Why Our Drinking Laws Fail

Prohibition will always occupy a place of great honor in the American pantheon of political idiocy.

That spectacular experiment died in a torrent of Tommy gun shells that overwhelmed the temperance movement, which had worked so diligently for its passage. And the United States government, along with the rest of the country, learned a valuable lesson: regulating the social mores of a nation is almost impossible. If the people want something badly enough, they will find a way to get it.

Our government has already forgotten that lesson. By raising the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in the mid-1980s, President Ronald Reagan and Congress brought the federal government back into the alcohol prohibition business. Sure, the ban affected a smaller group of people, but it is a ban nonetheless.

Fourteen years after Prohibition became law in 1919, American political leaders recognized their mistake and took corrective action, repealing the ban. Now, 14 years have passed since every state was forced into a 21-year old purchase limit.

It is time to fix another mistake.

The traditional argument for restoring the drinking age to 18 years old is straightforward: 18-year olds can vote and die for their country, so their throats should be able to feel the burn of Jack Daniels. If you can toss a grenade, you should certainly be able to toss back a shot of tequila.

That face value argument seems especially relevant given that current laws are completely ineffectual. Illegal boozing continues in large levels at universities across the country. Eighteen- to 20-year old frat boys have few qualms about the law as they hook their mouths up to a beer bong and drink themselves to oblivion.

But a deeper and more powerful argument for why the current law will never work can be found in simple psychology. Some researchers believe that by banning alcohol among this age group, the government has actually made drinking more attractive. It's a fact of human nature. Just watch a toddler cry in a toy store when his parent says he can't have that B-B gun.

So denying something like alcohol always makes us want it more. The law seems even more inane given that college, with its protected setting and proximity to drinking establishments, is, in some ways, the perfect environment in which to learn to drink responsibly. That it remains an illegal drinking venue for most of its inhabitants seems an ill-conceived irony.

"By making [drinking] a 'don't,' we actually make it a 'do,'" says Dr. Morris Chafetz, who served as a member of Reagan's commission to study drunk driving.

Although the legal purchase age is twenty-one years, a majority of college students under this age consume alcohol -- certainly not a surprise to anyone," writes Ruth Engs, a professor of applied health sciences at Indiana University, in an article for Vermont Quarterly. "When they have the opportunity to drink, they do so in an irresponsible manner because drinking by these youth is seen as an enticing 'forbidden fruit,' a 'badge of rebellion against authority' and a symbol of 'adulthood.'"

Engs believes more irresponsible drinking has led to increased trouble with the law, along with more dire alcohol-related side effects. It is all part of a governmental policy that encourages young people to wallow in potentially destructive behavior.

Researchers who believe in the "forbidden fruit" lure of underage drinking trace their theoretical lineage back to University of Kansas psychology professor Jack Brehm.

Brehm published his theory of psychological "reactance" in 1966. Reactance is an intense motivational state that occurs when people believe their freedom is being unfairly restricted. Often people will react by trying to get around the restriction, possibly through rebellion.

A simple experiment proposed by West Virginia University professor Steve Booth-Butterfield illustrates the theory. A child plays with two toys and likes each one equally. The researcher places the toys a few feet apart. Then he puts a large piece of Plexiglas in front of one of the toys, so the child can see it but can't get to it. The child is asked to pick a toy.

"Of course, the child immediately toddles over to the toy with the Plexiglas barrier and starts wailing," says Booth-Butterfield. "He will plow into the glass like a little robot. He will pound on the plex. He will try to crawl over it like a Marine in boot camp. He will do everything but go after the other toy that is freely and easily available to him. He wants THAT one!"

Marketing journals have published articles exploring reactance as a tool in advertising campaigns. Engs has been one of the leaders in applying the theory to underage drinking patterns. Engs conducted a study during the 1987-88 academic year to test whether the then new 21-year old drinking age produced reactance among college students. She discovered that raising the minimum legal purchase age did not reduce underage drinking.

Instead, other researchers in academia found exactly the opposite. Lynn Zimmer, a sociology professor at Queens College, says she taught at a small college in upstate New York at the time.

