In July 2001 the U.S. Department of Justice announced an alleged breakthrough in research on alcohol policy. According to the DOJ, a comparison of drinking rates among American and European teenagers proved once and for all that Europe's more-liberal laws and attitudes regarding drinking by adolescents lead to greater alcohol problems.
Backers of the current U.S. drinking age—21, the world's highest—have adopted the DOJ's finding as if it were handed down from Mount Sinai. They refer to it whenever someone mentions that the rest of the world seems to do OK without making such a big deal out of drinking by young adults. The "fact" of European insobriety has been cited last year in letters to The Journal of the American Medical Association 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 finds that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The study never went through peer review, the process in which other researchers judge a study's merits before it gets published. The DOJ used outdated survey numbers even though newer ones were available, and its European figures left out several important countries, including France and Germany.
What's more, even the numbers the department did use do not back up the claims of those who tout its research. American teenagers had a higher rate of intoxication than their counterparts in half of the European countries. When compared to teenagers in Southern Europe, which has very liberal views regarding alcohol, American teens 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 European drinkers said they had been intoxicated.
It is hardly unknown for interest groups to tout such junk science; everyone remembers the claim that Super Bowl Sunday is the worst day of the year for domestic violence, or that abortion causes cancer. 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 DOJ, 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 from 18 to 21 has saved hundreds of lives per year is another good example. The Transportation Department claims it can estimate to the single digit how many people the law has saved: 927 in 2001, or nearly half the number of alcohol-related vehicular fatalities among 16-to-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 (see, for example, "Behavioral Policies and Teen Traffic Safety," in the May 2001 American Economic Journal); others claim only that a few alcohol-related fatalities have shifted from the 18-21 age group to the 21-24 age group (see, for example, "College Student Drinking Behaviors Before and After Changes in State Policy," published in 1990 in the Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education). When it comes to the effects of the drinking age, the most you can say is that the jury is still out.
Yet the supposedly impartial federal bureaucracy still claims the drinking age has been as successful as the polio vaccine. An Internet search in the .gov domain finds more than 1,000 references to lives saved by the drinking age. It makes a great soundbite but poor public policy.
The bureaucracy's use of junk science is especially troubling because it calls into question the reliability of potentially life-saving information. If we cannot trust the government about the drinking age, some might argue, 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 point of view. They should act more like public servants and less like pressure groups.