An Examination of Available Information Regarding Alcohol, the Law, and Cultural Norms in the United
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PERL, J. D. (2007). An Examination of Available Information Regarding Alcohol, the Law, and Cultural Norms in the United. National Undergraduate Research Clearinghouse, 10. Available online at Retrieved April 25, 2017 .

An Examination of Available Information Regarding Alcohol, the Law, and Cultural Norms in the United

Sponsored by: Brian Cronk (
The United States government, as well as non-profit organizaitons within the United States continue to promote a prohibitionist culture with regard to use of alcohol by young adults. This is not only ineffective, but dangerous, as it in fact creates a culture of over indulgence once adults reach age 21.

In the United States of America public policy conflicts with social norms with regard to appropriate drinking behavior of young adults. This leads to legal problems, public safety problems, and public health problems.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (the single-issue non-profit prohibitionist group with an annual budget of $45 billion,) are happy to take credit for a trend of declining traffic fatalities after they abridged the rights of millions of adult United States citizens age eighteen to twenty by successfully lobbying to have federal highway funds withheld from states where the drinking age was lower than twenty-one.Alcohol related traffic fatalities per year have declined, according the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration from 26,173 in 1982 (prior to the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984) to 16,885 in 2005. These numbers may be slightly misleading, however, as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration defines “alcohol related deaths” as all accidents including drunk drivers, drunk victims (including passengers and pedestrians,) or both. For example, in 2001 the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System estimated 17,448 alcohol-related deaths for that year. A 2002 Los Angeles Times article noted, however, that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration attributed only about 5,000 of those deaths to a drunk driver causing the death of a sober driver, passenger, or pedestrian. Many people, however, are skeptical of this law’s impact on teenage (age twenty and under, for the purpose of this paper) drinking fatalities. Critics point to an overall trend in declining alcohol-related traffic fatalities and increased awareness by teenagers of the drunken driving issue. Critics also point out that new automobile safety features (airbags, increase in automobiles which utilize “crumple zones,” etc.) and more strict seatbelt and motorcycle helmet laws also may have been responsible for much of the downward trend in drunk driving fatalities. Mothers Against Drunk Driving doesn’t care about these trivial details, however, because according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving founder Candace Lightner, Mothers Against Drunk Driving has lost their focus on safety and become a “neo-prohibitionist” organization. Lightner says “I thought the emphasis on .08 laws was not where the emphasis should be placed,” in reference to the recent trend in states lowering the legal blood-alcohol concentration limit for driving to .08, “The majority of crashes occur with high blood-alcohol levels, the .15, .18 and .25 drinkers. Lowering the blood-alcohol concentration was not a solution to the alcohol problem.” Clearly Mothers Against Drunk Driving has lost its focus on safety and shifted its focus to the complete annihilation of alcohol use in the United States.

It should be noted that in Mexico (where the legal age to purchase and consume alcohol is eighteen, and enforcement of this law is virtually non-existent,) and Canada (where the legal age to purchase and consume alcohol varies by province (either eighteen or nineteen years old,)) per capita consumption of alcohol is much lower than it is in the United States. In the United States in 2003, the average per capita consumption for all Americans age fifteen plus was 8.4 liters of absolute alcohol. By comparison, Canada and Mexico, both with lower legal drinking ages consumed a per-capita average of 7.9 liters and 4.6 liters respectively for citizens age fifteen plus. This may indicate a significant cultural difference in the way Americans consume alcohol as compared to the citizens of neighboring countries.The United States government promotes the idea that the brain is still developing until a person is in their early twenties. The government (as well as Mothers Against Drunk Driving) spends literally billions of dollars a year promoting the idea that drinking before age twenty-one retards mental development. Ironically, since Texas enacted a minimum legal drinking age of twenty one on September 1, 1986 (to comply with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 (Title 23 U.S.C. §158)) many young people aged eighteen to twenty years had their mental development arrested or retarded in Panama, Kuwait, Iraq, Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, the Philippines, and Afghanistan. The United States government is not as quick to point out the damaging effects of head trauma by gunshot or shrapnel to a person aged eighteen to twenty.

