Commentary: In vino veritas | St. Louis Public Radio

Commentary: In vino veritas

Aug 27, 2008

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: August 27, 2008 - "In wine (there is) truth." That venerable Latin adage, usually attributed to Pliny the Elder, references the tendency of alcohol to loosen tongues. Of course, as any seasoned drinker can tell you, the truth revealed with clarity while under the influence is often not the same truth experienced by its hung-over oracle the morning after. That's why it's a good idea not to drink too much at the office Christmas party.

The hazards of imbibing notwithstanding, booze continues to enjoy widespread popularity in most quarters. Despite the efforts of a vocal minority of chronic abstainers, far more Americans drink each day than eat apple pie.

Indeed, one of the most astounding public policy failures of the last century was the effort to outlaw alcohol consumption completely. Promoted as a boon to civic morality, prohibition did little more than expand the reach of organized crime and make Al Capone a household name.

Comes now the Amethyst Initiative to ask not whether there is truth in wine, but whether we're willing to face the truth about drinking in general and under age drinking in particular. The initiative derives its name from the purple gemstone that was thought to fend off drunkenness by ancient Greeks. It is is made up of about 100 presidents of American universities who advocate consideration of lowering the legal drinking age to 18.

The proposal is not without critics.

Predictably, Mother Against Drunk Driving warns that a lowered drinking age will result in increased traffic fatalities. There is some evidence that MADD may have a point.

In the wake of the Vietnam War, many state legislatures bought into the argument that people who were old enough to fight and die in foreign wars at age 18 were old enough to drink a beer. Subsequently, 30 states lowered their legal minimum drinking age, most to 18.

In 1984, MADD proposed, and Congress passed, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Once signed by President Reagan, this law threatened to withhold up to 10 percent of federal highway funds from states that did not raise their drinking age to 21, resulting in a nationalized drinking age.

The National Institutes of Health report that in 1982, 16 to 20 year olds in the U.S. suffered 5,244 alcohol-related traffic fatalities. By 2004, that number had fallen to 2,115.

Anytime you can reduce tragedy by 60 percent, you must be doing something right.

Then again, correlation does not necessarily equate to causation. In 1940, the traffic fatality rate (expressed as a function of vehicle miles traveled) was 10.9. By 1960, the rate had fallen to 5.1; in 1980 -- despite relaxed age limits -- it was reduced further to 3.3 and, by 2000, it was down to 1.5. Clearly, factors other than the drinking age are at play here.

Seat belt use, padded dashboards, airbags, anti-lock braking systems, better roadways and improved traffic enforcement have all been suggested as possible causes for the incremental but consistent reduction in the rate of vehicular deaths.

Further, as George Will has pointed out, 21 year olds are more likely to die in a DWI accident than are people of any other age. This fact would suggest that our all-or-nothing approach to alcohol consumption merely delays tragedies that might otherwise have been prevented by a more graduated introduction to drinking.

Age limits vary greatly around the world. In Albania, for instance, it is legal to drink at any age; in Libya, it is illegal to drink regardless of age. Turkey draws the line at 11, Mexico at 18 and Canada at 19. Most nations set the minimum at 18.

Not surprisingly, the university presidents who advocate discussion of this issue have been pilloried by some as slackers who are unwilling to enforce the rules. This perspective belies a fundamental ignorance of the lifestyles of college-age people living outside of monasteries.

It is one of life's eternal paradoxes that the young strive to appear older while the old want to look young. Young adults are going to drink. By outlawing this activity, we drive it underground where it is indulged in without the societal restraints normally associated with legitimate behavior. The Associated Press reports that between 1999 and 2005, 157 college-age Americans literally drank themselves to death through binge drinking.

As the father of three recent college graduates and one current undergraduate, I can guarantee you that kids drink. If it's an exaggeration to say that all kids drink, it's not all that much of one. Though it's nothing to take pride in, it's also not cause for universal condemnation.

The high spirits of youth, expressed in a culture where alcohol is commonplace, predictably lead to such indulgence. Besides, what 21-year-old guy is going to deny his 19-year-old girlfriend a beer?

Perhaps a more nuanced approach should be considered. Maintain the zero tolerance alcohol level for under-age motorists but de-criminalize beer and wine consumption for 18-21 year olds who aren't driving. Hardly a perfect solution, but a more sensible policy than pretending that what we're doing works.

As a concerned parent, I wish nobody drank until 30. As a realist, I know that's not going to happen. To those who defend the status quo, I recommend a glass of vino -- because they're in need of a dose of veritas.

Traffic fatality rates cited in this article were derived from the NHTSA & FHWA data base.

M.W. Guzy is a retired St. Louis cop who currently works for the city Sheriff's Department. His column appears weekly in the Beacon.