That will fix everything!

September 16th, 2009

A commentary on by John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont asserts that the legal drinking age of 21 has not curbed on-campus binge drinking – or the problems that come with it.

As with many arguments of this sort, the commentary misses the core of the problem: no legal drinking age, by itself, will ever be successful in curbing binge drinking or the injuries and fatalities that stem from it.

Furthermore, I do not believe any amount of education, heart-to-heart chats, preaching, scare tactics, etc can put a serious dent in the statistics McCardell cites.

Regardless of any sort of temperance-rooted cultural attitudes towards alcohol, young people, in general, will test their autonomy and independence. They will push the boundaries of the taboos with which they were raised. And they will demonstrate bad judgment in the process.

McCadrell’s idea of issuing a license to buy and consume alcohol to young adults, contingent on completion of some sort of education seems interesting, but the odds are stacked high against it being successful.

More than likely, this education will be packed with information and admonitions (all well-intentioned) – probably just like those in the D.A.R.E. program. The D.A.R.E. program is a noble, well-intentioned effort, but having attended a few of the programs “graduation ceremonies” for my kids, I am skeptical. I was most appalled by what seemed to be a scare tactics – based approach. Never mind that, for many young people, some lessons just don’t “stick” and they have to be learned personally – and often in a very bitter way.

Young people have a sense of invincibility, a “not-going-to-happen-to-me” thinking. Couple that with poor judgment and impulsiveness that are intrinsic to the developing neurophysiology of young adults (into their mid-twenties) and one understands why it is so difficult to effectively curb young adult irresponsible drinking and prevent the attendant problems.

As a parent, I struggle with this issue. I want to see some successful programs which will let me sleep through the night when my kids reach high school and college age. I just have not seen any approach which would conceivably work. In large part, I think this is because all efforts to date either ignore or disregard the realities of the time line of brain development.


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15 Responses to “That will fix everything!”

  1. Wayne K Says:

    I think they should lower the age back to 18. The more kids get a grip on alcohol the better. Let them drink early in life and be able to consume alcohol responsibly. I agree with enforcing DUI’s. These same kids can buy gun at 18 but can’t have a beer with their Dad legally? Doesn’t add up.

  2. Dylan Says:

    My parents approach worked fairly well. They didn’t make alcohol forbidden, they let me taste tiny amounts of their wines and beers starting at 12. My first thought was that they tasted awful and I couldn’t make any sense of why someone would drink that over soda. But, as I grew older, the taste also grow on me. The invitation to try what my parents were trying was always open during our family meals. By the time everyone my age was going nuts over alcohol in high school, I didn’t see what the big deal was. If you let drinking take place in a supervised environment, where there is no fear of “being in trouble” or “getting caught,” you removes major safety issues of over-consumption (at the risk of embarrassing your own parents or infuriating your friend’s parents who already graciously allowed you the privilege of this environment) and driving home under the influence (to hide that you were drinking).

  3. Thomas Pellechia Says:


    For once, we agree completely on this issue!

    This is not an issue for blind scare tactics and useless laws, but it certainly is not one that has an easy answer. My experience as a youngster mirrors many, I’m sure, and some of my old friends from those days are still close to me. Most of us came through the excesses, but one or two went onto full-fledged alcoholism. It turned out the same with other substances.

    No easy answers and a lot to do with personal character, which is where I believe the main issue lies. It is, after all, a parent/family/child relationship of strength and love that builds character and that carries young people wherever they may wind up.

  4. Aaron Says:

    The author here starts off well – I thought he was going to delve into a critique of American culture regarding alcohol. Instead, he takes the predictable, unfortunate route of biological determinism – the argument that whatever population we want to make restrictive laws for needs those laws because of their “different brains”. This fallacious argument has popped up over the last couple hundred years as a last resort whenever unjust laws are starting to be exposed, including in the civil rights movement and womens’ suffrage, among others.

    Here’s an easy test: 99% of the world has a drinking age lower than 21 (or no age at all). If there were some brain-based reason that a 21 age were necessary, we should be seeing an epidemic of severe brain damage or unimpeded risk-taking or something in about 5 or 6 billion people. Good thing we have America to save everyone! Every other country’s entire populations are brain damaged and running wild!


  5. Arthur Says:

    Thank you very much for your comments.

    I am a medical doctor specializing in functional brain imaging for the purposes of neuropsychiatric diagnosis and management. Thus, I speak from a position of experience and expertise on the matter.

    In fact, there is much data supporting the legal drinking age of 21. Among them is the fact that brains are not fully mature until people’s mid-twenties. That data actually supports the notion that legal drinking age should be at least 25.

    All that being said, I agree that the laws seem arbitrary – especially since legal ages to enlist in the military, to obtain a driver’s license or to vote are lower. I do not dismiss the influence of the Temperance movement on this country’s attitude towards alcohol. Nor do I actively support a legal drinking age of 25, but the facts are facts.

