Should The Drinking Age Be Lowered? Experts Weigh In
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
The public health benefits of the minimum drinking age are crystal clear. Study after study published in scientific journals indicate that when the legal age for purchasing alcohol is lowered, more young people die in crashes. When it is raised, deaths decline.
Young drivers are less likely to drive after drinking alcohol, but when they do they are much more at risk of a fatal crash than older drivers with the same blood alcohol concentrations (BACs). A major benefit of the 21 purchase age, commonly known as the drinking age, has been to prevent deaths in motor vehicle crashes.
Fatal crashes involving drivers with BACs at or above 0.08 percent fell sharply during the 1980s, when states began to establish or reinstate 21-drinking-age policies after more than a decade of allowing people younger than 21 to buy alcohol. The decline was much larger for drivers younger than 21, the group most affected by these laws. Among fatally injured drivers 16-20 years old, the percentage with positive BACs declined from 61 in 1982 to 31 in 1995.
In recent years, drivers ages 16-20 killed in crashes are about half as likely as fatally injured drivers ages 21-30 to have a BAC of 0.08 percent or higher. In 2014, 24 percent of drivers younger than age 21 killed in crashes had BACs of 0.08 percent or more, compared with 47 percent of drivers ages 21-30 who died.
Since 1988, all states have retained 21-drinking-age policies. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that adopting these laws in every state has saved more than 5,000 lives since 2006 alone.
The 21 drinking age also has helped to reduce alcohol consumption by teenagers. The University of Michigan’s ‘Monitoring the Future’ national survey has been tracking alcohol consumption and drug use among high school students and young adults since the 1970s. Underage drinking has declined since then, with most of the improvement coming by the early 1990s.
Binge drinking, defined as consuming at least five drinks in a row on one or more occasions in the prior two weeks, peaked in 1979 among high school seniors and then began declining as most states adopted policies setting the drinking age at 21. Similar declines weren’t noted among 21-22 year-olds, who weren’t affected by the policy changes.
While it is true that the U.S. hasn’t eradicated the problem of alcohol-impaired driving, we have made significant progress, and we believe there is still room to improve. Vigorous enforcement of 21-drinking-age policies is a proven way to reduce underage alcohol purchases and curb alcohol-impaired driving among teens and young adults. Lowering the drinking age would worsen the problem of alcohol-impaired driving, not alleviate it. Our roads are safer because of these laws.
No. Research evidence is unequivocal. We are much better off keeping the current minimum legal drinking age in the United States. The Amethyst Initiative, which, in 2008, was signed by a small fraction of the college presidents and other higher education officials, is based on a presumption that college students, when allowed to drink legally and openly (by lowering the legal drinking age to 18) within campus boundaries, may learn to use alcohol in a more responsible manner and, consequently, have fewer adverse alcohol-related experiences. Though, at first blush, this position may sound reasonable to some, the empirical evidence is so stacked against it that the argument should be dismissed as irresponsible and dangerous.
A recent review (DeJong & Blanchette, 2014) summarizes a large body of empirical evidence against the Amethyst Initiative. First, youth in European countries with lower drinking ages actually report heavier alcohol use and drinking to intoxication, compared with the U.S. youth. Second, within the U.S., several independent analyses of national data clearly suggest that the 1984 legislation increasing the legal drinking age to 21 had a positive impact on reducing alcohol use, traffic injuries and deaths, and unplanned or premature births. In addition, animal model studies and addiction neuroscience studies (Casey, 2013) collectively show that the still-developing adolescent brain may be particularly sensitive to the effects of alcohol and peers. It is now clear that the brain regions responsible for sensation seeking and impulsive behaviors and for rational decision making develop at different paces, with the former peaking much earlier in the mid-teens while the latter developing more gradually well into the late-20s. Binge drinking by underage drinkers interferes with normative brain development, putting them at risk for engaging in other perilous behaviors. Given that the early onset of alcohol intoxication is an important risk factor for later alcohol misuse and alcoholism, it is important to delay this experience; not to precipitate it by lowering the legal drinking age.
Since the 1980s, the U.S. has made a series of concerted efforts to reduce drinking by underage drinkers and college students. The fruits of these efforts can be seen in recent national epidemiological data showing modest reductions (e.g., 5%-6%) in underage drinking over the past decade, including binge drinking episodes (e.g., Johnston et al., 2014). Despite the promising downward trends, however, levels of underage drinking remain high and a subset of those who drink may engage in high intensity binge drinking that can cause blackouts and alcohol poisoning. Therefore, the prevention of excessive drinking and related harms by adolescents and young adults remains an important objective. It is time to make further strides, not to regress in the face of promising data. The legal drinking age should not be lowered.
