The unintended consequences of criminalising young adult drinking

American politicians decided it would be a good idea to force all of the states to increase their minimum drinking age to 21, from 18. No doubt they thought it would start a trend and reduce the negative consequences of misusing alcohol.

But, there are two things about politics that they forgot. One is that political intentions are meaningless when it comes to results and, second, there are often unintended consequences.

The U.S. found that, soon, there was a backlash from university presidents. More than one hundred such esteemed academics damned the idea because one unintended consequence was a dramatic increase in binge drinking by college students. John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College, said, “The drinking age has effectively banished alcohol from public places and public views. But it has done little to reduce drinking. If you were to design the ideal venue for binge drinking, you would not design a student union, a dining hall, a restaurant or any public gathering place. You would instead design a locked dorm room, an off-campus apartment, a farmer’s field – in short, a place conducive to clandestine behaviour.”

Across the country, in Boulder, Colorado, Police Chief Mark Becker complained that the new law “helped create an underground culture that encourages binge-drinking without any oversight or supervision.”

Things got so bad, Dr. Morris Chafetz, one of the leading experts on alcohol who served on the very commission that recommended the higher age limit, rescinded his endorsement of the new law and said it was “the single most regrettable decision of my entire professional career.”

Just as total Prohibition in the United States – between 1920 and 1933 – was replete with unintended, harmful consequences, prohibition on the instalment plan, through regulation meant to reduce consumption, has unintended consequences as well.

It is not that the advocates of control do not make a case for their grand experiment. For instance, they noted that fewer 18 to 20 year olds have traffic accidents. The trend for vehicular deaths was down. But, it was going down well before the experiment. Worse for them, after the new law was passed, the decline did not become steeper.  Even more embarrassing, the same trend was evident in neighbouring Canada, which had left its drinking age at 18.

If U.S. politicians hoped to set a worldwide trend with their new tougher approach to drinking, no one followed. The United States remained an outlier when it came to drinking age among the advanced nations of the world.

Feminist author, Camille Paglia, noted that along with binge drinking came the exacerbation of the date rape problem. Instead of drinking in public on a date, couples had to hide away in private. “What this cruel 1984 law did is deprive young people of safe places where they could happily drink cheap beer, socialize, chat and flirt in a free but controlled public environment. Hence in the 1980s we immediately got the scourge of crude binge drinking at campus fraternity keg parties, cut off from the adult world. Women in that boorish free-for-all were suddenly fighting off date rape.”

Crime rates go up as young men reach adulthood regardless of the drinking age. Crime is a young man’s game. It is also why crime rates decline as the average age increases. With regard to the driving accident rate, the new law did not solve the problem it was meant to. Instead of at 18, exactly at 21, accident rates jumped. The problem did not go away, it merely occurred a couple of years later.

Another unintended problem is that with teen drinking illegal in most of the U.S., unlike in Europe where teens can drink with their parents, even in public, American teens learn how to handle liquor from other teens, not from responsible adults. In fact, American parents who try to teach their adolescent children how to drink responsibly can end up in jail. But, if they turn a blind eye to a teen sneaking out to drink with friends where there is no adult supervision whatsoever, they can be immune from prosecution. In other words, the American experiment penalises parents for acting responsibly and rewards them for being irresponsible.

While America was treating young adults like children, New Zealand decided to go in the opposite direction. They lowered their drinking age from 20 to 18, which is still high compared with much of Europe. Even though neo-Prohibitionists in New Zealand continue to push to reinstate the old law, successive governments have refused the temptation.

A study by Steve Stillman, of the University of Otago, and Stefan Boes, of the University of Lucerne, looked at the numbers in New Zealand and concluded: “Overall, our results support the argument that the legal drinking age can be lowered without leading to large increases in detrimental outcomes for youth.”

That is something South African politicians should seriously consider. 

James Peron is the president of the Moorfield Storey Institute, an independent think tank dedicated to equality of rights before the law, social tolerance and civil liberties

This article was first published in Business Day on 8 June 2016

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