A Dry Recitation of the Facts

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In yesterday's Washington Post, Jay Mathews explains "Why You Shouldn't Teach Moderate Drinking." His reasoning: The younger people are when they start drinking, the more likely they are to have serious alcohol problems. Mathews cites a 1997 study in which researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism found that "40 percent of people who are drinking by age 15 become alcoholics at some point in their lives." Based on data from interviews with 27,616 current and former drinkers, the researchers reported that "the prevalence of lifetime alcohol dependence decreased steeply as a function of increasing age at onset of drinking."

This pattern does not mean, as Mathews seems to think, that a zero tolerance approach to drinking by anyone under 21 (even if it were successful at delaying the "onset of drinking") would reduce the incidence of alcohol abuse. The explanation for the association could simply be that people who are inclined to abuse alcohol also are inclined to start drinking at an early age. In other words, it could be the propensity to drink excessively that affects the age at which people start drinking, rather than the other way around.

These data do not distinguish between the teenager who is permitted an occasional glass of wine or beer during family meals and the teenager who pounds down a six-pack in a parking lot while ditching class. Hence they do not shed any light on the wisdom of teaching responsible drinking habits to people before they turn 21.

The NIAAA researchers themselves note:

Although these results suggest that preventive efforts should be targeted to the delay of alcohol use until after ages 18 or 19 when the associated risk of alcohol abuse and dependence has dramatically dropped, such a recommendation should be considered cautiously. The strength of such a preventive strategy lies in its focus on the prevention of alcohol abuse and dependence rather than alcohol use, a strategy that recognizes that the use of alcohol is commonplace among American adolescents and youth. However, the weakness of such a preventive strategy is the lack of a complete understanding as to why the onset of alcohol use is related to the development of alcohol abuse and dependence.

Mathews clues readers in to the possibility that he's interpreting the evidence tendentiously by announcing, "I am an extremist on this issue." At the same time, he quotes a zero tolerance advocate who insists "you cannot argue with the scientific facts." You can argue with how people use them, however.

[Thanks to Matt Gill for the link.]

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  1. Jay Mathews should write “correlation does not prove cause” on a sticky and post it on his monitor.

    People who start drinking at an early age usually aren’t doing it under any sort of parental supervision. In fact, it usually indicates just the opposite. Early onset of any drug use is correlated with weak parental oversight and other stressors. In other words, early drinking doesn’t cause alcoholism, rather early drinking is often an indication of an environment that creates the psychological drive toward addiction.

  2. Lots of little kids are gonna ask Dad for a sip of beer. If dad says no, the kid’s gonna ask why. The more useful response of the father would be one that reinforces personal responsibility and proper reasoning rather than mindless obedience to the whims of extremists. Otherwise, the answer’s just going to be “It’s against the law.” And the kid’s going to ask why it’s against the law. And then the father’s going to have to make up some bullshit answer because there is no good one. And that’s the lesson the kid will learn: adults are full of shit.

    Come to think of it, maybe that’s the best lesson after all.

  3. Man, it’s really frustrating. Whenever you think you’ve finally got a bad social trend beat, it comes back like a B-movie zombie. What ticks me off about this one is that terms are thrown around with no definitions. “…teenagers who are drinking…” What does “drinking” mean? Having a half a beer a couple times a year? Pounding down fifths of whisky every night? “alcoholics” Which means what? A Bowery bum? Someone who has more than three drinks in a night? Hell, I’m drinking a beer right now – I must be an alcoholic! (No wonder these social conservatives hate Europe so much: I bought hard liquor there at age 14 without so much as an eye batted.)

  4. I have gotten much more out of alcohol than it has gotten out of me.

  5. JD: I can top that. I grew up Episcopalian, which means I was drinking wine on a weekly basis by age six or so. By this study’s definition I was drinking by age 15. This means that there is a 40% percent chance I will be an alcoholic at some point in my life, even though now I usually drink about one drink a week.

