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.]