In 2008, more than 100 college and university chancellors and presidents signed on to the ‘Amethyst Initiative.’ The purpose was to have ‘an informed and dispassionate public debate’ over lowering the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) to 18 years of age, as a strategy to stem the growing prevalence of binge drinking on college campuses. Below are four reasons why lowering the MLDA is NOT the solution.
- A frequent argument supporting reduction in the MLDA is the prevailing myth that, in Europe, where the MLDA is 18 years, there is less reckless and irresponsible drinking. European teenagers/young adults (in every nation except Turkey) drink more alcohol and engage in more risky alcohol use than their American counterparts.
- Drinking in young adulthood will NOT lower the risk for frequent heavy (binge) drinking. Hingson and Zha (2009) reported that individuals who began drinking between ages 17-18 and 19-20 had nearly a twofold greater likelihood of drinking more than 5 drinks per occasion at least weekly (binge drinking) compared to individuals who were older than 21 at drinking onset.
- To date, one of the most successful public health interventions was increasing and maintaining the MLDA at 21 years of age. Underage drinking is associated with the three leading causes of death among youth: unintentional injury, homicide, and suicide. The effect of an MLDA of 21 has had an unprecedented effect on reducing alcohol-related traffic deaths among youths 15 to 20 years old. According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, an MLDA of 21 years saves approximately 900 lives annually. A study by McCartt and colleagues (2010) indicated that the largest relative declines in the number and per capita rate of fatally injured drivers (aged 16–20 years) occurred between 1982 and 1995: the time that included passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984.
- There is no healthful effect of any level of drinking among adolescents or young adults. Many reports indicate that low-to-moderate alcohol consumption may be ‘better for the heart’ in middle-aged and older adults. This is not true for young adults. In young adults, even low levels of alcohol consumption (0 to 2 drinks/day and 1-6 drinks/week) were associated with negative vascular (blood vessel) changes (i.e., increases in carotid intimal medial thickness and coronary artery calcification). These changes reflect early cardiovascular disease. The adolescent and young adult brain is also adversely affected by alcohol. For example, the hippocampus, the part of the brain involved in memory and learning, is 20% smaller in teenagers who drink compared to non-drinking teenagers.
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.
Public health researchers have published dozens of scientific studies to look at the law’s effects. Their conclusions:
The age-21 law is effective in reducing injuries and deaths among young people. The research evidence is overwhelming. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, this law saves approximately 900 lives annually among young drivers. This is the case even though the law is indifferently enforced and frequently disobeyed.
The age-21 law does not contribute to heavy alcohol use on college campuses as opponents of the law have contended. No scientific evidence supports this argument. According to the University of Michigan’s Monitoring the Future study, rates of heavy drinking among college students remained steady after the federal law was passed and have even declined in recent years.
Alcohol problems would not diminish if the legal drinking age were dropped to age 18. Actually, based on past experience, there is every reason to think that the opposite would occur. As noted above, the US tried this misguided experiment in the 1970s. In 1999 New Zealand reduced its legal drinking age from 20 to 18. The result was a dramatic upswing in traffic crashes and injuries among 15- to 19-year-olds.
Why do I support the age-21 law? Quite simply, it’s because scientific research has proven that it saves lives. Proponents of lowering the legal drinking age have to ask themselves how they can justify undoing a law that is accomplishing what it was intended to do and has overwhelming public support.
The drinking age should not be lowered.
Adolescence represents a critical phase of human development during which time brain maturation occurs through important genetic and neurochemical changes in the brain. These normal biological processes lead to normal brain development and proper behavioral patterns. Epigenetic processes, in which DNA’s environment can change by chemical modifications of DNA and histone proteins without change in DNA sequence, have a profound effect on gene network pathways. Normal epigenetic programming is important for proper brain maturation and shaping normal behaviors. Adolescent binge drinking poses a serious health and safety concern including drunk-driving and car accidents. Underage drinking in college has an enormous burden on the society and, more importantly, on the US economy.
Several recent studies clearly indicate that adolescent alcohol drinking produces widespread, long lasting changes in epigenetic programming as well as in molecular pathways including the neuroimmune system in the brain. Neuroimaging studies indicate that adolescent alcohol exposure leads to structural modifications in the brain areas that are important for cognition, as well as emotion. Early life drinking, particularly during the adolescence period, leads to the development of alcohol use disorders (AUD) and co-morbid psychiatric disorders, including anxiety, in later life. It is interesting to point out that adolescents are also less sensitive to the sedative and anxiolytic effect of alcohol and this may play a permissive role in promoting a binge pattern of drinking. Recent research from our laboratory indicates that adolescent binge drinking causes epigenetic reprogramming and synaptic remodeling which is associated with adult psychopathology.