  6. I think anyone who wants to follow this guy’s advice should ask themselves two questions:

    1) Do you consider your alcohol intake “normal”?
    2) If so, why isn’t it normal for your kid?

    Now, it could be that you’re a 250-pound man who’s been drinking beer for twenty years, and your kid is a 110-pound woman who hasn’t. But beyond stuff like that, if you can drink and not do dangerously stupid stuff, your kids can probably do the same.

  7. This post is bound to make some people have a seizure, but oh well…
    If you don’t want your kid to ask, “Can I have a sip of beer?”, don’t drink beer. If you don’t want them watching pornos, don’t watch them yourself. If you think your kid sleeping around with everyone in the neighborhood is a bad idea, wait until you’re married to have sex and then be faithful to your spouse.
    If you think the above activities are ok for you kid, more power to ya. And I’m not saying that all the children of ‘crazy, right-wing, Christians’ turn out perfect. But, parenting is a helluva lot easier when you don’t have to explain away your own actions.

  8. I often gripe that Wisconsin’s Germanic heritage extends to its political tradition. That some of the pols here seem bent on recreating East Germany is what I’ve never understood. Still, at least your Dad can take you to a tavern and buy you a beer:

    “XVIII. SALES AND SERVICE OF
    ALCOHOL BEVERAGES TO
    UNDERAGE PERSONS
    An underage person accompanied by a parent, guardian,
    or spouse of legal drinking age may be sold or served
    alcohol beverages in any licensed premises
    (sec. 125.07(1)).
    XIX. POSSESSION OF ALCOHOL
    BEVERAGES BY UNDERAGE
    PERSONS
    An underage person may not possess alcohol beverages
    anywhere unless accompanied by a parent, guardian, or
    spouse of legal drinking age
    (sec. 125.07(4)(b).”

    http://www.dor.state.wi.us/pubs/03pb302.pdf
    (I added the boldface.)

    In theory, you could learn from your parents to drink some beer or wine during and after a good meal, in the European manner, and not have to resort to drinking cans of Bohemian Club in a field somewhere. In practice, most people nowadays don’t avail themselves of this right, and the type of activity chronicled on That 70’s Show prevails.

    Kevin

  9. I drank beer regularly when I lived in Germany at the age of 16, under the supervision of adults, and I turned out fine. My personal observation suggests that far more Americans have a drinking problem than Germans, precisely because of the “forbidden fruit” factor.

  10. By the time my junior high school friends were regularly barfing boonesfarm or whatever that crap was, alchohol had been long demystified for me. Thanks to my folks serving me and my siblings a tiny glass of wine with Sunday dinner, starting when us kids were around 8/9 years old, the fascination with drinking (and barfing) held zero interest. Probably the smartest thing they ever did, parenting-wise.

  11. When I got into my early teens, my parents made it very clear: I could drink when they were around, i could have one drink only, and I couldn’t go out afterward. That last provision was especially important when I started driving.

    Of course, I didn’t tell anyone of my friends of my family’s regulations about alcohol, and I certainly didn’t inform my teachers for fear that they send the cops and family services to my house to cart my mom and dad off to jail.

    Of course, in school we were inandated with all the MADD propaganda: Films about teen drunkards killing their friends in bloody car wrecks. Testomonials from weeping hausfraus with glossy photos of a deceased kid who died because of alcohol. Horror stories about college kids who drank themselves to death in frat house binge drinking parties. The whole nine yards.

    Speaking for myself, I only had 4 alcoholic beverages in as many months this year. Do I credit the soccer-mom scare stories about the evils of strong drink? No, I credit my parents for setting some examples of how responsible adults act.

    However, since the state, the cunts at MADD, and this asshole do not think anyone can be responsible, it won’t surprise me that they’ll attempt to make booze illegal again by the end of my lifetime.

  12. I recall a study proving that sitting in the first three rows at burlesque shows causes baldness.

  13. Jews start drinking at an early age.

    Very few Jews have alcohol problems.

