Facebook Twitter

Lower drinking age to 18? Look at costs

SHARE Lower drinking age to 18? Look at costs
Rick Oliver fills his 1996 Chevrolet with natural gas at the new NGV fueling station at Semi Service Inc on 4285 West 1385 South in Salt Lake City on May 14, 2010.  The station had a special on natural gas today; 50-cents a gallon.   Photo/Laura Seitz

Rick Oliver fills his 1996 Chevrolet with natural gas at the new NGV fueling station at Semi Service Inc on 4285 West 1385 South in Salt Lake City on May 14, 2010. The station had a special on natural gas today; 50-cents a gallon. Photo/Laura Seitz

Laura Seitz, Deseret News

Any time you talk about setting age limits for behavior, you've got a fight on your hands.

You can drive in most states at age 16, fight for your country and vote at 18, but not drink until 21. Some people don't see this as logical, which is why clear-eyed and sober (pun intended) examinations are so important.

Thankfully, we got some of that on the alcohol front recently.

Three years have passed since a lot of college presidents and chancellors flashed on the national stage by signing the Amethyst Initiative, which encouraged the nation to rethink the 21-year-old age limit for legally consuming alcohol.

I use the word "flash" because that's how the media works these days. A few stories (elections, war) have staying power. The rest, whether it be nuclear meltdowns in Japan or tornadoes in the Midwest) flash momentarily if they have enough of what it takes to get people to raise eyebrows and talk for a while. Then they quickly disappear back into the darkness.

We're lucky the Amethyst Initiative just flashed, even though it continues as a cause. So far, the number of signers is up to 136, which is just a few more than the 115 when I first wrote about this in 2008 (Westminster College President Michael Bassis was the only local college president to sign).

Why are we lucky? A new study by a pair of economists, Christopher Carpenter of the University of California at Irvine and Carlos Dobkin at the University of California at Santa Cruz, adds a bit of perspective.

The college presidents believe that the 21-year-old limit, in the words of the initiative's web site, "is not working, and, specifically, that it has created a culture of dangerous binge drinking on their campuses."

Because under-aged college students have to go into the shadows to drink, the thinking goes, they tend to do so irresponsibly. Lower the age to 18 and you also would reduce binge drinking and save lives.

Which may sound good, except that it probably isn't true. Carpenter and Dobkin found instead the result likely would be an increase in deaths among people in the 18-to-20 age group. Their study, "The minimum legal drinking age and public health," was published in the spring issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives. (To read the full report, go to pubs.aeaweb.org/doi/pdfplus/10.1257/jep.25.2.133).

They use a variety of public data, including mortality rates from the '70s and '80s when some states temporarily lowered their drinking age. Being economists, they put a unique twist on the issue by figuring out how much lowering the age would add to the cost of a drink, if the bartender was forced to include everything.

Their conclusion? The hidden mortality costs would add more than $15 per drink, which they believe is a conservative estimate given the injuries, lost productivity and health problems that would result. Add another $2.63 for the costs borne by other people who might be killed or harmed by the drinker. They estimate drinking would increase by 6.1 percent among people aged 18-20.

The lesson here is that laws can affect behavior, which is quite different from the idea that kids always are going to act a certain way regardless of the rules.

Yes, binge drinking remains a problem among college students. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, college students aren't the nation's biggest binge problem — 70 percent of excessive drinking episodes happen among those 26 and older. But among people under 21 who drink, 90 percent binge.

I can't fault college presidents for wanting to explore ways to tackle that problem. But allowing younger people to legally buy alcohol isn't the way to do it.

No matter how popular the thinking, there really is no logical connection between being old enough to qualify as a fit and effective soldier and making mature drinking decisions. Rental car companies understand this, which is why they generally don't trust their cars to anyone under 25.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. Email him at even@desnews.com. For more content, visit his web site, www.jayevensen.com.