Due to the profound nature of clinical as well as preclinical research findings, it is my view that the drinking age should not be lowered as this will cause abnormal brain maturation through biochemical, molecular and epigenetic changes and some of the changes are long lasting, therefore leading to the development of adult psychopathology. 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 AUD and other psychopathology in adulthood.
The majority of the findings presented here were derived from studies conducted by the consortium on ‘Neurobiology of Adolescent Drinking in Adulthood’ funded by the US National Institute on Alcohol Use and Alcoholism (NIH-NIAAA).
My focus is on drunk driving. So when I consider a lower drinking age, my thoughts naturally turn to death. 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.
While that happens for many reasons, alcohol plays too large a role already. Right now, we try to make it challenging for teens to drink. Still, many do and many drive drunk. But having that limit prevents teens from having access to alcohol whenever they want. The result is drunk driving prevention. As soon as you lower that limit, you open the floodgates. Look how many of us, over 21, drink and drive. It is pervasive. It’s happening all day long and all night long.
And people are dying. 10,000 deaths a year from drunk driving and they tell us the ‘good news’ is that it used to be higher. But the reason drunk driving fatalities are dropping has nothing to do with a change in our behavior. Fewer people are dying because of the newer safety technologies in our cars. The average car on the road has more airbags, better harnesses, etc. than the average car of 5 or 10 years ago. It’s really incremental as newer models of cars replace older, more dangerous ones. Slowly but surely, it’s getting harder to die in our cars. Now consider the likelihood that the average teen will be driving an older model car.
New laws to deter drunk driving are being written and passed all the time. Mandatory ignition interlock for first time offenders and murder charges for Extreme DUI killers are examples of how far we are willing to go to deter drunk driving. Still, it’s pretty conclusive by now, if you give humans access to alcohol, they will drink together and let each other drive away. This cultural flaw is the root cause of most drunk driving. If you give more humans access to alcohol, they will follow suit with deadly consequences.
As our understanding of brain development has progressed over time, we now know that your brain isn’t fully formed until your 20’s. This is important for a couple of reasons. First, if underage individuals are using alcohol in excess, it is more likely to result in long-term damage to the not yet fully formed brain. Second, adolescents are already prone to taking risks and, in fact, risk-taking peaks in adolescence. During this time, heightened sensitivity to reward regions of the brain is coupled with less mature responses in areas of the brain responsible for things such as regulation of goal-directed behavior, decision making, problem solving, and emotion control. This results in adolescents seeking immediate gratification rather than long-term gain and difficulty making rational decisions in the face of, for example, emotionally charged situations. What may happen then, when an adolescent consumes alcohol, is they may be more susceptible than adults to drinking and driving or engaging in risky sexual behavior – factors that can have negative consequences beyond the adolescent.
Some states seem to be factoring in brain development and the risks of use in adolescence in policies related to other substances such as tobacco and marijuana. For example, just this year, California raised the legal age on tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, from 18 to 21.
The other thing to consider in whether to change the legal drinking age is to look at what’s happened since the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Act. For example, the NTSA estimates that changing the minimum age to 21 has prevented almost 29,000 traffic fatalities since 1975. In addition to saving lives, it is estimated that raising the drinking age also has reduced criminal activity, increased the rate of high school completion, and saved on health care costs. One 2011 study estimated if the age was lowered back to 18, drinking in the past month would increase by 17.4% and fatal night-time crashes for 18-20 year olds would increase by 17% (study by Carpenter & Dobkin, 2011).
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.
There appears to be a strong correlation between alcohol consumption and the onset of poor decision making behavior, regardless of age.
Studies have proven that the early onset of alcohol consumption has a negative effect on the development of the brain and certain cognitive skills for young people.
There also appears a higher rate of physical injury and/or death for consumers, immediately following alcohol consumption. When we factor in the higher rate of risk-taking by younger individuals, these two factors compound one another and increase the risks associated with consumption. When we take into consideration the reduced levels of psychological maturity among young people, their propensity to embrace higher levels of risk, and their lack of experience and exposure to responsibility and accountability, we start to realize the downsides to public safety.
Lastly, when we consider decreasing the age for legal consumption, we need to factor in the aspect of increased accessibility of beverage alcohol to an increasing younger group of minors. Through exposure to siblings, peer group members, and younger legal consumers, the availability of beverage alcohol to underage consumers increases.
Image: stevenfoley / iStock.
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