    BTW will there be a religious exemption?

  14. At the same time, he quotes a zero tolerance advocate who insists ?you cannot argue with the scientific facts.?

    Only that surveys and interviews results are compilations of data, not “scientific facts.” These aren’t chemical or physical properties that can be displayed through repeated expirementation, but behaviors of some individuals.

    PS: “Saying Yes” is now out on loan to a co-worker.

  15. If the causation runs in the direction he’s supposing, then wouldn’t we expect to see massively higher alcoholism rates in European countries where kids get a little wine with dinner from ages significantly younger than 15? (Maybe we do, but it’d be news to me.)

  16. “…you shouldn’t teach moderate drinking”

    That would seem to me to depend on who “you” is. Since for most kids the primary example of attitudes about alcohol use is going to be parents, I think that if “you” are a parent who has an alcohol problem, you should do everything in your power to keep your kids away from alcohol, lest when they start drinking they follow your example. Of course, if you have an alcohol problem, your judgement is going to be impaired, so obviously this is one of those vicious cycles that aren’t easily solved.

    If this guys means “you” to be teachers and other educators, as in everything else I think “you” should strive to tell the truth, and not spin yet another fantasy bubble that will be burst as soon as the kid tries things out for himself.

    Can “you” dig it?

  17. I am started receiving communion in 2nd grade when I began attending an Episcopal school. In fact, some of the kids at my school received communion and were not even Episcopal.

    David

  18. I am started receiving communion in 2nd grade when I began attending an Episcopal school. In fact, some of the kids at my school received communion and were not even Episcopalian.

    David

  19. (Spoken in a voice remarkably similar to that of the great Foster Brooks): But, but, I AM a moderate drinker. After all, (burp), I only drink light beer in the mornings.

  20. I seriously doubt alcoholic intake can be “taught.” Kids want to try things, and will seek their own level as to their interest in booze. Some kids, just like adults, will wind up with an unnatural attachment to the stuff. Others will never become more than social drinkers, or quit altogether.

    Also, I don’t know what the accepted definition of “alcoholic” is, but their notion as to what constitutes “binge drinking” is pretty funny, as you can see from a visit to most any college campus. Five drinks in one sitting is a binge? It was more like five pitchers in my day.

  21. I seriously doubt alcoholic intake can be “taught.” Kids want to try things, and will seek their own level as to their interest in booze. Some kids, just like adults, will wind up with an unnatural attachment to the stuff. Others will never become more than social drinkers, or quit altogether.

    Also, I don’t know what the accepted definition of “alcoholic” is, but their notion as to what constitutes “binge drinking” is pretty funny, as you can see from a visit to most any college campus. Five drinks in one sitting is a binge? It was more like five pitchers in my day.

  22. MADD and many others always talk about how the average age that person takes their first drink is 13.

    If my “analysis’ below is wrong, please say so.

    Using simplistic averaging, you could find that for every person who waits until 21 to start drinking, there are ten 12 year olds needed to average 12.9 .

    If I’m right, and the 13 average is accurate, at least 90% of the people who start drinking do so at or around 12.

    From what I read, many of these studies could be more accurately read as, “Of people in alcohol counseling, 40% answered that they started drinking before 15”.

    If the under 15 age group has 90% of the first drinkers, yet those drinkers go on to make up only 40% of the alcohol counseling patients, then I could say that taking your first drink after 15 is a good sign that you may end up in alcohol counseling.

  23. “I am started receiving communion…”

    OK, David. Blow up this balloon. We have to check you for PWI.*

    Kevin

    *Posting While Impaired

  24. Jeff Brazill, I spent the first 19 years of my life in the Episcopal Church and still attend occasionally when visting relatives. At every single one of these churches I have been to I have seen young children (6-13 or younger) taking communion. Whenever their were vistors my priest always said that any baptized Christian could receive communion. If you have any links to Episcopal church web sites that state otherwise let me know.

