Top 10 Reasons The Drinking Age Should Be Lowered To 18
Federal Law in the USA requires that all States mandate a minimum legal drinking age of 21. Unlike many other western countries the USA has always taken a hard line on alcohol consumption with prohibition being repealed only in 1933. In response to campaigns to decrease teenage traffic accidents the Minimum Legal Drinking Age was set to 21 in 1984. Since that time older American teens have been unable to toast their first vote or other milestones of legal majority. Instead they have had to watch, soft drink in hand, as their counterparts across Europe and Australia enjoy a perfectly legal beer or a glass of wine.
Why does America persist in this out of date practice of banning full adult members of the population from enjoying a glass of alcohol? The USA, at the present time is in a crazy situation where 18 year olds are legally permitted to carry a rifle but not permitted to buy a bottle of beer. We think this position is illogical and untenable and here are 10 key reasons why we believe the minimum legal drinking age should be lowered.
The Minimum Legal Drinking Age Has Not Always Been 21
Of course for part of the early years of the 20th century there was no legally permitted age for the consumption of alcohol. The government, in 1933, eventually realized that this position was completely unsustainable and repealed prohibition by the enactment of the 21st Amendment. The 21st Amendment very sensibly permitted each individual state to legislate its own minimum age. While most states set a minimum age of 21 (the voting age at the time) two (Illinois and Oklahoma set an age of 18 for women only (although this differential age was later repealed when found to breach equality legislation)).
In 1971 the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age for US Citizens from 21 to 18 and 30 states lowered their minimum legal drinking ages to match. By the time the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act was brought forward only 14 states still had a minimum drinking age of 21.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act did not require states to increase their minimum legal drinking age to 21 but did say that any state that did not set the age at 21 would lose access to federal transportation funding. As a result of the act the minimum legal drinking age is set at 21 in all 50 of the US states.
Many States Already Allow Some Alcohol Consumption Under the Age Of 21
While all states have a minimum legal drinking age of 21 the position for American teenagers is not as strict as it might first appear. In fact a number of states have managed to create a list of exceptions to the minimum legal drinking age that allows their teenagers to enjoy a drink while still complying with the requirements of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. So widespread are these exceptions that underage drinking is actually legal (in certain circumstances) in 45 states.
So how do these exceptions work? 29 states including Alaska and Wyoming allow underage consumption to take place on private premises as long as there is parental consent. 6 of these states (Louisiana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma and South Carolina) allow consumption in private property even without parental consent. 10 states (Connecticut, Kansas, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Nevada, Ohio, Texas Wisconsin and Wyoming) will even permit underage drinkers to consume alcohol on premises where it is offered for sale (i.e. in a restaurant) as long as they have parental consent.
26 States (including Hawaii and Ohio) allow the consumption of alcohol for religious purposes and 16 (including Arizona and Utah) for the purposes of medical treatment. 4 states (Michigan, Mississippi, Oregon and South Carolina) allow minors to consume alcohol if they are working for the government (ie undercover research) and 11 states including Rhode Island and Vermont allow underage consumption if needed for educational purposes. 17 states (including California and Indiana) will not prosecute underage drinkers if they report a medical problem in another underage drinker on the basis that not doing so would cause problems to go underreported (see below).
Most Countries Around The World That Allow Alcohol To Be Consumed Have A Lower Minimum Legal Drinking Age
The vast majority of countries worldwide allow alcohol to be legally consumed from a much younger age than the USA. While 19 countries (10% of the total) have no minimum legal drinking age, the majority of nations around the world have set their drinking age at 18/19. This includes the majority of western countries and America’s closest neighbors; Canada and Mexico. 18 year olds in countries as diverse as Norway, Turkey, South Africa and India are able to enjoy a perfectly legal drink.
America likes to paint itself as the ‘land of the free’. Any suggestions that the rights of Americans to carry a gun might be restricted are met with fierce opposition and yet, on the topic of alcohol at the least, the USA is one of the most restrictive countries in the world.
There are only 11 other countries that have set their minimum legal drinking age to 21 – the USA is in such luminary company as Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Kiribati, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Samoa and Sri Lanka. There are, of course, some countries with a more restrictive alcohol regime than the US – these include such great crusaders for personal freedom as Afghanistan, Iran, Libya, Saudi and Yemen amongst others.
A Minimum Legal Drinking Age Of 21 Encourages Dangerous Drinking Habits
Is the current minimum drinking age an effective tool to moderate potentially dangerous behavior and incidences of alcohol abuse amongst young people? Sadly it is not. A lot of underage drinking takes place at house parties, in frat houses or beach parties. Some young people may even drive to these events. These parties encourage dangerous drinking habits to form – having alcohol and getting drunk is seen as an end in and of itself and when young people get together to drink in such large concentrations it is inevitable that binge drinking will occur and, potentially other dangerous activity.
