The Timeless Tale of the Alcoholic Forbidden Fruit
In a fresh look at the debate on alcohol consumption laws in the United States, this blog evaluates the effectiveness of the law in light of changing social and cultural demographics in one of the most conservative states.
You are 20 years old, home from college, and going to a bar with your friends who are all 21. You know that drinking while under 21 years of age is illegal, but almost everyone you know goes to bars and clubs. Fake ID’s, fake student ID’s, pre-drinking before going out are all a part of the norm - staying home isn’t. You get in line with all of your best high school buddies. As the door to the bar gets closer, you get more nervous. Your friends tell you not to worry: “Come on man, everyone does it! No one ever gets caught.” One, two, five, six of your friends get in. The bouncer asks you for your ID. You say you lost it, but all your friends can vouch for your age. Before you know it, you are being forcibly escorted to a back room, police arrive to arrest you, and you are taken to a police station where you get a ticket for underage consumption of alcohol and trying to enter a tavern while underage.
Everyday throughout the United States, this scene is repeated. Minors (anyone under the age of 21) that are barely underage are punished, jailed and fined for drinking alcohol and going to bars and clubs. But are these laws really protecting minors?
So what are the laws?
In addition to its reputation for great skiing, Mormons and beautiful national parks, the state of Utah has also gained a new reputation as a state with some of the strictest underage alcohol consumption laws in the United States. Having upped the ante due to high rates of binge drinking, the Utah state code now states that any minor caught trying to enter a bar in Utah is not only subject to “up to 6 months in jail and up to $1,850.00 in fines and surcharges,” but also the suspension of one’s drivers license for 1 year. In other words, Utah has fortified its penal code and is ready to rumble with any daiquiri-loving minor.
Originally signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1984, the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act was drafted in response to a high rate of alcohol-related motor fatalities. Originally successful in decreasing the number of fatalities, many now argue that it reflects the views of previous Utahns and policy makers, which leaves us with two questions.
- Does the spirit of the laws match the spirit of the people?
- Are they effective in decreasing mortality rate?
True to its reputation, Utah has a lot of Mormons. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, colloquially known as the Mormon Church, was the predominant faith in Utah from its founding until 2008, when the Church begin to lose more followers than anytime in the last 175 years. Within recent years, non-Mormons have become the majority in Utah but no significant legal changes have occurred. The Mormon Church, which preaches against alcohol consumption and is strongly affiliated with the republican political party, has maintained a legal monopoly despite societal changes. Thus, the spirit of the laws is certainly still tied with the Mormon faith.
Are they effective?
However, there are facts to support the effectiveness of harsh penal codes. Utah is known as a state with low alcohol consumption, but minors are more likely than their peers nationwide to binge drink (Binging is defined as consuming 4 to 5 drinks within two hours). The national average of binge drinking in 12th-graders who have participated in binge drinking within the last thirty days is 55 percent, compared to almost 72 percent of Utahn 12th-grade students. Thus, there is clearly a necessity for a law with regards to alcohol consumption, particularly considering the negative long-term effects associated with binge drinking such as depression. Also, the law is an effective tool to prevent very young children from gaining access to alcohol. To clarify, this blog is concerned with the alcohol consumption laws in relation to 16 to 20 year olds.
But how effective can a law be that enforces the sentiments of a previous societal majority on citizens that no longer share the same sentiments? Legal scholars have largely supported the argument that law “imposed from high – especially one that is readily evaded and opposed by a large fraction of the citizenry – is virtually guaranteed to fail.” Furthermore, Ritcher et al. (2004) found in a national telephone survey about underage drinking policies that participants’ opinions were significantly related to their sociodemographic background, suggesting that underage alcohol policies are most representative when they accurately represent the beliefs of the people that they are designed to govern. In this light, the recent, strict changes in Utahn policy regarding underage drinking could be the result of blind policymaking, in which policymakers are not aware of the demographical changes in their constituency, or an attempt to align a changing constituency with the value of the Mormon Church. Since the harsher punishments have coincided with the decline in Church membership, the latter option seems like the most logical assumption. Also, the tightening of consumption laws could be a way to play into the fears of the people of Utah, who have been, empirically speaking, against the consumption of alcohol.
Additionally, Miron & Tetelbaum (2009), representing the fields of Economics and Law respectively, found that despite the initial intention to decease alcohol-related motor fatalities, the minimum legal drinking age has effectually stopped saving lives and, at least for 17-year-olds around the United States, become counterproductive and is actually leading to more alcohol-related motor deaths. Hence, even if the alcohol consumption laws matched the spirit of their constituency, their effectiveness would still be a point of contention.
The pertinence of the law is extremely important to its effectiveness, its enforcement and its worth. If a law is not agreeable to a large part of society, perhaps it is time to evaluate its mechanism and applicability to modern times. Sometimes it takes a few shots to get it right.