    I suspect you are thinking of the Catholic Church, which has first communion ceremonies and is much more restrictive on who can receive communion.

  25. I have teenaged daughters who I’ve invited to have a glass of wine or beer occaisionally. We’ve done so because of the demystification factor. If kids have exposure to alchohol under supervision they can experience the “buzz” and understand how it effects them. My concern with my daughters is that they understand that the buzz will debilitate their senses and, in that state, they are less capable of understanding what is going on around them…like boys lurking to take advantage.
    Interestingly, they’ve shown little interest in drinking even occaisionally. They talk openly about kids they know who drink a lot and we discuss all the implications pretty thoroughly.
    Is this the “best” way to go about this? I don’t know but it seems to be working. They respect the fact that we know there is pressure on them to drink and we are simply trying to give them a complete picture from which they can make as good a decision as possible.

  26. Does anyone else find it Idiosyncratic that “public health advocates” support an absolute prohibition against any teen consumption of alcohol and tobacco, while treating teen sexuality as something that can be indulged in moderation if appropriate precautions are taken? Why are tobacco and alcohol being gradually de-legalized just as legalization is sought for marijuana and other drugs?

    This is not about public health. This is about the boomers who run public policy continuing their adolescent war against their parents’ values. Parents of the 50’s and 60’s smoked and enjoyed cocktails after work or a few beers depending on social standing, but rejected open promiscuity and drug use. The boomers, to get back at their parents, reject alcohol and tobacco, and embrace drug use and promiscuity.

    Unresolved Oedipal issues should not form the bases for public policy.
    /rant

  27. Superfly:

    You’re an Episcopalian who was drinking wine on a weekly basis from age SIX?

    Episcopalians are very rigorous about requiring a confirmation process before you can participate in Holy Communion. And that confirmation process cannot even BEGIN until the 13th birthday!

    You sure it was an Episcopalian church and not a let’s get kiddies drunk church?

  28. If anybody missed it, the government’s definition of “binge drinking” has been changed. They now say:

    A “binge” is a pattern of drinking alcohol that brings blood alcohol concentration (BAC) to 0.08 gram percent or above. For the typical adult, this pattern corresponds to consuming 5 or more drinks (male), or 4 or more drinks (female), in about 2 hours. Binge drinking is clearly dangerous for the drinker and for society.*

    The major impovement is that they now include a time period and a BAC figure, the latter being the level the Feds have forced the states to adopt as the threshold for DWI arrests. Their old version didn’t discriminate between 5 beers imbibed on a Sunday while watching 10 hours of football, and someone downing three doubles before the prices change at the end of Happy Hour. I’d bitch that the standard should be set by a private group, but given how deeply the government has its fingers into healthcare, that would probably be a fig leaf, anyway.

    Even in families who introduce alcohol to their children under supervision, a certain percentage of new drinkers will be prone to be lushes. But chronic alcoholism isn’t the only way to abuse the drug. Developing habits like getting blasted on weekends or holidays, without becoming alcohol-dependent, can still screw up your life. Learning to enjoy booze in a moderate, civilized manner can help to avoid that, at least.

    Kevin

    * http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/Newsletter/winter2004/Newsletter_Number3.htm#council

  29. Superfly:

    I am at a loss to explain the apparent discrepancy. No, I am not thinking of the Catholic Church, I am referring to my Episcopalian upbringing. The Church I grew up in was *very* restrictive about Holy Communion.

    It would be easy for me to believe that different Episcopalian Churches act different (and I guess I could *still* be persuaded), except that my wife grew up in Jamaica, as an Episcopalian, and I grew up in Virginia, as an Episcopalian. Our childhood church memories are almost identical.

    I’m not calling you a liar – it’s just difficult for me to believe that Episcopalian curches *anywhere* administer Communion sacrament before age 13, and certainly not without some serious Bible study before-hand.

    I hate to admit it, it has been a couple of years since I’ve attended church. Is it possible things have changed *THAT* much?

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