The statistics are worrying. While the majority of students drink responsibly or not at all 44% of all college students binge drink. Approximately 1900 will die from injuries sustained while drunk and 700,000 will be assaulted by a drunk student. Alcohol is responsible for 100,000 sexual assaults or rapes every year.
The plain truth is that America’s young people do not learn to drink responsibly because it is something they have to do clandestinely. Reducing the minimum drinking age inline with the minimum ages in Canada and much of Europe would help give parents the opportunity to teach their children a responsible attitude to alcohol and would go a long way towards alleviating some of the many problems associated with the binge drinking culture that is so prevalent amongst America’s young. In a campaign known as the Amethyst Initiative the chancellors of more than 100 seats of higher learning have banded together to encourage the government to debate and rethink the current minimum age laws.
A Lower Minimum Legal Drinking Age Would Help The Economy
The 21 and over minimum legal drinking age could be harming the US economy. The USA has much to offer as a tourist destination. The ‘gap’ year or a year spent travelling before they go to university is now increasingly popular amongst students from English speaking and European countries. Why would these students choose to spend their limited funds travelling in a country where they are not able to enjoy the same rights and privileges that they enjoy in their own countries? They will simply choose to go elsewhere.
It is not just the tourist dollars that are reduced by the minimum legal drinking age being set so high. One of the most popular hobbies amongst young people is music, they like to make it, play in bands and they like to listen to it live. Many venues search for new talent and promote their shows to a young audience. Bands in and of themselves do not, however, generate much profit – the greatest percentage of the take from any concert venue will be from the bar. Lowering the drinking age would permit more people to attend these events leading to a great benefit to the music industry.
A High Minimum Legal Drinking Age Does Not Protect Young Americans From Social And Health Problems
Common arguments used in favor of maintaining the minimum legal drinking age at 21 include the fact that it would be irresponsible to lower it as young people are more vulnerable to the mind altering effects of alcohol. In this regard they refer not to the short term effects of inebriation (although that is always a concern when young people drink) but to the claim that the development of certain mental functions such as addictive tendencies, tendency to depression and violence and even suicide can be impacted by alcohol consumption during the formative years. Campaigners also note that alcohol is often consumed in bars and nightclubs which are, by their nature, dangerous places.
These arguments smack of paternalism. Maintaining a high minimum age leads to irresponsible binge drinking behavior (see above) which is more likely to lead to the problems outlined in the previous paragraph than normal, reasonable consumption. Meanwhile a nightclub is no more safe for a 21 year old than a 20 year old. 72% of studies of the social and medical impact of drinking age and health problems have shown that there is no association between a lower drinking age and indicators of problems such as criminality or suicide amongst youngsters (although there was evidence of a higher drinking age leading to a reduction in car crashes). There is some thought that the impact of the long term mind altering effects of alcohol are due to excessive long term consumption as opposed to consuming alcohol at a young age.
Social and health problems are prevalent in any society and tend to be more so amongst the poorest sectors of societies. America would do better to invest more money in services to the disadvantaged and in mental health services than in continuing to place such importance on a ridiculously high minimum drinking age.
A Lower Minimum Drinking Age Would Encourage Younger Americans Injured Or Unwell As A Result Of Alcohol Related Activities To Receive Treatment
At the present time young people in America are in a difficult situation. Many of them will be exposed to alcohol in social situations and many of those will, whether they are 21 or not and whether the situation is covered by an exemption (see above) or not will choose to partake of alcohol.
We have already seen (above) that underage clandestine drinking tends to encourage youngsters to drink more and engage in more dangerous and unpleasant behavior than if the drinking activity were legal. If youngsters engaged in clandestine drinking are involved in an accident that results in harm to one or more people they may be reluctant to inform the authorities of the incident and seek help for those who need it for fear of being prosecuted for underage drinking.
Some people might choose to counter this argument by saying that this is an uncommon problem and not one to raise much concern but that is manifestly not the case. Failure to report accidents that arise out of underage drinking is so much of a problem that 17 states have legislated for an exception to underage drinking to allow such incidents to be reported (see above).
The Minimum Legal Drinking Age Does Not Protect Americans From Traffic Accidents
The entire rationale behind the imposition of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act 1984 was to reduce traffic fatalities caused by drunk driving. Despite the protestations of interest groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving that the imposition of the high minimum age has saved many thousands of lives the evidence just does not stack up.
