By Emily Feinstein
Program Director, Policy to Practice
Colorado state Sen. Greg Brophy’s proposal to allow 18-year-olds to drink alcohol at bars and restaurants with parental supervision contradicts everything we know about teen drinking. Passage of this proposal will likely result in increased teen binge drinking in Colorado and the related tragic consequences — accidents, deaths and poor health.
The reasoning behind Brophy’s proposal, though it may sound rational, has been disproved by credible research. Teens who drink with their parents are not more likely to learn to drink responsibly.
To the contrary, research shows that teens who drink with their parents at home are more likely to drink outside of the home and without parental supervision.
They also are more likely to experience harmful alcohol-related consequences than teens whose parents do not allow them to drink. Other research has found that high school students who are allowed to drink at home engage in more risky drinking during college than students who were prohibited from drinking at home.
The other justification that the senator provides — that 18 is the age of adulthood — is also incorrect when it comes to drinking and other drug use. The parts of their brains associated with judgment and risk-taking are still developing in 18-year-olds and do not fully mature until around age 25 — which is, incidentally, the age at which actuaries have determined people should be allowed to rent cars.
Research suggests that the developing teen brain may be more vulnerable to the damaging effects of alcohol. Analysis by CASAColumbia at Columbia University (CASAColumbia®) of national data of individuals ages 12 and older finds that those who began drinking before age 18 are almost 5 times as likely to have an alcohol use disorder as those who began drinking at age 21 or older (10.3% vs. 2.2%).
Unfortunately, teens are also less susceptible to the unpleasant effects of alcohol, like nausea and hangovers, which may be part of the reason why teens drink more at a time than adults.
The normal consumption pattern for teens is binge drinking. CASAColumbia’s research indicates that high school students who drink consume, on average, 4.9 drinks per day on the days they drink, more than any other age group (2.5 drinks per drinking day for those 35 and older).
Colorado currently ranks ninth in the nation for teen binge drinking. According to the state Department of Education’s Healthy Kids Colorado Survey, 22% of high school students in Colorado binge drink.
Research using brain scan technology has found that teens who binge drink have more abnormalities of the brain and perform poorly on cognitive tests compared to teens who never binge drink. Animal studies suggest that binge drinking causes greater damage to the brain cells in the forebrain and hippocampus — which control learning, memory and mood — of adolescents than adults.
Lowering the drinking age is not a sound policy solution. In European countries, where the drinking age is typically lower than 21, rates of teen binge drinking are higher than in the U.S.; some of these countries are considering raising the minimum legal drinking age to 21 to combat this problem.
Furthermore, teens who drink rarely limit themselves to using alcohol. Among high school students who had ever had a drink in 2009, 68% had used or misused another addictive substance, including tobacco, marijuana, prescription drugs and cocaine.
While most states allow teens to drink under parental supervision at home, we suggest that this exception be viewed as allowing for religious, cultural or ceremonial events rather than an opportunity for parents to promote teen drinking.
Extending the exception to public spaces, including restaurants and bars, will do much more harm than good for teens, their families, and the public at large.
This op-ed originally appeared in The Denver Post on January 21, 2013.