MADD's Not Buying Study That Shows Lower Drinking Age Saves Lives

Many of you reading this were not even born yet, but way, way, back in the 1990s, the early days when this was your daddy's OC Weekly, Mike Males was moonlighting stories for us while attaining a PhD in social ecology from UC Irvine. For instance, in February of 1999, Males wrote "Here Come the New Barbarians!," making it one of those rare stories from that long ago attainable from our online archive. Indeed, as link followers can see, the piece is so old timey that paragraph breaks had not yet been invented. But the story was reflective of Males' frequently made point: that hard data disputed officialdom's continued demonization of young people. In fact, much of that data came from officialdom itself.

Now with the San Francisco-based Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice, Males dropped the Weekly a line the other day about his latest project, which is also dedicated to dispelling conventional wisdom when it comes to misbehaving and young people. He just published a study in the Californian Journal of Health Promotion that argues the Golden Ale State should reduce its drinking age for beer and wine to 18 and set up a system of low-alcohol bars.

That brought a heavy rebuke from the local Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) chapter, as you will read farther below. But first we must share the benefits of the radical proposal according to the always-witty Males (which he wrote specifically for his legions of Weekly fans):

1. (All kidding aside) Statistical analysis suggests it would reduce violent deaths among 18-20 year-olds by 9%;

(OK, the following are more speculative...)

2. International benefits: Would integrate California with Mexico, where face it, our future probably lies (and to its Oklahoma past, where 3.2 bars once prevailed).

3. Global warming benefits: Imagine how much gasoline is now wasted by teens driving to TJ to drink Corona and (okay, probably) Tecate.

4. Economic stimulus:  new system of 3.2 bars for 18-20 year-olds would be growth industry for strapped tavern and wine industries.

5. Social renaissance: drinking would no longer be segregated along artificial over-21 vs. under-21 lines, but along more proper Cuervo-Jagermeister-Everclear vs. Miller-Lite-Mondavi-Mad Dog 20/20 lines ... that is, serious distinctions.

But, seriously, ladies and German beer drinkers, "Should California Reconsider Its Drinking Age?" amplifies the recent call by more than 120 presidents of American colleges and universities to reassess the legal drinking age of 21. "The 10 states that maintained 'graduated drinking ages' of 18 for beer and/or wine displayed significantly lower violent death incidences among young people than did states with drinking ages for all alcoholic beverages of 18, 19, 20 or 21," the report states. "This secondary data analysis suggests that California could reduce violent deaths, especially from homicides and motor vehicles, among 18-20-year-olds by approximately 9%, with similar benefits for 16-17 and 21-24-year-olds, if the legal drinking age for beer and wine was reduced to 18 and a controlled system of low-alcohol bars was initiated."

Of course, MADD is also dedicated to saving teen lives, but the Orange County chapter's Executive Director Gail Butler didn't exactly warm up to the conclusions reached in Males' study.

"MADD is not against responsible drinking by adults, but we are strictly against the use by people under 21 since it is illegal and causes harm to young people," she said. "We stridently support the 21 minimum drinking age law because it saves lives and protects minds."

Reminded that Males' data indicates fewer younger people die in states that had lower drinking ages for beer and wine, Butler replied, "I can't justify that, and I quite don't know how he justifies it." She said MADD research shows those under 21 are not physically and mentally mature enough to handle alcohol, something that is borne out by many young people who have committed violent acts having done so while juiced on booze.

Butler also countered that MADD data shows driving deaths, particularly among those ages 18-20, dropped significantly when the drinking age was raised to 21. And she did not believe a low-alcohol-content, beer-and-wine exception for 18 year olds would make them safer either. If anything, she said, it could make matters worse as those younger than 18 would seek to get their older friends to buy them beer and wine.

What those under 21 best respond to, Butler said, is strict parental supervision and guidance when it comes to drinking. "Absent that they run amok," she said. "They lack the maturity to sit down as an adult would and have a drink or two in a social setting. Young people drink to get drunk."

As for arguments that since 18 year olds are old enough to vote or serve in the armed forces they should be able to legally consume beer and wine, Butler said just because one has reached an age where they can make the choice to serve or exercise a civil right does not suddenly mean they also reached a moment in time when they are mature enough to handle drinking. She'd argue they have not, in fact.

Butler spoke just days after authorities released figures that showed OC drunken driving arrests were down over New Year's weekend. Asked if she took that as a sign the current system is working and the state ought not mess that up by lowering the drinking age, Butler said if anything the data shows the increased presence of police checkpoints is, as intended, deterring drunken driving among all age groups.

Should any state politician try to spin the "Should California Reconsider Its Drinking Age?" study into legislation, they can expect to meet heavy resistance from MADD, according to Butler, who vowed, "Will will strongly oppose any legislative attempt to lower the legal drinking age."


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