Under federal law, it is entirely illegal for citizens under the age of 21 in the United States to buy and/or consume alcohol. Despite this legal age, the law does not appear to worry most minors. Underage individuals consuming alcohol is a pressing public health and safety concern because of the high prevalence of this behavior and the correspondingly high costs it exacts. Either directly or indirectly, this relates in terms of lost lives, injury and disability, illness, damaged interpersonal relationships, and lost productivity. Speaking for the college scene, underage drinking has become a ritual that many students often see as an integral part of their higher-education experience. While some argue that allowing younger people to have more access to alcohol is counterintuitive, the 21- age limit has created a dangerous culture of irresponsible and reckless behavior; therefore, the policy to purchase, possess or consume alcohol in the United States should be lowered to 18 years of age based on education, toleration, and a message of responsible, moderate use.
Since 1988, and as a direct consequence of the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, the minimum legal drinking age for every state in the nation has been 21. Yet, during the intervening twenty-five years, there have been periodic efforts to lower this number. According to the American Public Health Association, in 2008, a group of university and college presidents expressed their discontent with the minimum legal drinking age by signing on to the Amethyst Initiative, a much publicized advocacy effort to encourage public debate about lowering the drinking age. These groups of college presidents (and their partner organization, Choose Responsibility) proposed reducing the minimum legal drinking age to 18 years, and with failure, this issue has received little mainstream attention since.
When under debate, the issue of the 21-year-old drinking age comes down to safety for some. A decrease in fatal alcohol-related car accidents inspires many to say the current law is working. This appears to be the most powerful argument against changing the legal age, at least emotionally. The law was presented to the country in 1984. Alcohol-related traffic fatalities have indeed gone down since then, but they started going down two years earlier, have gone down in every age group, and have gone down over the same period at a faster rate in Canada, where the legal age remains 18 (McCardell). Other plausible explanations for fewer highway deaths to keep in mind include safer car designs, the ubiquitous installation of air bags in new cars and laws mandating seatbelt use.
There is no denying that driving under the influence is a major concern, but it is important to consider situations involving alcohol outside of the highways as well. According to the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, of the 5,000 lives under age 21 lost to alcohol each year, more than sixty percent are loss off the roadways. The principle problem of 2013 is not drunken driving; it is clandestine binge drinking.
This policy change is a central feature of a campaign that contends will help young adults aged 18 to 20 years make healthy decisions about alcohol and lead to reductions in drinking and its negative effects. Because the consequences of alcohol use are considerable, and changes in the minimum legal drinking age may have important ramifications for health and safety, this issue requires serious consideration and participation from the public health community. The law was changed with a very specific purpose—that was to prohibit drinking among those under the age of 21. The primary way to measure the success of that law is to ask whether, twenty-five years later, those under 21 are not drinking.
It Is No Secret That Minors Drink Before 21
Data overwhelmingly shows that the vast majority of young people, by the time they reach college age, have already had some exposure to alcohol. As has been the case for the past several decades, alcohol continues to be the most widely used psychoactive substance by adolescents and young adults in the nation. Before reaching the age of 21, the great majority of this country's young people have consumed an alcoholic beverage at least once in their lifetime, and more than 57 percent are current drinkers, meaning they have drunk alcohol within the past 30 days (The Epidemiology). Realistically, it is no secret that people drink alcohol before they turn 21. Stories about binge drinking on college campuses are as easy to find as the Facebook photos and drunk tweets that document them. Even though alcohol is outlawed for people under the age of 21, this certainly does not stop them from consuming alcoholic beverages.
This idea should be of no surprise or dismay because, in fact, it puts us in step with most of the rest of the world. Where America falls out of step is in the approach to that reality, whereas most of the rest of the world has set its drinking age at or below the age of majority. The National Youth Rights Association confirms that the United States is one of only five countries in the world that has an age as high as 21. This leaves us in the face of two possible choices: if alcohol is undoubtedly a reality in the lives of 18, 19 and 20 year olds, which are known to be adults in the eyes of the law, we can either try to change that reality, or we can try to create the safest possible environment for that reality.
The Tree of Forbidden Fruit is Flourishing
The drinking age has effectively banished alcohol from public places and open view, but it has done little to reduce drinking. Rather, clinging to this strict no-use-under-21 policy allows the tree of “forbidden fruit” to flourish. Inside the mindset of an underage individual looking to party, the ideal venue for binge drinking would not be a student union, a dining hall, a restaurant or any public gathering place. Instead, a locked dorm room, an off-campus apartment, or a fraternity’s basement sounds more conducive for clandestine behavior.
Always unsupervised, done in secret and too often excessive, the style of drinking is seen as an enticing badge of rebellion against authority for many adolescents. Treating alcohol differently helps turn it into a holy grail of adulthood, and the current law is essentially like a prohibition for those under the age of 21. Teenagers want to rebel and try out what it is that they are being kept away from. Thus, the logic of the initiative is that if the allure of illegality is taken away, American youth will stop binging.
The Eighteenth Birthday Marks Adulthood
The eighteenth birthday: this age marks when an individual is officially considered an adult for most things in the United States. The country believes these young adults capable of making responsible decisions in the voting booth, in the jury box, and on the battlefield. The country believes these young adults old enough to buy tobacco products, go to prison, obtain abortions, and hunt with deadly weapons. Why not trust the same eighteen year olds to be smart with alcohol?
Alcohol is dangerous. Tobacco is dangerous, driving is dangerous, and war is dangerous, yet in those areas, the law allows 18 year olds to make their own choices.
Lowering the drinking age will bring alcohol into the open, acknowledge that 18-year-olds are adults in the eyes of the law as they are in several other respects, and it will help to reduce the abusive drinking that has become so widespread.
Looking to Europe
An honest attempt should be made to model American alcohol policy after that of Europe. Look to the long experience of the Europeans and their keys to success in avoiding alcohol abuse. In countries with lower legal drinking ages, alcohol is “neither a terrible poison nor a magic potion”; moderated drinking is simply part of the culture. Alcohol consumption by 18 to 20 year old adults does not fall under as intense scrutiny in other parts of the world as it does in America. Adults do not demonize youth drinking; therefore, there is no allure, hence, lowering the drinking age can essentially make drinking boring.
The abuse, the over-consumption of alcohol, DUI driving—those are the areas where efforts should be focused.
Similar to driver’s licenses, lowering the drinking age to 18 should come in conjunction with a drinking license of sorts, mandating alcohol education for those of age to do so. Prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol in the same way they prepare to operate a motor vehicle: by first educating and then licensing and permitting them to exercise the full privileges of adulthood so long as they demonstrate their ability to observe the law.
The danger of alcohol is real and does not go away when someone turns 21. Rather than teach young people about the many uses and abuses of alcohol, current law and policy dictates that alcohol is an inherently evil substance. While abstinence from alcohol is a totally acceptable option, it should never eliminate the need for honest, open discussion and education about drinking. Just like any activity in life, drinking responsibly is an activity that one must learn. Currently we deny this healthy process to millions of young Americans, and that is the fixable problem.
The current policy toward youth in regards to alcohol consumption is not working. It is time we as a nation implement a smarter policy. Whether it is choosing the next President or choosing to drink a beer, society should respect and honor the choices of young people in an equal, fair and honest way.
Center for American Progress | An Executive Order to Lower the American Drinking Age