Sunday, December 10, 2006

Why Demonize Young Adult Alcohol Use? Redefining Alcohol Consumption Using Social and Behavioral Science Principles - Leah Mycoff

Youth drinking is highly prevalent in United States society. According to Jernigan (2005), progress has not been made in the area of preventing underage drinking since the early 90’s. There are health consequences from drinking alcohol, especially on the developing adolescent brain (Breinbauer, 2005), and I believe that these consequences can be minimized through the application of a less restrictive alcohol policy—a policy that emphasizes moderation rather than restriction. Adolescents are inclined towards alcohol consumption in spite of the current alcohol policy because they are characterized by rebellion and development of the individual, prioritization of the present over the future, and related to this, fear of consequences (health or otherwise) are not strong motivators. Public health policy related to college-age drinking could be improved with the liberalization of alcohol policy by reducing restrictions on underage drinking and redefining cultural perceptions.

According to Erik Erikson’s eight-stage model of development, the developmental tasks of adolescence, among others, include establishing a firm sense of personal identity, striving for autonomy and separating from their family, developing appropriate peer relationships, and developing appropriate moral standards. As a result, adolescence is characterized by “adventure seeking behavior and rebelliousness against authority” (Thambirajah, 2005). When this theory is applied to the current alcohol policy, it seems that strict enforcement is incompatible with the target audience. During a time characterized by rebelliousness towards authority and pursuit of independence, trying to quash underage alcohol consumption and reduce youth drinking may have the opposite effect.

It has been shown that increasing restrictions on youth alcohol consumption does not decrease intake. Currently, there is a strong tendency for young adults to drink, and they are able to access alcohol whether it is legal or not. This can lead to youth drinking in more private areas, which could be more dangerous than if they were allowed to drink in public. When youth are forced to hide their drinking, they are more likely to drink in places such as vehicles which could tempt drunk driving and are probably disinclined to obtain help when needed. An example of this phenomenon happened in New York in 1985, when the legal drinking age increased from 19 to 21 years old. George et al. (1989) found that the change in drinking age had minimal impact on the amount of alcohol consumed by college students. According to this study, students age 19-20 decreased the number of drinking days per week but there were no changes in abstention rates or the number of drinks consumed per week. This indicates that students drank on fewer days but that the amount of alcohol consumed on those days increased. George et al. also found that students changed where they drank. Students began to drink more in unlicensed locations and they reported drinking more in automobiles. This example demonstrates how rebellious youth were not deterred from drinking by further restrictions. The restrictions in fact may have made drinking more dangerous by encouraging more drinking on fewer days and by shifting the drinking to unlicensed locations and automobiles.

Another example of increased restrictions correlating with an increase in heavy drinking emerges when drinking behavior data from the United States and Canada are compared. When Canada and United States, which have similar cultures and different drinking ages, are compared for student drinking behavior, it was found that students in the United States tend to drink more heavily (Kuo et al., 2002). In Canada, the minimum legal drinking age is either 18 or 19 depending on the province, whereas in United States the minimum legal drinking age is 21. Kuo et al. found that although Canadian college students have used significantly more alcohol over the “past-year” and over their lifetime than have United States students, students in the United States tend to drink significantly more heavily than Canadian students. The Canadians tend to consume alcohol more frequently and in small amounts which tends to be safer (Thakker, 1998). This difference in safer alcohol consumption may be related to the differences restriction. There are fewer people who feel restricted by the age-limit and it may seem like a more feasible amount of time to wait for legal alcohol consumption privileges. Kuo et al. also found was that underage students in both countries are more likely to engage in heavy alcohol use than students who are of legal age. This finding suggests that heavy underage drinking is in part a rebellion against the constraints.

An example of a country that went through a period of alcohol policy liberalization is New Zealand; in 1999, New Zealand decreased the legal purchase age from 20 to 18 years. Huckle et al. (2006) found that there was an increase in the number of prosecutions for disorderly conduct, assumed to be associated with drinking, as well as an increase in excessive breath alcohol in all age groups (14-15, 16-17, 18-19, 20-24, 25+). However, at the time of this “liberalization,” of alcohol policy, the New Zealand government also instituted new restrictions: compulsory breath testing, reduced alcohol limit level for drivers under 20 years old, and some localities introduced “alcohol-free zones.” Although 18-19 year olds were given the freedom to drink legally, they might have balked under the new restrictions on their behavior. Several confounding variables may have affected the consequences of this policy reform. For instance, media marketing shifted their focus towards young people. Additionally, the arrival of the new millennium meant a significant increase in partying for people of all ages. Also, because there was an increase in disorderly conduct and excessive breath alcohol in the 20-24 year old age group, which should not have been affected by the new policy, it seems that there was another cultural phenomenon that may have contributed to the increase in disorderly behavior. Because increased restrictions were introduced along with some decreased restrictions, the liberalization of alcohol policy did not promote responsible behavior.

Due to the fact that alcohol is related to socialization in our culture, it seems natural that during a time of increased social interaction with peers would result in alcohol consumption. It seems beneficial that youth should be able to socialize and interact with their peers in a responsible manner, which may be promoted if the drinking age were lowered. If society accepts the developing individual as an adult, youth might be less likely to rebel against the authority exerted upon them. In addition, there are psychological benefits to drinking cited by Thakker et al. (1998), such as “a reduction in tension, self-consciousness, stress, fear, pain, and depression and an increase in affective expression and good feelings.” Thus, the social and psychological benefits may even facilitate social development.