  6. Aaron Says:

    And I repeat – in that case, there should be overwhelming evidence of some negative consequence of drinking ages under 21 on the “developing” brain, since 99% of the world can be the proverbial lab rats for such an experiment.

    In reality, as far as I understand, mapping regions of the brain to specific functions/dispositions is a science still in its infancy. Every time we think we have it figured out, we find that the brain is an incredibly complex organ that can re-map functions to other regions and compensate for it’s own deficiencies, and that we are only scratching the surface of its mysteries. In any case, the variations in physical structure or “development” of any given race/sex/age/whatever against whoever you are trying to compare it to don’t even remotely approach the variations between individuals. Anyone who advocates using physical characteristics to craft legislation is treading a dangerous road.

    Presumably you’re aware that the brain actually continues to develop (and degrade) throughout life. At various stages, judging only by physical criteria, people should be better or worse at any number of things. Should we legislate all of those behaviours too, ignoring the fact that someone’s cultural/social environment and choices can cause variations hundreds of thousands of times that of a hippocampus that’s 1% larger?

    I realize it’s difficult to see outside the fishbowl when you’re trapped in it. But taking a study on brain development in young adults and immediately jumping to the conclusion that it begs for some sort of alcohol legislation is irresponsible from a political or scientific viewpoint. Rather than demonstrating an understanding of “facts”, it demonstrates a lack of understanding of the intent of scientific inquiry, and a disposition borne of an entrenched culture. In a culture that had issues with medication, no one would even think about alcohol – they would immediately raise the Tylenol age to 25. Same for a culture with car issues – 25 driving age! A culture with military iisues? Well obviously that study says you can’t sign up for the military until age 25.

    In reality, the study says none of those things. It simply charts the physical growth of certain regions of the brain. It says whatever you want it to say, and America is very clear about what they want it to say.

    In reality, it belongs with companion studies – studies that say a child between 13 – 16 becomes cognitively indistinguishable from an adult. Studies that chart the decline of brain regions in people above age 30. Those all have implications too, but for some reason we don’t jump to legislating those people’s behaviour.

    Anyways, I didn’t mean to get drawn into a debate about brain imaging. You are obviously the expert there, and in my opinion, it’s not that relevant without experiential data to give it meaning. So, let’s head out into the other 99% of the world and find all the brain damaged, risk taking youth running amok! Well, there it is . . . for some strange reason the places with these problems are the ones with more restrictive alcohol cultures, not the other way around.

  7. Arthur Says:

    The following is meant to be brief and not flip, arrogant or condescending:

    The scientific community’s understanding of regional and architectonic brain function and the application of that to clinical practice is far more advanced than you seem to think.

    There is a preponderance of A-level scientific data that alcohol and other “recreational” substances are bad for the brain – especially for a young and developing brain.

    Nor is the notion that there is some profound physiological or neuropphysiological variation across populations true. If it were, aspirin and ibuprofen or Valium would not work.

    Finally, you miss the point of my post in assuming that I am speaking to an agenda.

    The point of my post is that it is impossible to achieve any better outcome with any legal drinking age: “no legal drinking age, by itself, will ever be successful in curbing binge drinking or the injuries and fatalities that stem from it.”

    I take issues with your fishbowl comment as I do the notion that I am taking “a [single? solitary?]” study to base my assertion and the aspersion you cast at my approach to scientific method.

    We can debate the merits of arguments – here or off-line, but I do not appreciate these roundabout personal (and national) insults.

  8. Small Minded Fool Says:

    Arthur – 2
    Aaron – 0

    Aaron, your belligerent rantings, especially those where you pretend to have the authority to make sweeping generalizations about the state of the art in brain imaging, immediately reminded me of the creationist Wendy Wright’s interview by Richard Dawkins (

    You appear to take the same position that Wright does, namely that science (or in your case, brain imaging) is controlled by secret cabal of experts who hide the “truth” in order to “oppress” the common man.

    Anyone with the slightest ability to think reasonably, the faintest understanding of science, knows that that is a remarkably ignorant position to take. Brain imaging is a highly advanced science, requiring years of education and experience in medicine, physics, mathematics, and engineering. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, it is simply not possible for the layperson to understand the intricacies of the field just by reading Wikipedia articles and watching the Discovery channel.

    Therefore, unless you yourself are an expert in brain imaging (and it’s clear that you are not), you are completely unqualified to make sniping insults at an expert regarding the technical issues of the field.

    It is even more silly to attempt to support your position with hand-waving arguments based on your lack of knowledge about brain imaging.

    In conclusion, it is safer to not provoke pissing matches with experts in highly advanced technical fields. It just makes you look like a half-cocked, crazy conspiracy theorist.

