Category Archives: policy

Finally! A Drinking Age Debate

This may be more significant than people seem to assume: university and college administrators in the United States are discussing the potential effects of reverting the drinking age back to the age of maturity in their country (18 years-old). This Amethyst Initiative (blog), which was launched last month, may represent a turning point in not only alcohol policy but campus life in the United States.

This “story” has started to go around recently. And it happens to be one I care about. Read about this on Tuesday, while doing some random browsing.

College presidents seek drinking age debate – Life- msnbc.com.

And it’s coming back as a source of jokes:

College Presidents Rethinking Drinking Age | The Onion – America’s Finest News Source.

Though I may be a big fan of humour, I really hope that people can also take this issue seriously. For some reason, people in the United States tend to react to alcohol-related discussions with (possibly uneasy) humour. Fair enough, but there’s clearly a need for dispassionate, thoughtful, and serious discussion about the effects of current laws or the potential effects of new laws.

I have a lot of things to say about the issue but I’lll try to RERO it.

Now, obviously, the media coverage is typical “wedge issue” journalism. Which might well be working. In a way, I don’t care so much about the outcome of this journalistic coverage.

What I do care about, though, is that people may start discussing the social implications of alcohol prohibitions. It’s a much larger issue than the legal drinking age in the United States. I sincerely hope that it will be addressed, thanks in part to these administrators at well-known academic institutions.

Possibly the best person to talk about this is Indiana University’s Ruth Engs, professor of Applied Health Science. Engs has written extensively on the health effects of alcohol, with a special emphasis on the negative effects of the raised legal drinking age in the United States. She also has fascinating things to say about cultural dimensions of alcohol consumption, which happens to be a topic that I have been exploring on my own.

According to Engs, discussion of responsible drinking are quite rare in public events related to alcohol research in the United States. I personally get the impression that responsible drinking has become a taboo subject in those contexts. I certainly noticed this while living (as full-time faculty) on a “dry campus.”

It’s no secret that I care about responsible drinking. Part of this might have to do with the Éduc’alcool message which has been engrained in Quebeckers over the years: «la modération a bien meilleur goût» (“responsible drinking is more tasteful”). My strong impression is that at least some of those who wish for the drinking age in the United States to remain high share the opinion that, for adults, responsible drinking is more appropriate than binge drinking. They may think that any type of alcohol consumption has negative effects, but it’d be quite surprising if they actually preferred binge drinking over responsible drinking.

Where we seem to disagree is on the most effective strategies to reach the goal of responsible drinking among adults. IMHO, there is at the very least strong anecdotal evidence to show that increasing legal drinking age does very little to encourage responsible drinking. Unfortunately, with issues such as these, there’s a strong tendency for advocates of any position to dig for data supporting their claims. Stephen Jay Gould called this “advocacy masquerading as objectivity.” I may care strongly about the issue but I’m not really taking sides. After all, we’re talking about a country in which I’ve lived but in which I don’t have citizenship.

Let’s call a spade a “spade.” What’s at stake here is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was pushed by the MADD lobby group (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). With all due respect to people involved in MADD and similar anti-alcohol advocacy groups, I have strong reservations as to some of their actions.

As a group, MADD is a “textbook example” of what sociologist Howard Becker has called “moral entrepreneurs.” In the United States, these moral entrepreneurs seem to be linked to what Ruth Engs calls clean living movements. What’s funny is that, though these movements may be linked to puritanism, Puritans themselves did use alcohol in their diet. So much so that the Mayflower landed in Plymouth Rock partly because of beer.

There’s a lot to say about this. From diverse perspectives. For instance, libertarians surely have interesting points about the NMDAA’s effects on state laws. Health researchers may talk about the difficulty of alcoholism prevention when responsible drinking is left undiscussed. Teetotalers and Muslims may see this as an opportunity to encourage complete abstinence from drinking. Road safety specialists may have important points to make about diverse ways to prevent drunk driving. Law researchers may warn us about the dangers to the legal system inherent to laws which are systematically broken by the majority of the population. Border officers may have some interesting data as to the “alcohol tourism” related to college drinking. University and college students clearly have diverse approaches to the subject, contrary to what the media coverage (especially the visuals used) seem to indicate.