When used appropriately, alcohol might even strengthen personal ties. Homish and Leonard (2005) found that husbands and wives who drink together may strengthen their marital bond through this activity. They assessed newlyweds at their first and second anniversary, and though sadly, marital satisfaction declined in all groups, it declined less in groups in which the couple drank together. Drinking increases socialization and interaction and can be a positive influence on friendship and relationships, which could be important in the development of peer relationships. Although there are clear examples where this is not the case such as disorderly behavior, not all drinking should be characterized as “bad.”

In accordance with the idea that alcohol may strengthen personal ties, research has shown that alcohol tends to accompany socializing in college students. Demers et al. (2002) found that students tend to drink more at a party, at a bar/disco, off campus, on the weekends, and in a peer-oriented environment such as a large group with friends. They also emphasized that although heavy drinking is prevalent among youth, not every drinking episode is excessive. Demers et al. also found that there generally is a decline in student drinking during college. They correlated this with a change in setting from group drinking to a more personal setting with friends. Perhaps once the novelty of rebellion has worn off, college students are tend to drink more moderately.

Another concept that holds true, especially in adolescence, is that fear is not a motivator (Thambirajah, 2005). Often, the reasons given for abstaining from alcohol consumption are health reasons such as the loss of brain cells, an increase in the chances of risky behavior, or simply because it’s illegal. Extreme emotions, such as fear, interfere with cognitive processing and the audience will ignore the message. Such messages are especially lost on adolescents because the health consequences of a behavior are not readily apparent in young people. Pleasurable behaviors are difficult for someone so young to forego when any possible negative effects are perceived as distant (Kelly 2000 in Breinbauer, 2005). Another flaw in the use of fear for youth alcohol consumption is that many of the long-term effects of moderate alcohol consumption are not clearly quantified (Thakker, 1998).

The potential fear factor induced by enforcement of the age-limits seems to have little effect on behavior. In reference to the article mentioned above by Kuo et al. (2002), that compared the drinking habits of Canadian and United States college students, students who were underage in both countries were more likely to drink than students who were of-age. Students who are underage have the possibility of receiving disciplinary action, whereas students who are of-age will not receive disciplinary action simply for consuming alcohol; however, it is the underage population who drinks more heavily and then proceed to drink less heavily when they become of age.

In addition to the ineffectiveness of potential punishment, the health consequences are not deterring youth from drinking. According to Thakker (1998), in the past research focused on problem drinking. However the risks and health effects of this type of drinking are well known and affect a small portion of the population, only recently is research focusing on the effects of moderate and light alcohol intake. There may even be possible benefits in relation to coronary heart disease and even overall mortality. There aren’t apparently huge risks associated with moderate drinking (Thakker, 1998). Plus, any possible negative health effects are years away.

Besides the fact that the health consequences of moderate drinking are ineffective deterrents, the health consequences may not be enough to promote responsible drinking. An example of the limitations of health information on behavioral change with young adults is the anti-smoking campaign. Ever since the 1960s, the awareness of negative health consequences of smoking has increased. In spite of this, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2003), more than 20% of people in the United States smoke (Krosnick et al., 2006). According to Hurd and McGary (1995) and Shoenbaum (1997), nonsmokers were less likely than smokers to think that they would reach ages 75 and 85 (in Krosnick et al., 2006). Although there are many lifestyle factors that may affect a smoker’s health expectancy, it seems that smoking is a significant variable. This indicates that smokers do have knowledge about the risks that they are taking when they smoke, and that this does not function as a sufficient deterrent. This situation seems analogous to heavy drinking because there are risks associated with drinking that are well publicized, but young adults frequently choose to drink anyway. In addition, although smokers (and possibly drinkers) may acknowledge that there could be long-term consequences to their behavior, reaching ages 75 and 85 doesn’t tend to be the top priority of college-age people.

Evidence has shown that increased restrictions on youth drinking do not reduce alcohol consumption. Also messages of negative consequences are not likely to be effective, especially in this age category. It is also important to recognize that not all drinking is “problem” drinking and it may even facilitate development and increase socialization. I suggest that rather than increasing negative consequences, it would be more effective to take the rebellion aspect of drinking behavior out of the picture.

Works Cited

Breinbauer, C. (2005). Youth: Choices and Change Promoting Health Behaviors in Adolesents. Washington, DC: Pan American Health Organization.
Demers, A., Kairouz, S., Adlaf, E., Gliksman, L., Newton-Taylor, B., Marchant, A. (2002). Multilevel analysis of situational drinking among Canadian undergraduates.
George, W. H., Crowe, L. C., Abwender, D., & Skinner, J. B. (1989). Effects of raising the drinking age to 21 years in New York state on self-reported consumption by college students.
Journal of Applied Psychology, 19, 623-636.
Homish, G. G. & Leonard, K. E. (2005). Marital quality and congruent drinking. J Stud Alcohol, 66(4): 488-496.
Huckle, T., Pledger, M., & Casswell, S. (2006). Trends in alcohol-related harms and offenses in a liberalized alcohol environment. Addiction, 101, 232-243.
Jernigan, D. (2005). The USA: alcohol and young people today. Addiction. 100, 271-273.
Krosnick, J. A., Chang, L., Sherman, S. J., Chassin, L., & Presson, C. (2006). The effects of beliefs about the health consequences of cigarette smoking on smoking onset. Journal of Communication, 56, S18-S37.
Kui, M., Adlaf, E. M., Lee, H., Gliksman, L., Demers, A., & Wechsler, H. (2002). More Canadian students drink but American students drink more: comparing college alcohol use in two countries. Addiction, 97, 1583-1592.
Thakker, K.D. (1998). An overview of health risks and benefits of alcohol consumption. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 22, 285-298.
Thambiraja, M.S., (2005). Psychological Basis of Psychiatry. London, UK: Elsevier Limited.


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