  9. Aaron Says:

    Hi guys,

    I want to sincerely apologize if my comments were misconstrued. I’m not entirely sure you read my complete posts, or perhaps I wasn’t clear enough with my caveats or statements of non-expertise. Allow me to repeat the important parts:

    – I have no expertise in the author’s field, and therefore am not particularly interested in debating its minutiae – nor do I think it should be the central issue in a debate on fair legislation. However, there are a couple obvious issues that don’t require expertise to question. Primarily:

    – 99% of the world has a drinking age under 21. If there were negative effects on the brain, this would be obvious. This was the crux of my point, and was not addressed.

    – if brain imaging is infallible, then there are all sorts of laws that should go with it across all ages, not just this one. I’m not implying a “conspiracy” here, I’m illustrating a hypothetical outcome of this sort of logic that I think we can all agree we wouldn’t want.

    – I actually agreed with the author, but I think he misread. I said that the small physical variations in people are nothing compared to their social differences. As he said, this is why we can reliably take Tylenol no matter our culture or upbringing. It’s also why a 12 or 13 year old can have the same dose as a 22 year old.

    Incidentally, I found this quite offensive:

    “young people, in general, will test their autonomy and independence. They will push the boundaries of the taboos with which they were raised. And they will demonstrate bad judgment in the process.

    Young people have a sense of invincibility, a “not-going-to-happen-to-me” thinking. Couple that with poor judgment and impulsiveness that are intrinsic to the developing neurophysiology of young adults (into their mid-twenties) and one understands why it is so difficult to effectively curb young adult irresponsible drinking and prevent the attendant problems.”

    It was this passage that irritated me to the point where perhaps my tone was harsher than I intended. I understand that this is the prevalent viewpoint in the US, having lived there for several years (and eventually leaving largely for that reason). I also realize that it may not seem particularly inflammatory to someone who is a product of that culture, but for those of us not a part of it, statements like this seem very condescending at best. There was no intent to insult or shock with my statements about culture. Obviously I’m influenced by my own culture also, which is a large part of what makes the alcohol culture in the US seem so strange. I didn’t think I was saying anything too objectionable but I apologize nonetheless if anyone took offense.

    So, again: avoiding the minutiae of brain science, of which I only have a layman’s grasp, and focusing on issues of culture and varying laws across regions, of which I have some knowledge:

    – Believe it or not, the ages of 18 – early 20′s in much of the world are when people start having wine & cheese nights, beer tastings, art showings w/ wine, going for drinks with professors, etc. These sorts of “adult” behaviours in this age group are conspicuously absent in US culture, as a generalization. My position is that this is due to a combination of the culture & the current law, not some sort of physical explanation. Again, this can be easily observed in any number of other cultures, the US being the exception and not the rule.

    This why I completely agree with the author’s statements at the beginning of the article, which imply that the US needs a cultural change rather than (or concurrent with) a simple age adjustment.

    Hopefully there wasn’t anything too unintentionally offensive there :)

  10. Thomas Pellechia Says:


    I’ve had conversations with Arthur on this subject in one form or another. I believe it once came up with regard to fetal alcohol syndrome, which is another of those situations where, if you read the literature you have to wonder why we haven’t a preponderance of cases in the U.S. But when you read the medical histories, you find that we do not have anything close to that, and where we do have high numbers are in specific cultural situations that include poverty and clinical alcoholism.

    Yet, the loudest voice of science on the issue is for caution, which feeds the prohibitionist impulses and we get asinine Government Warning labels that tell half truths or outright lies.

    Caution is an operative word in the medical field, especially when there is some evidence of some potential problem by engaging in a particular activity. The problem is not with the medical field’s cautionary view but with how it is read by vocal lobbyists and idiotic legislators, the former quite able in finding enough of the latter.

    The 21 drinking age is a case in point. When I was growing up, the legal age was 18. Did that stop me when I was 16? Not on your life. Trying to regulate such a thing as getting high to any age group is likely as easy as the proverbial cat herding exercise.

    If there is a brain damage problem with young people drinking alcohol, it will never be regulated away, and Arthur fully acknowledged that–more than once. Arthur certainly comes down more on cultural change rather than legislative.

  11. Aaron Says:

    Hey ThomasS

    Thanks, I think you see what I was getting at. I was trying to imply that there isn’t a brain damage issue – I don’t think there’s really a question there, unless you want to outlandishly imply that most of the world is brain damaged – but other than that your post nicely summed up what I was saying about the dangers of politicians and ideologues running with science like this.

  12. Aaron Says:

    and I don’t know why an extra “S” showed up there, that was not intentional and there doesn’t seem to be a way for me to delete and repost :)

  13. Ned Says:

    The age to PURCHASE alcohol should be 18. There should be no drinking age law. If adopted, over a period of years with well conceived public service info, the best possible situation is most likely to evolve. This would be the most functional direction to go. Absolutes are not achievable. This would create the lowest number of perverse incentives.
    A healthy relationship with alcohol, a healthy relationship with
    young adults and teenagers, is most likely to result in the greatest possible brain health. Do not become overly attached to ideal or perfect goals, attempting to achieve them falls more short than accepting that some undesired things are going to happen no matter what and crafting balanced policies that will work better overall.

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