Dr. Nicholas Kardaras recently posted this article on Foxnews.com about binge drinking among teens. The overall point he’s trying to make is that our raising the drinking age to 21 in 1984 has been beneficial and that 1,000 lives per year have been saved in decreased traffic fatalities.
First, I want to point out that Kardaras is a former NYC club owner who nearly died from a drug overdose. Afterward, he had a spiritual awakening and today is a psychologist specializing in addictions. I have a considerable bit of respect for anyone who turns their life around like this.
That said, there are several problems with his article. First, he tries to support his article with a study recently published in JAMA Pediatrics by University of Michigan ISR. That study concluded that binge drinking is a significant problem among U.S. teens. It also indicated that binge drinking among teens has declined from 22% in 2005 to 18.1% in 2011.
First, a decline in binge drinking from 2005 to 2011 has nothing to do with a law enacted in 1984. By sandwiching his thesis between comments about this study he strongly implies that it does, but there is absolutely nothing from this study that supports his supposition.
Quite the contrary in fact. Kardaras says:
“What we do know is that raising the legal drinking age saved lives. When the National Drinking Age Act of 1984 went into effect and states were compelled to eventually raise their minimum drinking age to 21—or face federal funding cuts—an estimated 1,000 lives per year were saved in decreased highway fatalities—that’s almost 30,000 lives saved by a change in federal legislation.”
He provides no support for his statement of 1,000 lives saved. Let’s quickly look at reality. Here’s a chart of road deaths in the U.S. from 1921 to 2011.
Now, let’s look closer at the years surrounding 1984, the year we raised the drinking age:
Deaths declined considerably in the years leading up to the law’s passing in 1984. In the first year the law was fully enacted deaths increased by 2,262. The following year, 1987, deaths increased by 303. And they continued to rise. They didn’t come back down to the 1985 level until 1991. Deaths continued to decline for two more years and then rose again. There is nothing in this data nor in road deaths per capita nor road deaths per vehicle miles traveled nor road deaths among teens that gives any indication that the 1984 law had any positive impact.
What we do know is that the declines do correspond to mandatory seatbelt legislation in various states. Also, cars were getting continuously safer throughout this period which accounts for considerable declines.
So, any theory of Kardaras that the 1984 law saved lives on our roads has zero basis in fact.
How do we compare to other countries, Europe in particular? Young teens in the U.S. do drink less and get drunk less often than young teens anywhere in Europe. In fact, young teens in the U.S. have been drunk less often than young teens of all OECD countries.
By 16-years-old however, this changes considerably. Overall European teens still drink more, and both groups appear to have been drunk about the same number of times. However, binge drinking (five drinks in two hours) and extreme binge drinking (10 drinks in two hours) are now the domain of U.S., U.K., and Austrian teens, with rates about four times as high was Western Europe overall.
Worse, 17 out of every 100,000 teen boys in the U.S. between 15 and 19 die a violent (often alcohol or drug related) death. Switzerland is next with 4 per 100,000 and Ireland is about 3. The rest of Europe is below 2 per 100,000.
Our road fatalities rates look worse. While 10 out of every 100,000 people are killed on U.S. roads every year, Europe averages 3.4 per 100,000. Our roads are 3 times as dangerous as Europe’s.
Both of these latter contribute to our lowest in the industrial world life expectancy.
Any way you slice it, the U.S. is as bad (drunkenness among older teens) or worse (binge drinking, extreme binge drinking, road fatalities, violent deaths among teens, overall life expectancy) than Europe.
Yes, our younger teens don’t get drunk as often, but a couple of years later, when it counts, how’s it working out?
Do you want Europe’s culture with much lower violent death, lower binge drinking, hugely lower road fatalities, and longer life expectancy, or our current culture?