Fatalities from traffic accidents have reduced since 1984 but this decline had already started in 1982, two years before the introduction of the act at which time it was evident across all age groups and all sectors of society. Since 1984 the rate of reduction of deaths through alcohol related traffic accidents in the US is far slower than the equivalent rate in European countries with a minimum legal drinking age of 18.
Why is this? Firstly societal attitudes have changed. For many years there was very little social stigma attached to drunk driving – it was seen as a perfectly normal and acceptable thing to do. Extensive advertising campaigns and stiffer penalties have had an impact and, for many people drunk driving is not something they would ever consider engaging in. At the same time social campaigns have encouraged people to wear seatbelts and abide by traffic speed limits. This seismic social shift has come at the same time as many improvements in car design leading to much better safety features. Traffic accidents today are simply not as deadly as traffic accidents 30 years ago.
Traffic fatalities do tend to increase in age cohorts around the time that the minimum legal age for drinking is achieved (whatever it is) but this is the case whether it is set at 18 or 21. If the minimum age were reduced there might be an increase in traffic related fatalities amongst 18 year olds but there would be a concomitant reduction in the equivalent deaths amongst 21 year olds.
The Police Do Not Enforce The Minimum Age Anyway – It Is A Pointless Law
The minimum legal drinking age law is not rigorously observed in that it is a law that people (even generally law abiding people) feel very comfortable breaking or seeing broken. Underage drinking is rife – equivalent to 17% of all alcohol consumed in the USA.
Underage drinking is not a victimless crime. Not only do the youngsters themselves get drawn into the party/binge cycle mentioned above with all the ramifications that has for their safety and health. Allowing youngsters to flout one law encourages them to break the law in other regards as well and to regard regulations with contempt. In order to obtain alcohol underage drinkers will need to have access to fake ID. Given that the US is under threat from terrorism and border pressure from illegal immigrants it is not in the national interest to encourage legal Americans to fund the fake ID market.
The situation is made worse by the fact that across many states there are simply not enough resources to allow the law enforcement agencies to make enforcement of the drinking age a priority. Each arrest for underage drinking requires a substantial investment of time and energy in terms of processing the perpetrator and filing the requisite paperwork. A survey of enforcement officials across four states showed that there is little community support for the enforcement of the minimum drinking age laws and with stretched resources and more serious crimes to deal with only 2 out of every 1000 incidences of illegal drinking end up in an arrest.
18 Is The Legal Age Of Majority In All Other Aspects Of Life
Most states of the US have set their age of majority for most aspects of life at 18. It is a significant milestone for an American teenager. Once they turn 18 they are permitted to vote. We tell them that they are sufficiently mature to enter into a contract of marriage that may affect the whole of their future life. We allow them to join the military and risk their lives (and, arguably, their mental health in the event they are deployed to a war zone) and we give them permission to purchase and enjoy cigarettes despite the fact that they have long term health consequences not just for the smoker but also for anyone in their vicinity when they enjoy their smoke. Perhaps most tellingly we accept that they are mature enough to sit in judgment over the actions of others by allowing them to become eligible for jury service.
We believe our young adults are mature enough to do all this but we do not permit them to have a drink. The situation is, quite simply, absurd!
The minimum drinking laws were a knee jerk reaction to a problem (high levels of road fatalities) that was already starting to reduce when the laws were brought in. It is true that fatalities do increase around the time an age cohort reaches the minimum drinking age but this would be the same and no worse at 18 than it is at 21. Certainly other nations, including most of Europe, that allow drinking at 18 do not report unacceptably high levels of alcohol related road fatalities amongst young people. Indeed the rate of alcohol related road accidents since 1984 has fallen faster in Europe than it has in the US.
Most Americans enjoy a drink now and then, alcohol is a big industry and relaxing with a beer or glass of wine in an appropriate manner is seen as socially acceptable. By denying this pleasure to young adults we are effectively making alcohol look more desirable than it really is. This leads to the bizarre situation where we are criminalizing young people for doing something which most people admit to enjoying. The net effect is to encourage them not only to break the law but to do it in a dangerous and irresponsible manner leading to a binge drinking culture.
Because minimum drinking age laws are not strictly enforced the law is seen as worthy of contempt amongst young people. It is always a matter of concern when people start to believe that they can cherry pick which aspects of the law apply to them.
We would prefer to see the minimum legal drinking age harmonized to the age of majority so that young serving soldiers, jury members and married couples can enjoy a drink without the worry that they might get unlucky and be prosecuted. Resources can then be redirected to educating all sectors of the population in safe drinking practices.