In 1984, Ronald Reagan mandated that all states must unify and raise their drinking age to 21 or face major cuts from their highway funding. The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) throughout the country had varied by state before Reagan’s ultimatum, but since then has been, famously and often controversially, 21 years of age.
The intent was likely noble: alcohol consumption in young teens increases the likelihood of developing alcohol dependence later in life, and the problem of binge drinking is forever growing. However, the United States’ MLDA is higher than that of most other developed countries but has proven to be far less effective in encouraging alcohol safety.
For example, 4 of every 5 college students drink, and underage drinkers constitute around 17.5 percent of total alcohol spending. In 2006, 72.2 percent of high school seniors – who usually turn 18 during that school year – reported having drunk alcohol before. 20.8 percent of high school students and 26.1 percent of people between the ages of 18 and 21 reported binge drinking in the last 30 days in a 2013 CDC study. These data indicate that our unusually high drinking age doesn’t prevent alcohol consumption in the targeted age groups. In fact, all it really does is make drinking less safe among the demographic the law aims to protect: a high MLDA encourages teens to experiment with alcohol in secluded, unsafe enviornments, deters any underage drinkers in danger from seeking medical help, and promotes not only binge drinking but also the breaking of other laws, creating more “criminals” in a country with an already serious incarceration problem. Lowering the drinking age would not only benefit young people’s safety but also support the economy and even preserve respect for U.S. laws.
2 of every 3 college students binge drink, and up to 90 percent of alcohol consumed by youth is done so as part of binges. Binge drinking contributes to health risks, poor academic performance, and even death, and around 97,000 sexual assaults among college students involve excessive alcohol in a given year.
While the MLDA of 21 is meant to reduce the frequency of binge drinking and thus its dangerous consequences, the high drinking age actually encourages it.
Firstly, the demand for alcohol among young people will not change due to a law but limits only the supply among underage drinkers. Therefore, when teenagers do have access to alcohol, they are more likely to binge-drink to compensate for the uncertainty of when they might get it again. A lower drinking age, then, would not only combat binge-drinking but also take away the “thrill” of breaking the law that motivates many under 21 to partake during high school or college as they enter our society’s party culture, where drinking is an important social event and, regrettably, sometimes a marker of a student’s social standing.
Another problem with limiting legal alcohol access to the young people who will obtain it anyway is that, because they are often so determined to drink, the law prohibiting it encourages them to procure a fake ID. The MLDA of 21 actively breeds disrespect for the law in this way, and in times when national security and respect for law enforcement stand in jeopardy, these behaviors are some of the last things we need our own government to promote.
The fear of getting caught encourages other unsafe behaviors as well, as those under 21 are often forced to drink in secret. Not only do adults not know to look out for them and ensure their safety, the teens are less likely to reach out for medical help in the event of alcohol poisoning or even alcohol-fueled sexual assaults for fear of punishment. If the drinking age were lowered so that they could be honest about their drinking or even drink in public spaces such as restaurants and bars, they would be safer, more likely to exhibit self-control, and less likely to get sick to begin with — but more likely to seek help if they do. They would then learn to drink responsibly and develop a tolerance: things that come with experience, not an arbitrarily determined age.
Drinking at an earlier age in a controlled setting is directly associated with heightened self-control when consuming alcohol. This association has been observed in many European countries, where it is not uncommon for children as young as 12 to have a glass of wine at family dinner.
Some critics of a lower MLDA argue that drinking at the age of 18 would promote alcohol abuse or dependency later in life, but research suggests that one would need to start drinking in adolescence or earlier teenage years for a significant correlation with alcohol abuse in adulthood to exist. They claim (correctly) that European kids who live in countries with a lower MLDA spend more total time intoxicated, but the difference is that those kids spend that time much more responsibly than do American kids, who die more often from alcohol-related causes. There are fewer drunk driving accidents and fatalities in countries with an MLDA of 18, and a higher MLDA is not statistically associated with lower rates of suicide, homicide, or vandalism as some critics claim. A 2002 meta-study of the legal drinking age’s influence on health and social problems reported that 72% of studies found no statistically significant relationship between an MLDA of 18 and the rates of these behaviors.
Lowering the MLDA in America would likely benefit the economy as well.Were the drinking age lowered to 18, more people could drink in bars and restaurants as well as legally purchase alcohol from stores. Increased legal purchasing would support local economies and, because alcohol is taxed, benefit the government. The government also spend millions every year to enforce these policies; for example, Oregon spends $33 million annually for that cause. Law enforcement, though, often don’t prioritize this law consistently, largely because most American adults have accepted that those under the age of 21 will still find ways to drink. In fact, only two of every 1,000 incidences of underage drinking result in arrests.
At the age of 18, an American becomes a legal adult.
You wake up on your 18th birthday suddenly old enough to vote and influence our increasingly fragile democracy, participate as a member of a jury, sue someone, and be prosecuted as an adult or held legally responsible for signing a contract. You can buy a lottery ticket or even a home, open a bank account, and get a credit card. You can make permanent life decisions such as getting a tattoo or a piercing, and you are often expected to choose a college or a job around this age. You can change your name or get legally married without parental permission and purchase fireworks, sex toys, and tobacco. You can even enlist in the army and make the decision to risk your life fighting for our country – but in our United States, you, a legal adult, still can’t even have a beer.
It’s time to lower the MLDA to 18. If an adult can help choose who leads our country and even decide that they’re willing to die for it, they should be allowed to make the decision to purchase and consume alcohol under the law.
We know the dangers of alcohol, but as long as American culture continues to put it on a pedestal, the majority will scramble for it and the social experience surrounding its consumption. We can’t stop anyone from drinking, so the next best thing is to make sure that we allow them to do so as safely as possible.