The United States has the oldest minimum drinking age of any country where alcohol consumption is legal, at 21 years. In contrast, roughly 61% set their minimum age at 18 or 19 years old – including France, Russia and the United Kingdom – while 12% range from 10 to 17 years old and another 10% have no such restriction, according to the World Health Organization. So is this a sign of superior American judgment or an example of us stubbornly lagging behind much of the global community?
The United States certainly has a complicated history with alcohol, fueled by a powerful combination of morality and economics. Spurred by concerns of declining American values and popular religious leaders pointing to booze as the cause, Congress turned a temporary prohibition tied to World War I grain shortages into the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, banning the sale and consumption of alcohol. But sentiment began to come full circle after violent episodes such as the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre not only showcased the darkest side of bootlegging, but also reminded the country just how lucrative the booze business is. And with the Great Depression making tax revenue from alcohol sales vital, Uncle Sam ultimately got back in the game in 1933, repealing his first and only amendment ever.
The legal drinking age has fluctuated since then, with some states going as low as 18 years old, before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 standardized things at 21 years old. But have we truly found the sweet spot between imbibers’ rights and the rule of law? Roughly 88,000 people perish from alcohol-related causes each year, losing a combined 2.5 million years of potential life in the process, while 35% of high school students consume alcohol each month, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The question is: Would lowering the minimum legal drinking age help or hurt in these regards? There are no easy answers to this quandry, so we turned to a panel of 9 leading experts for additional insight into the underlying issues. You can find their responses to the question, “Should the U.S. Lower the Legal Drinking Age?” – including 1 who says Yes and 8 who say No – below.
Why The Drinking Age SHOULD Be Lowered
"Underage persons generally drink without parental guidance. They typically drink in an environment that promotes heavy drinking. So what’s the solution? We should do with drinking what has proven successful with driving. That is, we should issue drinking learner permits to qualified adults age 18 through 20."
- David J. Hanson, Ph.D. // Professor Emeritus of Sociology, State University of New York at Potsdam
Adults age 18, 19 and 20 should be able to drink alcoholic beverages if they have a drinking learner’s permit.
If we prepared young people to drive the same way we ‘prepare’ them for drinking:
- We would tell them that driving a vehicle is dangerous. That tens of thousands of people are killed each year in traffic crashes.
- We would tell them that driving requires knowing the rules of the road.
- We would explain that we don’t teach them these rules. That’s because we don’t want to send them ‘mixed messages’ about their ability to drive.
- We would tell them that good driving requires guided practice. But we can't provide that because they're too young to drive.
- We would tell them that they lack the necessary emotional maturity to drive safely. We would explain that they will acquire this maturity on their 21st birthday.
Then, on that magic day, we would hand them the keys to the car. We would remind them that using public transportation is much safer than driving their own vehicle. But if they insist on driving, we would ask them to try to be careful and not kill themselves or others.
Our streets and highways would be unimaginably dangerous. Yet we use the same approach in preparing young people to consume alcohol when they turn 21. And most will decide to drink before then.
Underage persons generally drink without parental guidance. They typically drink in an environment that promotes heavy drinking.
So what’s the solution? We should do with drinking what has proven successful with driving. That is, we should issue drinking learner permits to qualified adults age 18 through 20.
Exactly what constitutes qualified? That’s for society to determine. It might limit permits to those who have successfully completed a specified alcohol education responsibility course, who have received a high school diploma, and who have not been found guilty of any alcohol laws.
Permits could be graduated, as with driving learner's permits. Perhaps at first permit holders could only drink at home, with parental supervision. Then anywhere, with parental supervision. Then in a restaurant, with no parental supervision needed. And so on. Restrictions could be lifted incrementally with successful compliance with all permit conditions.
But doesn't alcohol damage young brains? There’s no evidence that drinking in moderation damages developing brains. Nor is there any reason to suspect that it might. Otherwise, Italians, Jews, Greeks and many others would be showing the negative effects. The often-cited research uses only rats and alcohol abusers. It doesn’t study young people who consume in moderation.
But aren’t those who begin drinking at an early age more likely to have drinking and other problems later in life? This correlation result from pre-existing personality factors that have been identified. For example, psychologists have been able to study preschoolers and predict accurately which will begin drinking earlier and also to have drinking problems later.
We should reduce youthful alcohol abuse by issuing drinking learner permits to qualified adults age 18 through 20.
Why The Drinking Age Should NOT Be Lowered
- "The public health benefits of the minimum drinking age are crystal clear. Study after study published in scientific journals indicates that when the legal age for purchasing alcohol is lowered, more young people die in crashes. When it is raised, deaths decline."
- Adrian K. Lund // President, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety & Highway Loss Data Institute
- "Evidence strongly suggests that lowering the drinking age will increase drunk driving fatalities. As it is, young people between 17 and 21 are twice as likely to die in a car crash as the rest of us."
- Allen D. Porter // President, DrinkingAndDriving.Org
- "I would not vote to lower the drinking age. My primary concerns with a lowered drinking age would be the health of the younger consumer and the issue of public safety."
- Patrick Delaney // Commissioner, Vermont Department of Liquor Control
- "During the Vietnam War-era, legislators in several states were moved to lower the legal drinking age to 18, with disastrous results. The severe rise in alcohol-related driving crashes and other alcohol-related problems prompted President Reagan to sign federal legislation that threatened to withhold highway safety funds from states that failed to enact a minimum legal drinking age of 21."
- William DeJong, D. // Professor, Boston University School of Public Health
- "No. Research evidence is unequivocal. ... It is time to make further strides, not to regress in the face of promising data. The legal drinking age should not be lowered."
- Eun-Young Mun, Ph.D. // Associate Professor, Rutgers University Center of Alcohol Studies
- "Studies clearly suggest that binge drinking during adolescence has persistent effects on both the morphology of the brain as well as on the epigenetic machinery that leads to abnormal brain development, thereby making an individual more susceptible to develop alcohol use disorder and other psychopathology in adulthood."
- Subhash C. Pandey, PhD // Professor, University of Illinois at Chicago
Ask the Experts
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