAE report warned any security system was ‘vulnerable to abuse, including bribery of staff and computer hackers gaining access to it’. One of the report’s authors, Professor Nigel Gilbert, claimed the numbers of CCTV cameras now being used is so vast that further installations should be stopped until the need for them is proven.
One fear is a nationwide standard for CCTV cameras which would make it possible for all information gathered by individual cameras to be shared – and accessed by anyone with the means to do so.
The RAE report follows a warning by the Government’s Information Commissioner Richard Thomas that excessive use of CCTV and other information-gathering was ‘creating a climate of suspicion’.