"I watched a fascinating thing happen. There was always a lot of drinking associated with campus," she says, "but suddenly it seemed around Thursday everybody was talking about what they were going to drink that weekend, and making a plan (to make it happen)."

Chafetz, a professor at Harvard in the 1980s, agrees. He says he started hearing a common theme from his students, along the lines of: "Boy, I can't wait until the weekend to get bombed."

These researchers believe that raising the drinking age made getting wasted a sexier priority. It is a classic example of reactance.

Advocates for keeping the drinking age at 21 often point to studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that show a drop in underage drinking since 1986. For example, 91.3 percent of high school seniors said they had had a drink in 1986. That dropped to 80 percent by 1997, according to a University of Michigan study.

Proof positive for a 21-year old limit? Not quite, say critics. Drinking patterns in all age groups, under and over 21 years, fell in the same time period. In 1986, the average American consumed 2.58 gallons of ethanol per year. That was down to 2.18 percent in 1997.

Even if the raw number of high school seniors has dropped, Engs' research demonstrated that those who do drink take it to an extreme. According to her study of violent behavior associated with drinking among college students, in 1991, 35 percent of heavy drinkers reported getting into a fight at least once in the previous 12 months after boozing.

That is up from 25.9 percent in 1982. And it plays directly into the reactance theory take on glorifying rebellious behavior.

But beyond reactance theory, Chafetz argues for basic respect for young adults. He also points out a basic contradiction with a ban on drinking in undergraduate school.

Undergraduate life is as much about becoming an independent person and making your own choices as it is about pure book learning. It carries an implicit message of freedom for the student, many of whom are away from home for the first time.

"When you have been dependent on your parents for your identity, college is about breaking loose," Chafetz says. "You want something to differentiate yourself. That's why a 'don't' is a 'do.'"

Prohibiting something like alcohol, then, while at the same time conveying a message of freedom, creates an explosive situation.

European countries are often cited as proof that lower drinking age limits do not lead to American-style binge drinking habits.

In the Netherlands, Professor Peter Cohen of the University of Amsterdam says Dutch students are not isolated on a particular campus. In the United States, university students "live in big dorms," which creates "big herds" of people that accentuate heavy drinking. In Amsterdam, students are more independent and do not fall into the same culture.

Holland is also known for its tolerant policies towards marijuana. In Holland, marijuana is bought and sold freely, and yet the Dutch use it less than Americans. The drug is prohibited by law in the United States, making it more attractive as an outlet of rebellion.

In light of those policies, Cohen has conducted research on marijuana use in the Netherlands and compared it to the United States. His findings are startling. Only 15.6 percent of Dutch people over 12 years old have ever used marijuana, while 32.9 percent of Americans have. Cohen is currently studying marijuana rates in Amsterdam and San Francisco, and he says the numbers are quite similar.

These numbers clearly lend credence to reactance theory. And since reactance kicks in when freedom is threatened, it must be exacerbated in Americans. We are taught since birth to cherish our "freedom." But Cohen thinks his research highlights the irrelevance of drug and alcohol policies as a whole.

"I think alcohol policy is not very important. It is nothing more than an expression of a complex culture," he says.

Researchers also argue that a higher drinking age reduces the opportunity for young adults to learn how to drink responsibly in social situations. As a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Alan Marlatt (now at the University of Washington) remembers when alcohol sales were permitted in the student union. If someone started trouble or passed out, a sober person was always on hand to take care of the situation.

By banning that kind of socialization, drinking has been forced underground, Zimmer says, with less supervision. Gone are the professor/student functions that serve wine, where students can learn to drink without getting blotto.

"The infantilization of young adults stands in the way of promoting safe drinking," says Ethan Nadelmann, founder and director of the Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, the nation's leading organization advocating for drug policy reform in the U.S. and abroad.

Examining that irresponsible behavior only becomes more important when the issue of safe driving, one of the main public relations argument used to raise the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s, is examined.

Groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began to bring more and more public attention to drunk driving fatalities in the early part of the 1980s. Grassroots pressure brought about Reagan's Presidential Commission on Drunk Driving, formed in 1982.