My own perspective is quite specific. As a very responsible drinker. As a Quebecker of recent European origin. As a compulsive pedestrian. As an ethnographer interested in craft beer culture in North America. As a homebrewer. And, more importantly, as a university instructor who, like Barrett Seaman, has noticed widely different situations on university campuses in the United States and Canada.

Simply put, it seems quite likely that widespread binge drinking on university campuses has originated on U.S. campuses since 1984 and that the trend is currently spilling over to affect some campuses outside of the United States. College binge drinking is not a global problem. Nor is it a problem entirely specific to the United States. But the influence of U.S. college and university campus culture in other parts of the world often comes with binge drinking.

Apart from the fact that I find binge drinking to be extremely detrimental to physical and mental health, my observation is about campus life in general. AFAICT, on university and college campuses where alcohol consumption by a significant proportion of the student population is illegal, illicit alcohol consumption pushes younger students outside of the broader campus life. This self-segregation makes for a very uncomfortable learning and teaching context. In other words, the fact that students hide in fraternity houses or off-campus locations to binge drink may have the same socialization effects as regular campus life elsewhere on the planet, but the isolation of these people is a net loss in terms of generating an academic environment which is nurturing and tolerant.

To be clear: I’m not saying that the legal drinking age in the United States needs, of necessity,  be brought back to 18 years-old as it was in several States until fairly recently. I’m not even saying that States should necessarily be allowed to set their own drinking age laws. I simply wish for this debate on legal drinking age to happen. Actually, I hope that there will be real, thoughtful dialogue on the issue.

Really, it’s the tasteful thing to do.


Open Access in Canada: CIHR Weighs In

This could be big news. Canada’s major health-research agency has announced policy support for Open Access.

Open access to health research publications: CIHR unveils new policy – CIHR

“This open access policy will serve as a model for other funding agencies”

On the other hand, this policy sounds “non-binding”:

CIHR will require its researchers to ensure that their original research articles are freely available online within six months of publication.

grant recipients must make every effort to ensure that their peer-reviewed research articles are freely available as soon as possible after publication

So, it’s not as strong as some other mandates out there. But that might not be such a bad thing either. The benefits of OA are sufficiently clear that the only thing which is needed is that it becomes common practise. If some researchers fail to comply right away, punishing them might not be the most appropriate action. In fact, the way the press release is written, the policy seems to encourage a positive attitude toward OA which sounds quite convincing in the context of Canadian academia.
There have been lots of talk about OA in Canada and elsewhere, but this action by the CIHR can have important consequences.

Personally, and though colleagues surely disagree, I appreciate the fact that “the public” is included in the statement:

As a publicly-funded organization, we have a responsibility to ensure that new advances in health research are available to those who need it and can use it – researchers world-wide, the public and policy makers.

Oh, sure, this doesn’t mean that patients will suddenly be able to use all sorts of information about diseases they may have. We all know about the dangers of self-diagnosis, so that might not be a good thing. The health science literature is difficult enough to understand that chances are that broad readership by the general public may not apply. But the point is made that research (applied or basic) is done for the common good. Not just to get tenure in a university. One thing which might happen, from OA, is that careers in research get started because of access to research documents. Instead of keeping research in the Ivory Tower, research can be more easily distributed to anyone. This can even prevent the spread of disinformation!

For one thing, Open Access to research publications makes a lot of sense in a society which gives so much importance to free access to information. IMHO, the social significance of the Canadian Access to Information Act is often underestimated.

I do hope agencies such as SSHRC will adopt policies similar to the CIHR. Actually the SSHRC has been active in terms of OA, but AFAICT, doesn’t “require its researchers to ensure that their original research articles are freely available online within six months of publication.” OTOH, the SSHRC does have an initiative to support OA journals financially.

Looking forward to what well-known OA advocates will say about this. Surely, they’ll be more critical than I am, saying that this action, on the part of the CIHR, is but one step in the direction of generalised OA.

I may be overly enthusiastic here. But I do think this can be a turning point in Canadian academia.