Government Attacks Drinking with Junk Science

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D. and Matt Walcoff

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) recently announced an alleged breakthrough in research on alcohol policy. According to the DOJ, a comparison of drinking rates among American and European teenagers proved that those in Europe, with its more moderate alcohol attitudes and laws, lead to more alcohol problems.

Supporters of the current U.S. drinking age -- the world’s highest -- have adopted the DOJ ‘s claims as definitive. They refer to them whenever someone mentions that that the rest of the world seems to do fine without making such a big deal out of drinking by young adults. The “fact” of European insobriety has been cited in letters to The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) and The Washington Post. The Department of Education sent the second letter to an e-mail list of journalists who cover higher education.

Yet even a quick analysis of the DOJ’s report reveals that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The report never went through peer reviews, the process in which other researchers evaluate a study’s legitimacy before it can get published. The DOJ used outdated survey numbers even though newer ones were available, and its European figures left out several important countries.

What’s more, even the numbers the Department did use don’t back up its claims. American teenagers had a higher rate of intoxication than did their counterparts in half of the European countries. When compared with teenagers in Southern Europe, which has very liberal views and practices regarding alcohol, American teenagers were more likely to have been drunk in the last 30 days (21 percent vs. 13 percent). And while more than half of the American teenagers who drank reported getting drunk, less than a fourth of young Southern Europeans said they had been intoxicated.

It’s not unusual for interest groups to tout junk science. But when a government agency engages in such tactics, it gives the claim a false respectability. People tend to assume the government is an impartial arbiter, sorting through rival positions and conflicting data in an effort to arrive at the truth.

Yet the federal bureaucracy has never served as a neutral moderator when it comes to alcohol policies. Rather than conduct reasoned, impartial scientific inquiry, agencies such as the Department of Justice, the Department of Transportation, and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism throw all their weight squarely on one side of the debate. Indeed, they have created a drinking age industry. Research designed to promote the current drinking age gets federal funding, a stamp of approval, and widespread dissemination, regardless of its scientific merit.

The oft-heard line that the increase in the drinking age to 21 has saved hundreds of lives per year is another good example. The Department of Transportation claims it can estimate to the single digit how many people the law has saved: supposedly 927 in 2001, or nearly half the number of alcohol-related vehicular fatalities among the 16-20 year-olds that year.

No serious social scientist would ever make such an outlandish claim. Not only is it impossible to know what would have happened had the law not changed, but real research on the drinking age has not been able to verify a cause-and-effect relationship between the law and alcohol use or abuse. Many studies show no relationship between the two variables while others report that some alcohol-related fatalities have shifted from the 18-20 age group to the 21-24 age group. When it comes to the effects of the drinking age, the most we can say is that the jury is still out.

Yet the supposedly impartial federal bureaucracy claims the drinking age has been a success. An internet search in the .gov domain finds more than 1,000 references to lives saved by the drinking age. It makes a great sound bite but poor public policy.

The bureaucracy’s use of junk science is especially troubling because it calls into question the validity of potentially life-saving information. If we can’t trust the government about the drinking age, how can we trust it about the need to use seat belts or the danger of HIV?

When it comes to alcohol policy, federal officials should stick to dispassionate, peer-reviewed research, not slick marketing aimed at promoting one view. They should act more like public servants and less like leaders of pressure groups.

 

Adapted from Hanson, David J. (hansondj@potsdam.edu), and Walcoff, Matt (mwalcoff@@yahoo.com. Age of propaganda: the government attacks teenage drinking with junk science. Reason, 2004, 36(5), 44-45.

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