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Between Access and Consumption

By Mat Edelson

Debra Furr-Holden, PhD, has made a career out of studying populations vulnerable to public policy. That’s why she’s concerned by talk about lowering the drinking age. So while college presidents are debating such a proposal, Furr-Holden is considering a group that’s so far been left out of the discussion: Those in the affected age group who are neither in college nor employed.

Among those in this population—often poor and minorities—she notes, “this will be 100 percent to their detriment.”

“We know for a fact that there’s a relationship between access and consumption,” says Furr-Holden, an assistant professor in Mental Health at the Bloomberg School. “When we remove the access barrier for these 18- to 20-year-olds who are not in college and are unemployed, these kids will have increased access with no interventions or services. And many of these kids are uninsured.”

Furr-Holden, who received a five-year, $3 million Presidential Early Career Award for Scientists and Engineers in 2006 for her work studying how alcohol and drugs contribute to youth violence, has combed alcohol access points in Baltimore, Washington, D.C, and the San Francisco Bay Area to observe and survey youth behavior. Her findings are disturbing. “Forty percent of kids who frequent nightclubs and bars are not employed, not in college, and already have the beginning of pathology in the use of alcohol and drugs,” she says.

In Furr-Holden’s opinion, restricting access until 21 is crucial for protecting the young people who fall into this group. On one hand, she notes that most young drivers can’t handle alcohol at all. “Kids who are 18 to 20 are 10 times more likely, with any blood alcohol content, to be involved in a crash. Even if they’ve had one drink,” she says.

Then there’s the fact that this is a population long primed by advertising and pop culture to think highly of drinking. A report by Dartmouth and University of Oregon researchers in the March issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine—which includes an accompanying editorial by Bloomberg School associate professor David Jernigan—noted a link between adolescents who wear alcohol-branded merchandise and the onset of a positive mindset regarding the use of alcohol.

“This study presents some of the strongest evidence to date that ownership of alcohol-branded merchandise is a powerful predictor of kids initiating drinking,” Jernigan says. “Self-regulation doesn’t work.”

“It’s interesting,” says Furr-Holden, of the effect of alcohol-related media on youth. “Very young kids—9, 10, 11 years old—report a very high level of harm from alcohol use. So if you ask those kids ‘How harmful is it if you have five drinks?’ they’ll say ‘Oh, that’s bad, you’ll be drunk.’ Ask that same kid when they’re 14 and they’ll say, ‘It’s not harmful. It’s fun.’

”Add in evidence that those who delay drinking or drug use until their 20s are far less likely to fall into the cycle of use, dependency, treatment and relapse, and it’s easy to understand why Furr-Holden is greatly concerned about any attempt to lower the MDLA. “The kids who most need the protection will get nothing but increased access,” she says. 

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