Lower Drinking Age?

Would lowering the drinking age to 18 reduce the amount of binge drinking on college campuses? The Amethyst Initiative, started by the former president of Middlebury College, believes it would, as reported in College chiefs urge new debate on drinking age. The Initiative, represents presidents from about 100 colleges and universities, is “calling on lawmakers to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18.” The proposal carries counter-intuitive appeal: reduce problem drinking by reducing legal impediments to acquiring and possessing alcohol. Mothers Against Drunk Driving opposes the proposal because it believes it would lead to more fatal car crashes; “MADD officials are even urging parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.”

I don’t know what impact a lower drinking age would have on binge drinking on campuses. Doing so would remove the forbidden-fruit allure of under-age drinking for those over 18, and that would somewhat change the social dynamic that leads to problem drinking. Since both typically occur when one is 18 alcohol consumption would still be linked to going off to college and experiencing greater freedom from adult supervision. One could argue that the drinking age should be lowered to 16, to enable teenagers to experience legal drinking when most are still living under their parents’ roofs. The causes of binge drinking are complex and drinking age is just one factor.

This topic comes up often in class. Not surprisingly, most students oppose the current laws. Students routinely ignore and subvert them. Anecdotal experience tells me that more than 50% of underaged students possess a phony ID at some point before they turn 21, which puts them at risk for arrest and a criminal record. Laws that criminalize a large number of people for customary behavior encourage disrespect for law: “when beer is outlawed, only outlaws will have beer.”

One cannot ignore MADD’s point about traffic fatalities. I believe (relying on someone I trust who researched this subject extensively a few years ago) there was a direct correlation between raising drinking ages to 21 and reducing alcohol-related fatalities. Opposing MADD is political suicide for state legislators.

This is unfortunate. It takes off the table solutions other than more rigorous law enforcement and stiffer penalties for underage drinkers. These don’t work, as our experience with harsher drug laws shows. It’s a plain fact that college students are going to drink. Solutions that don’t start with this fact–solutions of the “just say no” variety–are doomed to fail.

5 Replies to “Lower Drinking Age?”

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  2. Sean

    I personally think the drinking age should be lowered to 18, however not implemented over night. Having every over 18 and under 21 person suddenly turn legal over night would probably only prove MADD’s concers. Clearly there has to be some transition period because the current law created the current culture, and when the law is changed, the old culture will linger for sometime after. For this reason I’d suggest lowering the age to 20 for a year or two, then two 19 for another year or two, and finally to 18. While I support age 18, at the root of the problem is the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 which indirectly takes away the power of the state to set the drinking age. I believe this act should be repealed, and let the states decide its own age, whether higher or lower than 21.

  3. Cujoespo

    I think lowering the drinking age would ultimately be good, but the results would not show right away. In fact it might even be worse. It’s not just a question of lowering the age, but also changing the culture. Americans are brought up with alcohol as a privilege rather than a responsibility and honestly are not very astute as to the different types of alcohol and how to enjoy them with grace.

    As for MADD, they are correct in thinking that there will be more drunk driving accidents and the like, I think those numbers rose the last time the drinking age was lowered. What they aren’t considering is that the percentage of accidents based on how many people are drinking may stay level, which of course offers no solace to them if the actual total increases…

    I for one don’t think the government has the right to limit how we choose to live our lives, whether we want to drink, smoke or gamble. The government’s job isn’t to protect us from ourselves, but from others. So instead of having a drinking age which only inhibits one’s ability to gain access to alcohol, there should be stiffer penalties for drunk driving and other alcohol related crimes.

  4. JESSE R

    I’ve always been in favor of lowering the drinking age, especially after living in the UK where the drinking age does begin at 16 (historically, however, their culture is steeped in alcohol). This is the first time I’ve heard 16 in America, though I agree that this would push high schools and parents to teach teenagers about alcohol responsibility. High schools could even mandate an Alcohol Education course, much like Driver’s Ed or Sex Ed, but with the emphasis on responsibility more than total abstention.

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