"Children Drink 25% of Alcohol Consumed in the U.S."
March 1, 2002 10:50 AM   Subscribe

"Children Drink 25% of Alcohol Consumed in the U.S." At least according to the attention-grabbing headline of a press release recently issued by the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. The only problem is that it wasn't true. The organization had miscalculated the data, and the figure was actually closer to 11%. It was also misleading, since the word "children" included 18, 19, and 20 year-olds (who presumably do most of the drinking). Aside from yet another lesson in the inherent malleability of statistics, what conclusions should we draw from this study? Should we accept that teenagers are going to drink, and teach moderation? Or is stricter enforcement of the 21 age-limit the way to go? I'm also interested in the views of those living in (more enlightened?) countries with a lower drinking age.
posted by pardonyou? (22 comments total)
"Aw, people can come up with statistics to prove anything,
Kent. 14 percent of all people know that. " -- Homer Simpson
posted by krewson at 10:56 AM on March 1, 2002

the first thing is to conclude that statistics are not malleable; interpretation is. i don't see a problem with keeping the drinking age the same, really. it seems like more people drive in the US than in other countries, such as the UK, where the legal drinking age is younger. if that's true, and even if keeping the age to 21 doesn't do much, it's better than nothing if it prevents a few people from driving while drunk. (i picked up the UK-is-not-so-much-a-driving-country from sarah thornton's club cultures, which was an examination of nightlife from a sociological perspective.)
posted by moz at 11:07 AM on March 1, 2002

Although this is purely anecdotal, my own personal experience suggests that the age limit actually encourages binge drinking and drunk driving by teenagers. My friends and I spent a lot of time trying to procure alcohol (usually beer). When we were successful, we tended to drink a lot because (1) we didn't know better, and (2) we didn't know when we might drink next. Once we were good and liquored up, we had to get home. Unfortunately, it generally wasn't a good idea to call our parents and ask for a ride, so we just staggered into our cars and drove real slow. I've spoken to exchange students from (for example) Germany, and they told me that because they could drink from a younger age, and learned how to drink in moderation, they didn't have the same "fixation" on getting drunk on the weekend.
posted by pardonyou? at 11:23 AM on March 1, 2002

There are numerous other examples of asinine interpretation in that study. Perhaps they could have subjected themselves to a little peer review instead of a press release?
posted by srboisvert at 11:26 AM on March 1, 2002

the first thing is to conclude that statistics are not malleable; interpretation is.

The thing is, this isn't a case of competing interpretations of a statistic; it's a case of an outright, indisputible mistake in calculating a statistic. Not only that, but it was a dumb, dumb, dumb mistake. They oversampled people under 21 (not children; a 19-year-old is not a child) and neglected to correct for the oversampling in calculating the 25% number. This is not a fine point of the statistical arts--it's a common sense correction. And it got them off by a factor close to 2.5. Their techniques are, apparently, garbage.

And not only that, but their "director of policy research" responds to being caught by saying: "It's very unfortunate....But we think the 11.4 percent number is way too low, since there's so much underreporting." Riiiiiight. Could we be any more unscientific here? If you think there's underreporting, you should attempt to quantify it and correct for it, rather than asserting it as justification for an unrelated mistake. This is psuedoscience by speculation.

Unfortunately, this kind of thing seems to happen quite a bit in the epidemiological sciences. In epidemiology, there's been a recent trend towards "science by press release", in which researchers eschew peer review in order to get their results out quickly to a hungry media. It produces crap science that's bad for the field and bad for public policy discussions.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:34 AM on March 1, 2002

I think the age should be 18, to correspond to the voting and drafting age. Or even younger. I think pardonyou's anecdote is pretty common. And geez...if it would have been legal, I could have spent those early years drinking much better stuff, instead of whatever someone's brother could get hold of at the time.
posted by bingo at 11:35 AM on March 1, 2002

Yes, a methematical solution is needed. Lowering the age to 18 would lower the statistic.

If we break down the 25% into smaller groups. For example, it could show that 10% of alcohol is consumed by those under 18 and 15% by those over 18 but under 21. If the legal drinking age is lowered to 18 (like much of Europe) then only 10% of alcohol is consumed by underage drinkers! That would be a significant improvement for which the Bush administration could then take credit.
posted by borgle at 11:47 AM on March 1, 2002

Errr....math, meth, whatever.
posted by borgle at 11:48 AM on March 1, 2002

I don't understand how young people in the US tolerate your drinking laws. My attitude is that if someone is of a legal age to fight for their country, then they are old enough to have a drink.
posted by RobertLoch at 12:43 PM on March 1, 2002

I don't understand how young people in the US tolerate your drinking laws.

They're too drunk to vote against them.
posted by Skot at 12:47 PM on March 1, 2002

"My attitude is that if someone is of a legal age to fight for their country, then they are old enough to have a drink."

The ones that will actually do the fighting are allowed to drink on base.
posted by keithl at 1:10 PM on March 1, 2002

Thanks for the link, phatboy. I agreed with Kinsley, too.

RobertLoch, I don't think the young people have much say in the matter. The development of the 21 drinking age is actually interesting. In the 1970s most US states had an 18 limit. In the late 1970s the federal government decided that it wanted the drinking age to be 21. However, issues like this are the responsibility of the individual states, not the federal government. Since it couldn't pass a law, the federal government simply told the states that it would withhold highway funds from any state that did not raise its drinking age to 21. Not surprisingly, they all did.
posted by pardonyou? at 1:11 PM on March 1, 2002

We tolerate the laws by disregarding them constantly. I'll be legal to drink here (21) in 87 days and aside from being turned away from two bars in the last 5 years, drinking has never been a problem. And getting into bars is the difficult part; obtaining beer or liquor is so easy that it is almost laughable.

