Government Attacks Drinking with Junk Science: Discover More

The U.S. government attacks drinking by teens with shoddy junk science. Here’s the story.

government attacks drinkingThe U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an alleged breakthrough in research on alcohol policy.

According to the DOJ, a comparison of drinking rates among US and European teenagers proved that those in Europe lead to more alcohol problems. It’s Europe that has more looser alcohol attitudes and laws.

Supporters of the current US drinking age — the world’s highest — have adopted the DOJ ‘s claims as proof. They refer to them whenever someone mentions that that the rest of the world seems to do fine without making such a big deal out of drinking by young adults.

The “fact” of European insobriety has been cited in The Journal of the American Medical Association and The Washington Post. The Department of Education sent the letter to an e-mail list of journalists who cover higher education.

Government Attacks Drinking with Junk Science


Yet even a quick analysis of the DOJ’s report reveals that it does not stand up to scrutiny. The report never went through peer reviews. That’s the process in which other researchers evaluate a study’s legitimacy before it can get published.

The DOJ used outdated survey numbers even though newer ones were available. And its European figures left out several important countries.

What’s more, even the numbers the DOJ did use don’t back up its claims. US teenagers had a higher rate of intoxication than did their counterparts in half of the European countries.

Southern Europe has very liberal views and practices about alcohol. When compared with US teens, they were more likely to have been drunk in the last 30 days. That was 21% vs. 13%. More than half of the US teens who drank reported getting drunk. Yet less than a fourth of young Southern Europeans said they had been drunk.

It’s not unusual for interest groups to tout junk science. But when a government agency does, it gives the claim a false credence. People tend to assume the government is an impartial arbiter. That it sorts through rival positions and conflicting data. That it does this to arrive at the truth.

Never Neutral

Yet the federal bureaucracy has never served as a neutral moderator. At least when it comes to alcohol policies. It doesn’t conduct reasoned, impartial scientific inquiry, Agencies such as the DOJ, the Department of Transportation, nor the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism don’t. Instead, they 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. It gets a stamp of approval and widespread dissemination. That’s regardless of its scientific merit.

The oft-heard line that the increase in the drinking age to 21 has saved hundreds of lives per year. That’s another good example. The Department of Transportation claims it can estimate to the single digit how many people the law has saved. Supposedly 927 in one year. That’s nearly half the number of alcohol-related vehicular fatalities among the 16-20 year-olds that year.

Outlandish Claim

No serious researcher would ever make such an outlandish claim. It is it impossible to know what would have happened had the law not changed. Real research on the drinking age has not been able to verify a cause-and-effect link between the law and alcohol use or abuse.

Many studies show no relationship between the two. Others report that some alcohol-related fatalities have shifted from the 18-20 age group to the 21-24 age group. When it comes to the effects of the drinking age, the jury is still out.

Yet the supposedly impartial federal bureaucracy claims the drinking age has been a success. An internet search in the .gov domain finds more than 1,000 references to lives saved by the drinking age. It makes a great sound bite but poor public policy.

The bureaucracy’s use of junk science is especially troubling. It calls into question the validity of potentially life-saving facts. If we can’t trust government about the drinking age, 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 view. They should act more like public servants and less like leaders of pressure groups.


“Government Attacks Drinking with Junk Science” adapted from Hanson, D. and Walcoff, M. Age of propaganda: the government attacks drinking by teens with junk science. Reason36(5), 44-45.