The methodology used to collect data on the effects of alcohol on mental development has also come under fire. According to David J. Hanson, Ph.D. at the University of Potsdam, the evidence on this matter comes from two sources. The first source from which data is gathered is laboratory rats given tremendous doses of alcohol. According to Hanson, many of the biological processes of rats do not apply at all to the physiology of humans. Hanson says that many drugs can cure diseases in rats, but have no effect whatsoever in humans. Hanson also points out that the “adolescent” rats are actually less susceptible to motor impairment and are less easily sedated by alcohol than their older counterparts. The other method used in the research on the effects of alcohol on the human brain, according to Hanson, is the study of human subjects. Unfortunately, “… the humans studied are virtually always alcohol and/or drug dependent individuals. Not surprisingly, long-time alcohol abusers tend not to do as well at a variety of mental tasks as those who don’t abuse alcohol.” The obvious down-side to these flawed methods of study is that they do not accurately reflect real-life behavior. It is well established that excessive consumption of alcohol over long periods of time can cause permanent damage to the brain as well as other body systems; however the truth is that most people do not consume alcohol in such an immoderate way. Hanson argues that a more empirical approach to the study of drinking at a young age might be helpful. Hanson suggests that “natural experiments” in drinking have been conducted in every culture around the globe for thousands of years. It is Hanson’s view that if one conducts experiments into the effects of drinking during adolescence through a sociological frame of reference instead of a clinical one, that many things become obvious. In many cultures (Italian, French, German, Jewish, etc.) drinking in the home is common from a young age, and “There is neither evidence or any reason to even suspect that members of these groups are brain impaired compared to those societies that do not permit young people to consume alcohol.” Alcoholic beverages, however, are by no means harmless. Perhaps the most troubling reports regarding the use of alcohol by youth are those that allege that alcohol is a “gateway drug” that will induce youth to try other, more harmful illicit substances. In the last decade this theory has gained traction in the scientific and popular realms. The scientific community has performed myriad experiments and surveys aimed at supporting or refuting the hypothesis that use of alcohol, tobacco, or marijuana will inevitably lead youth down the path to “harder” drugs or promiscuous sexual activity. In 1996, Pediatrics, the journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics released a study conducted by David M. Fergusson, PhD and Michael T. Lynskey MSc. The goal of the study was to observe the possible links between alcohol misuse and measures of early onset sexual activity and sexual risk-taking behaviors during adolescence “and the extent to which any association between these two sets of behaviors could be explained by common risk factors that predisposed individuals to both outcomes.” Essentially, the study was conducted to determine the link between childhood alcohol misuse and risky sexual behaviors. The study was conducted over 16 years on a birth cohort of 953 New Zealand children. The data were gathered through self report measures of early onset sexual activity (taking place when the participants were younger than 16), multiple partners (more than two), and intercourse without safer sex precautions during the interval from 15 to 16 years; and prospectively measured risk factors, including socio-economic background, childhood adversity, novelty seeking, and affiliations with delinquent peers. The findings of the study were amazing. Subjects reporting misuse of alcohol had odds of intercourse before age sixteen, multiple partners, and unprotected intercourse that were 6.1 to 23.0 times as high as those that did not report misuse of alcohol. Another such study was released on 27 October, 1994 by Columbia University’s Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (CASA). The study found that children (age 12-17) who used marijuana, alcohol, and tobacco were seventy seven times more likely to use cocaine than children of the same age that used none of the “gateway drugs.” An experiment to the same effect was conducted by Alyssa J. Myers and Marion O. Petty from the department of psychology at Missouri Western State University. The human experimental subjects were divided into three groups. Each group contained between fifteen and eighteen subjects. The groups were high alcohol, moderate alcohol, and a control group. Test subjects were given an amount of alcohol corresponding to their body weight and study group (high, moderate, or none.) Research assistants then offered the subjects fake marijuana and counted those willing to smoke. In accordance with ethics standards regarding the use of human test subjects, the subjects were then debriefed. Afterwards, a survey on past and present drug use was administered to the subjects. The results, which were statistically significant, demonstrated that the more alcohol a subject consumed, the more likely he or she was to try marijuana. All test subjects who reported marijuana use on the survey also reported alcohol use. Myers and Petty attribute much of the gateway drug effect to the culture of prohibition in the United States. To quote Myers and Petty, “Rather than teaching youths lifelong abstinence, they are in effect being encouraged to indulge when they are of legal age.” When considered in context, the rules regarding the use of alcohol in the United States are very confusing. American culture and attitudes, for the most part, closely mirror those of Great Britain and Western Europe. With regard to alcohol, however, the laws of the United States