Also, interestingly enough in my personal experience I've found that teenagers tend not to drink and drive nearly as much as adults. Usually this is the only part of anti-drinking and anti-drug education that was constantly thrown at us to stick. I won't get in a car with anyone who has been drinking at all. My cousins who are only 6-16 years older than me won't drink and drive now (since they're becoming parents and all) but their stories from their teen years are full of driving around after drinking.

Also, with zero tolerance laws (such as those in New York), teens know that not only are they more likely to get pulled over but that if they've been drinking they are very likely to get in lots of trouble (and even possibly lose their license for 6 months or more).
posted by Caz721 at 1:16 PM on March 1, 2002

Aside from yet another lesson in the inherent malleability of statistics, what conclusions should we draw from this study?
the conclusions to be drawn are obvious:
1) propoganda is bullshit
2) nowadays all 'reporting' is propoganda
3) there are no reliable sources of information for commoners.
4) everybody has an axe to grind, and you are the grindstone.
posted by quonsar at 2:00 PM on March 1, 2002

here here, quonsar- I raise my glass to you...

The drinking age in this country- which is state-mandated, btw - is outrageous...it encourages binge drinking- it did for me and my friends and everyone I talk to...if you make something "un-attainable" for teens (which it isn't really), they will seek it out with fervor and binge...

If you are able to determine the leaders of your state and local governments, as well as your president (so to speak), then why can't you drink? Makes no sense....why can't you vote to change the laws, you ask? Most liquor board members are appointed to the position and do not allow referendum votes regarding policies...isn't that interesting?

Ah, too be 18 again- when the drink had urgency!
posted by ayukna at 2:36 PM on March 1, 2002

I think you're missing why they made the laws. It was the big bad insurance companies and MADD. Yes, there was number manipulation but it is more profitable for insurance companies to have the drinking age higher. "I'm not paying for the damage you did to your car, you had traceable amounts of alcohol and you shouldn't have any!"

I'm exageratting a bit, statistically more 16-21 year olds get in accidents and while most are due to inexperience, a lot was (is) due to driving with a little alcohol, or a lot in their system. I bet if a comprehensive study was done, there woudln't be that much of a difference between "children" and adults.
posted by geoff. at 4:26 PM on March 1, 2002

Actually, the original raising of the drinking age was a state thing, not federal. Here in Michigan, for example, they first raised it from 18 to 19 for a few short months (so it seemed), and then to 21. But in neighboring states (I forget which now....maybe Wisconsin?) it was still 18.

I'm revealing too much about my age by saying this, but I turned 18 in the last days of 18 being the drinking age. They raised it to 19, which didn't particularly affect me, because if I could pass for 18, 19 wasn't a prob. Then it went to 21, and they got serious about checking IDs.

As someone mentioned earlier, when you're hovering below the legal age, anytime you score some booze might be your last, so you make it worthwhile. That's why teens in the US who drink get seriously drunk, and sometimes drive and create havoc.

At the time when they were only talking about raising the age to 21, I remember thinking that it must be somehow unconstitutional.....if you're 18 you can sign a binding contract, be drafted into the service, buy a firearm, etc.....but can't legally buy a beer? Didn't make sense.
posted by Oriole Adams at 4:42 PM on March 1, 2002

And, once again, people start shouting about "children" when they're talking about adults. Young adults, perhaps--though as a library category that seems to be junior high school--but adults. Old enough to vote, live away from home, sign binding contracts, and, yes, serve in the military.

If someone talks about "children" drinking, you don't visualize a 20-year-old going out with friends after work. You don't even visualize a fraternity house. "Children" suggests 9-year-olds getting at their parents' liquor cabinets.

But "protect the children" sells better than "protect the 20-year-olds" or even "protect the teens".

Oh, the other thing you learn from this study, and this thread, is that everyone (your humble correspondent not excepted) will jump on their own hobby-horses given half a chance.
posted by rosvicl at 4:46 PM on March 1, 2002

Another sad thing about this flawed math is that no one will remember that a correction went out a day later. The original release got far more attention, at least from what I've seen, than the retraction did. (Isn't that always the case?) So now we'll be dealing with people pointing at the 25% number in their arguments for some time... Sigh...
posted by mzanatta at 6:16 PM on March 1, 2002

I hate nanny states. In England we still suffer from dodgy licensing laws bought in during War World I that mean that our pubs close at 11.30pm, and clubs at 2.00am. The present government has promised to change the laws, but they won't do so until they find time in the Parlimentary schedule to hold a debate. In the mean time my best drinking years are flying by.

Can you buy a gun at an earlier age than a drink in the US?
posted by RobertLoch at 6:23 PM on March 1, 2002

I can also corroborate the anectodes about binge drinking. I grew up in Montreal, and having parents that were raised in areas of the world with essentially no drinking age, it was never a problem getting something to drink from about 14 on. Most of the time it was with an adult, so I developed a healthy respect for the juice at an early age.

When I started going to the bars downtown, one thing that I noticed consistently were all the Americans up for the weekend to drink. Generally in packs of 10 or 15, they reinforced every stereotype I'd developed about American frat boys, puked all over the place and generally made complete asses of themselves. Not that we didn't sometimes, but I'd have to say by 19 or 20, the binge-drink urge had pretty much ended.

Of course I'm sitting at home by myself having a beer (mmmm... Big Rock) right now, so reader beware.

And Robert, those English pub laws are some of the oddest I've ever seen...
posted by sauril at 7:53 PM on March 1, 2002

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