By Susan E. Foster
Vice President and Director of Policy Research and Analysis
State senators of Washington recently proposed a measure to allow alcohol tasting under certain ‘educational’ circumstances for college students who are 18 years or older. Enacting a law like this flies in the face of evidence underscoring the critical importance of reducing rather than increasing drinking among those below the legal drinking age of 21. The interests of our elected officials should be in protecting the public health, particularly the health of our teens and young adults.
Our national drinking age was raised to 21 in 1984 for good reason. We now know that adolescence is the critical period of vulnerability for the onset of substance use and the development of the complex brain disease of addiction. In more than 9 out of 10 cases, addiction originates with substance use before the age of 21. Because the parts of the brain responsible for judgment, decision-making, emotion and impulse control are not fully developed until the mid-twenties, adolescents are more likely than adults to take risks, including experimenting with addictive substances. At the same time, because these regions of the brain are still developing, they are more vulnerable to the negative impact of addictive substances, further impairing judgment, interfering with brain development and increasing the risk of addiction. Condoning, encouraging or promoting alcohol use of any sort among this age group can only serve to increase rather than decrease their health risks.
The proposal would stipulate that students must be in a degree program related to the beverage industry -- an industry with a profound conflict of interest when it comes to underage drinking. Almost half of consumer expenditures for alcohol come from underage drinking and the excessive adult drinking that in almost all cases stems from it. The alcohol industry knows, just as the tobacco industry did, that the best way to get a lifetime heavy user is to start them early and help them develop a taste for alcohol. Enacting this legislation could be expected to further reduce perceptions of harm associated with underage drinking and lend support to alcohol industry interests in reducing the minimum legal drinking age in order to increase profits.
The proposal would further stipulate that students must be supervised by faculty or staff with ‘specified qualifications,’ but scientific research has discredited the proposition that underage drinking with adult supervision results in less drinking.
In addition to the risks of addiction, underage drinking is strongly associated with many other health and social problems including impaired driving, poor school performance, mental health problems, assaults, accidents, injuries, hospital stays, suicides and deaths. Each year more than 1,800 college students die from alcohol related injuries, almost 100,000 students are victims of alcohol related sexual assaults or date rape and close to 700,000 students are assaulted by other students who were drinking. Almost one quarter of America’s college students already meet medical criteria for addiction.
Lawmakers should strive to improve quality of life and length of life by using science and medicine to inform their decisions. It is long past time to recognize underage drinking as a serious public health problem and addiction as a complex brain disease and to take effective steps to prevent rather than promote their occurrence, particularly among minors. The result will be better health and wellness for all people young and old and far fewer costs--both human and financial--to taxpayers.
Submitted to The Seattle Times on March 13, 2013