are much more strict. The United States has the highest national drinking age in the world, with the exception of middle-eastern Muslim nations. Even Indonesia, which is the world’s most populous Muslim majority nation, has a lower drinking age than the United States. Surely this puritanical environment combined with permissive European-style social norms has contributed to a culture of misuse and indulgence once young American adults reach legal age. Fortunately, there are several programs in place that are attempting to influence and change people’s beliefs and views regarding alcohol use and abuse. Most of these programs are geared toward young people. One such program, aimed at decreasing alcohol related problems among university students is the “AlcoholEdu” program. AlcoholEdu is in effect at several major universities including Texas Tech University, Boston College and Auburn University. Also, many extracurricular organizations implement AlcoholEdu (Phi Kappa Psi, Kappa Alpha Order, Pi Beta Phi, and Kappa Alpha Theta to name a few) or similar programs. Some organizations, fraternities and sororities for example, implement even more comprehensive “risk management” programs that cover alcohol, substance abuse, and other related topics (i.e. dating violence, assault, etc.) The idea of risk management at the collegiate level is a fairly recent phenomenon. AlcoholEdu, for example only came about at the turn of the millennium. Kappa Sigma Fraternity’s comprehensive risk management schema, My Brother’s Keeper, is copyright 2005. Programs also exist to influence the outlook of children at the high school level or earlier with regards to the use and abuse of potentially addictive substances. The most prevalent such program is Drug Abuse Resistance Education. Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or “DARE,” is administered in three fourths of school districts in the United States. It is also used overseas in more than 43 countries. DARE, which was founded in Los Angeles in 1983 as part of President Reagan’s war on drugs, has come under some fire in recent years. While DARE may be successful in its aims of “humanizing” police officers to young students and giving students a chance to see officers as friends instead of adversaries, it has recently been criticized for being ineffective in its primary goal of curtailing drug abuse. Assessing the Effects of School Based Drug Education: A Six-Year Multi-Level Analysis of Project DARE, a 1998 study by Dennis P. Rosenbaum, Ph.D. (head of the Department of Criminal Justice and Center for research in Law and Justice at the University of Illinois at Chicago,) found that “The results indicate that D.A.R.E. had no long-term effects on a wide range of drug use measures, nor did it show a lasting impact on hypothesized mediating variables, with one exception. Previously documented short-terms effects had dissipated by the conclusion of the study. D.A.R.E., although ineffective by itself over the long haul, appears to inoculate students against the apparent negative aspects of supplemental drug education.” In 1997 the 75th Texas Legislature passed several bills focusing on the issue of the use of alcohol by minors. One of these was the implementation of the state’s own educational program regarding the use of alcohol by persons younger than twenty one. The states second most senior senator, Judith Zaffirini, sponsored senate bill 197 which requires the Texas Comission of Alcohol and Drug abuse to “regulate, coordinate, and provide training for alcohol awareness courses required to be attended by minors convicted of certain alcohol purchase, consumption, or possession provisions.” These programs meet most of Dr. Hanson’s litmus tests for an effective and reasonable alcohol education program. Dr. Hanson claims that for a program of alcohol education to be effective in the real world it must meet several standards. Hanson Claims that first and foremost, educational programs must “Provide accurate, truthful and unbiased information about alcohol and its consumption.” Alcohol awareness classes established under Senate Bill 197 do not meet this standard. The information provided is certainly accurate to some degree, and truthful in so much as it is not explicitly fabricated to deceive the students. It is not, however, unbiased. The information presented is selected specifically for the purpose of dissuading the youth from any further use of alcohol. While this may serve the goal of the program (encouraging youth and young adults to comply with the prohibitionist policy of the State of Texas,) it does not serve to make the youth more responsible drinkers on the whole.The second criterion for determining the efficacy of an alcohol awareness program is that the program distinguishes “between the use and abuse of alcohol.” The alcohol awareness classes established by Senate Bill 197 do meet this criterion. Alcohol awareness classes teach about binge drinking and excessive consumption, and the ways in which these differ from responsible use.The third criterion which effective alcohol education programs must meet to comply with Dr. Hanson’s standards is that they must “Teach the legal status and potential legal consequences of underage purchase, possession and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages by those under age 21.” The state alcohol awareness programs definitely measure up to this standard, as this is arguably the primary goal of said programs.The final criterion set forth by Hanson is that the program must “Teach effective ways to reduce the potential harm that can result from the abuse of alcohol.” SB 197 programs achieve this by teaching the implementation of such strategies as selecting a designated driver, taking car keys away from party guests, and general avoidance of drinking to excess once one has reached the legal drinking age. The programs tend to emphasize a zero-tolerance mentality when it comes to drinking by children and young adults under twenty one.

