Deep inside the dim-lit basements of fraternity houses across America unnoticed innovation is going on. Breakthroughs in the field of fluid dynamics are made every Friday and Saturday night. What are being developed in these laboratories that reek of stale beer, where lab coats are traded for seersucker pants and safety glasses replaced with Wayfarers? Weapons of Mass Binging (WMB). WMB have been proliferated throughout the Anglosphere, raising questions about this seemingly new phenomena’s impact on public health. But, most importantly, begs the question, how can it be stopped?
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism states that binge drinking, a pattern of drinking that raises blood alcohol concentration to .08 grams, happens when men consume 5 or more drinks and woman consume 4 or more drinks, in about 2 hours.[i] Armed with WMB this can occur in less than 20 minutes. The AK-47 of the house party has undoubtedly become the funnel or beer bong. This harbinger of inebriety allows for almost instantaneous intoxication. (In what has to be one of my favorite videos, The Onion conducts a “study” showing that the majority of Americans get most of their exercise while intoxicated.)
While the UK, U.S. and Australia’s overall consumption of alcohol is typically lower than continental Europe’s, heavy episodic drinking is on the rise. Many different approaches have been taken to combat what is now endemic on college campuses. The U.S. experimented with the most draconian approach with prohibition in the 20's and Australia instituted a measure that closed pubs at 6pm. The beer bong and shot ski (my favorite WMB) may be contemporary innovations but over consumption of alcohol is hardly new.
What can be done to stop binge drinking which should in turn decrease bar fights, vandalism and 4am breakups?
Authorities could begin to round up and destroy WMB. While this would be a novel attempt to tackle the issue, I doubt it would have any measurable impact on binge drinking rates and would be nearly impossible to enforce since your standard WMB can be assembled with the help of your always-knowledgeable Home Depot employee.
Many states, universities and cities in the U.S. have flirted with zero-tolerance policies. These policies typically include a hefty fine in the thousands, a night in the drunk tank and/or some form of court ordered community service for violations such as public intoxication, public urination or open container. Many cities in my home state of New Jersey have adopted legislation banning drinking games that are within view of the street and the recent St. Patrick’s Day parade in Hoboken attracted a media blitz when thousands took to the streets in drunken revelry, many of whom now have to take out a loan to pay off a fine worth the equivalent of a paycheck.
The philosophy behind such severe punishment is deterrence. The problem with deterrence theory is that it is always difficult to assess its impact. It is commonly cited by proponents of the death penalty, but all research has shown that there is no evidence that the threat of execution reduces the murder rate more than life in prison.
We could easily stop the over consumption of alcohol by having police officers immediately execute offenders on the street. Erecting a gallows during celebrations and conducting public hangings would also do the trick. This would end everything from drunk driving to parking in handicap spots, but I doubt anyone would agree to this.
Harsh punishments such as zero-tolerance policies are just as ridiculous as summary executions on college campuses. Most people adhere to one of two beliefs regarding retribution: it should be equal or proportional. Laws regarding public intoxication and possession of controlled substances fail to conform to either of these principles. How can retribution fit the “eye for an eye” criterion for someone who drinks too much and stumbles out of a bar with an open beer in hand? The same is true for someone who uses heroin. You cannot enact a retributive punishment that fits the crime.
Defenders of drug laws will claim that we have established proportional laws, where the punishment fits the crime. For example, parking violations are met with a slap on the wrist fine. But, a person who is arrested for public intoxication often times has to carry this conviction around with him/her for the rest of their life. It may even disqualify them from future jobs. This is hardly proportional.
Substance abuse laws are where my views align almost perfectly with libertarians (one day I will write a post attempting to summarize my beliefs that will undoubtedly be marred with hypocritical inconsistencies). If you are selling alcohol to children, drinking too much and assaulting other individuals or spray painting a stop sign, there is a right for retribution because there is a victim. Face planting on a side walk because you had 20 beers has only one victim, yourself.
On to possible solutions.
Personal liberty should never be limited (if possible, often times a liberty/security trade-off exists). The government’s role is to internalize externalities and it can often time do this by providing or changing incentives. It can employ incentives that are not coercive and do not unjustifiably punish individuals through taxes and/or regulation.
How did I just align my beliefs with libertarianism and advocate government intervention? Because the social cost that binge drinking has on society is a negative externality. The fact you zone out at work or skip your physics course the day after a bender imposes not only a personal cost, but a cost on society through decreased productivity. In this case, a tax can provide you with the necessary foresight to make an educated decision. If you value the utility associated with a binge, then you pay for the loss of productivity you imposed on society through the tax.