Chafetz served as chairman of the commission's Education and Prevention Committee. He says he was the lone voice in favor of keeping the drinking age at 18.

But he did not issue a minority report to go along with the commission's findings, handed to Reagan in December of 1983. That report recommended raising the drinking age to 21 in an attempt to curb drunk driving, Chafetz says.

On July 17, 1984, Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act that affirmed each state's right to decide its own minimum purchase age.

Or at least they could in theory. To help ensure states chose the correct age limit -- i.e. 21 -- Reagan made an offer they couldn't refuse.

According to the bill, states who didn't accept a 21-year-old limit would lose 10 percent of their share of federal highway dollars. That state would continue to lose 10 percent every year until it changed its laws.

In a masterstroke, Reagan blackmailed 32 states into accepting the 21-year-old limit. The law went into effect March 26, 1986, when the NHTSA, along with the Federal Highway Administration, made it part of their respective regulations.

Congressman Scott Klug (R-Wisconsin) introduced a bill that challenged the regulations on state's rights grounds in 1996. The bill died a quick death in committee.

Advocates for a 21-year-old purchase limit continue to cite statistics on motor vehicle accidents and fatalities as their number one argument for the success of the law.

Indeed, the stats look compelling. According to the NHTSA, 50 percent of all fatalities in 1988 were alcohol-related. That fell to 38 percent ten years later. From 1988 until 1998, the NHTSA says drivers 16 to 20 years old experienced the largest decrease in intoxication rates in fatal crashes (33 percent).

In Connecticut, 59.9 percent of all motor vehicle fatalities were alcohol-related in 1985. That number dropped ten percentage points to 49.2 percent in 1996, according to the NHTSA.

Before 1986, young adults often fled 21-limit states and drove to places that had an 18-year-old age, according to Jeffrey Hon, spokesman for the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, an advocacy group that favors a 21-year-old limit. That is part of the reason for the drop in alcohol-related fatalities, he argues.

"The sheer number of lives saved is the important thing to remember," Hon says.

Reform advocates, however, do not believe lower alcohol-related fatalities are directly linked with raising the drinking age. Chafetz says the mere fact that one followed the other does not indicate a definite causal relationship.

But that line of thinking could also be leveled against Engs's numbers on increased violence among heavy drinkers after the age limit was raised -- one does not necessarily follow from another. A better argument comes from Engs herself.

"The decrease in drinking and driving problems are the result of many factors and not just the rise in purchase age or the decreased per capita consumption," she writes. "These include: education concerning drunk driving, designated driver programs, increased seat belt and air bag usage, safer automobiles, lower speed limits, free taxi services from drinking establishments, etc."

Designated driver programs make advocates like Hon ambivalent. While they do promote safe driving, Hon says they send the implicit message that as long as one person stays sober, the rest of the group can drink without consequences.

For Marlatt, that line of thinking belies the battle lines in American debates over substance use. No middle ground exists between abstinence (never touching alcohol) and excessiveness (getting wasted every night).

But Marlatt is trying to work out a happy medium. He specializes in "harm reduction." That means working to moderate drinking, without trying to eliminate it right away. Needle exchanges and methadone for heroin users are examples of harm reduction in other drug therapies.

As part of his research, Marlatt conducted a ten-year study of heavy drinkers on college campuses. One group entered a program that included one-on-one sessions about drinking and the negatives associated with the habit.

Students discussed their drinking habits with an interviewer, and their risky behavior was identified. Throughout the interviews, Marlatt says the students were never stigmatized for their drinking. The phrase "You have a problem" was never mentioned. Instead interviewers tried to get students to recognize destructive behavior on their own.

In the short term, students who had the sessions reported drinking less than heavy drinkers who did not go through an interview. Long term alcoholism rates were also higher in the control group.

"[This study] is controversial because we don't insist on abstinence," Marlatt says.

Asked whether he favors lowering the drinking age, the professor demurred, although he did acknowledge the absence of controlled drinking environments for students with a higher age limit. But his study, by avoiding finger pointing, also avoids reactance.

Marlatt's study could serve as a mechanism to open up the drinking age debate to more than just abstinence. And that could be the first step towards bringing the country out of Prohibition for the second time.

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