The United States of America has a problem with alcohol. The problem is that Americans have fostered a culture of alcohol abuse and other irresponsible use of alcohol. If more programs like the Senate Bill 197 programs existed/ were more readily available, Americans could get back on the correct path to safe and responsible enjoyment of alcoholic beverages. The anti-“Age 21” organization Choose Responsibility even goes so far as to endorse mandatory alcohol education for young drinkers. Along with state-run educational programs, parental supervision of young drinkers is a key step in reforming American alcohol habits. Choose Responsibility promotes a safe, sensible program of drinking under parental supervision, and a scheme of graduated licensing much like the scheme used for children’s driver licenses in many states. Clearly through educating youth about the responsible consumption of alcohol, Americans can create a safer, healthier nation.

Journal Articles:

Eigenbrodt, M.L., Mosley, T.H., Hutchinson, R.G., Watson, R.L., Chambless, L.E., & Szklo, M. (2001). Alcohol consumption with age: A cross-sectional and longitudinal study of atherosclerosis risk in communities (ARIC) study, 1987-1995. American journal of epidemiology. 153, 1102-1111.

Fergusson, D.M., & Lynskey, M.T. (1996). Alcohol misuse and adolescent sexual behaviors and risk taking . Pediatrics. 98, 91-96.

Rosenbaum, D.P., & Hanson, G.S. (1998). Assessing the effects of school-based drug education: A six-year multilevel analysis of project D.A.R.E.. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency. 35, 381-412.

Cable, N., & Sacker, A. (2006). Typologies of alcohol consumption in adolescence: Predictors and adult outcomes. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 60, A26.

Figlio, D.N. (1995).The effect of drinking age laws and alcohol related crashes: Time series evidence from Wisconsin. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. 14, 555-566.

Newspaper Articles:Mirken, B. (2006, December 24). Opinion: `gateway` debate closed. Chicago Sun-Times

National Study Shows "Gateway" Drugs Lead to Cocaine Use. (1994, November 18). The Record

A spirited debate over DUI laws: The government`s effort to compel the states.... (2002, December 30). Los Angeles Times, p. A1.

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MADD online: Why 21?. Retrieved August 8, 2007, from Why 21: What`s magic about the number 21? Web site:

Hanson, D.J. Drinking alcohol damages teenagers` brains. Retrieved August 20, 2007, from Drinking alcohol damages teenagers` brains Web site:

Hanson, D.J. Effective alcohol education: What works with underage youths. Retrieved August 20, 2007, from Effective alcohol education: What works with underage youths Web site:

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Choose Responsibility, Frequently asked questions choose responsibility. Retrieved September 1, 2007, from Frequently asked questions Web site:

Senate Research Center, (July 1997). Retrieved September 1, 2007, from Highlights of the 75th Texas Legislature: Regular session: A summary of the most significant legislative action Web site:

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Balko, R. (2002, December 9). Targeting the social drinker is just MADD. Retrieved September 1, 2007, from Targeting the social drinker is just MADD Web site:

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Ragain, M. (2006). AlcoholEdu® at Texas Tech. Retrieved September 3, 2007, from Welcome to AlcoholEdu® for College Web site:

Outside The Classroom, (2007). Outside the clasroom - Education for life. Retrieved September 13, 2007, from What students are saying about AlcoholEdu® Web site:

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Submitted 9/14/2007 3:02:01 PM
Last Edited 10/3/2007 3:10:08 PM
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