It is difficult to aggregate the social cost or negative externality binge drinking produces, if there is any. A 2010 study by Joseph Sabia finds that when individual effects, such as psychological well-being, are controlled for, binge drinking has a statistically insignificant effect on academic performance. First, the social costs of binge drinking must be determined to effectively internalize the externality; more research is needed.
But, if we do assume that increased episodic consumption is negatively impacting public health, there are a few easy ways to nudge the Anglo-Saxon youth toward reasonable consumption. The first is to end “rounding up” and the second is to use new, available technology to limit individual consumption.
Rounding up is a phenomenon that I often engage in with my friends as we mull around the beer cave at a liquor store considering what to buy. Because it is cheaper to buy 30 beers than six, we always round up and get the 30. Sometimes 30 rounds up to a keg and so on and so forth, until you have enough alcohol to hospitalize a division three college.
Buying in bulk is an American phenomenon and I am convinced is also linked to obesity rates. When I lived in Italy I did not once see a 30-pack of beer for sale. The grocery store, a mile away from where I lived, had six-packs, but lugging them back wasn’t worth it. Did this decrease the amount of alcohol I drank? Not if I really wanted drink, but it sure made getting a large quantity inconvenient.
Implementing a tax on bulk alcohol would allow for easy arbitrage. People could just purchase five six-packs instead of the, now more expensive, 30-pack, making the option less attractive.
The second solution is attractive because it makes arbitrage difficult.
In an article in Public Policy Research, Jasper Gerard (2007) contemplates raising the legal drinking age in the UK to 21. One of Gerard’s proposals is very interesting and I believe warrants an experimental implementation in a university town. His proposal is to require ID cards to purchase alcohol that not only indicate age, but also how many units of alcohol the holder purchased that day. This would also provide invaluable information to social scientists studying drinking patterns. A ceiling would be placed on the units of alcohol that could be purchased daily.
In this system arbitrage would be much harder. Alcohol consumption is constrained by the town’s population. I imagine a black market popping up where people who aren’t going to drink that day are paid to purchase alcohol for others. This black market would most likely be driven by fraternities as they prepare for parties. If these illegal transactions started to lead to campus-wide violence, the ID system probably wouldn’t be worth it. Similar to what the War on Drugs has done to Central America.
Besides the possible violent black market, the costs of implementing an ID system of the likes that Gerard proposes would be extremely high. When an ID is swiped, it would have to update, live, on a database to prohibit people from just going from liquor store to liquor store to obtain more alcohol. There would have to be exceptions for people who want to have social gatherings; keg registration measures are already in place to tackle this problem. And the biggest problem is establishing the ceiling. How many units of alcohol are acceptable on a daily basis? Four to five drinks every two hours would definitely extinguish the fun from bars and barbeques throughout the country.
Taxing bulk alcohol sales and ending rounding up won’t stop those determined to go on a bender and there is little action besides unjustified, ruthless punishment that will eliminate binge drinking. Chaloupka and Wechsler (1996) show that policies that affect alcohol prices have little impact on binge drinking rates. Rather, it is the social atmosphere on college campuses, such as fraternity membership and the availability of alcoholic beverages, that has the greatest impact on prevalence. I imagine that binge drinking that occurs post-undergraduate also has a lot to do with the atmosphere of the area you choose to reside.
While research may indicate otherwise, I’m convinced ending rounding up will have an impact for the simple fact that if you only have 6 beers, that’s all you will drink. When you have 30, why not drink 15? The marginal cost of having one more is very little.
College students will continue to be innovative when it comes to drinking and they will always manage to find new, creative ways around price controls and laws, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t improve the current ineffective and often times too draconian system that is in place. We can start by removing retributive punishment where it isn’t deserved and by making the six-pack an economically viable option over the keg.
Chaloupka, Frank and Henry Wechsler. 1996. “Binge Drinking in College: The Impact of Price, Availability, and Alcohol Control Policies.” Contemporary Economic Policy 14: 112-124.
Gerard, Jasper. 2007. “Should we raise the age of legal drinking?” Public Policy Research.
Sabia, Joseph. 2010. “Wastin’ Away in Margaritaville? New Evidence on Academic Effects of Teenage Binge Drinking.” Contemporary Economic Policy 28:1: 1-22