Lowering the Legal Drinking Age

The minimum legal drinking age in America is twenty-one years old, and when this law is violated heavy penalties are given to those who have broken it. This was a hard lesson I learned about thirty years ago after drinking at a friend’s party during the summer of 1989. After the party, my friend Peter and I decided to walk home to the dormitory, which was a short twenty minutes.

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On our way through the gate, Peter and I were detained by the gate guard due to the smell of alcohol on my breath. The breathalyzer confirmed my inebriation, surpassing the limit of .08 blood alcohol content. I didn’t think I was intoxicated. I was locked up inside a cold confinement facility in Keesler Air Force Base, Mississippi. As a young military member, I was charged with underaged drinking under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the military version of the justice system. A week after the incident, I was given a letter of reprimand and base restriction order by my commanding officer. The punishment seemed harsh at that time, but I was very fortunate. According to the state of Mississippi website, if I was arrested by a peace officer outside the confines of the base, I would have spent a night in jail, served at least thirty days of community service, ordered to pay a fine up to five hundred dollars and have a misdemeanor on my record (www.dor.ms.gov).

Ever since then, I thought the minimum legal drinking age set by the government was unfair because it targeted young adults and I did not know the origin of the law. Now, as a concerned parent, I am in search to understand why the minimum legal drinking law was passed in the first place. Why other countries allow younger drinking age? The United States should lower the minimum legal drinking age. There are substantial benefits in lowering the drinking age to eighteen.

Today, the minimum legal drinking age in the United States is twenty-one and this is widely accepted norm in our society. Most people do not know that the current drinking age was a recent modification made in 1984. Prior to that, each individual state was able to set its own legal limits ranging from eighteen to twenty-one years of age. However, with increasing drunk driving accidents and fatality rates during the 1970’s, especially among those under twenty-one, this prompted public outcry to raise the legal drinking age. There were numerous campaigns a decade prior to the law being passed in order to raise the legal drinking age due to the so-called “teenage drinking crises” (Males, 1996, p. 200). Fueled by statistics of increased alcohol use and alcohol-related traffic deaths published by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984. Prior to the bill being passed, President Reagan was hesitant on signing the bill, but eventually signed did so making it into a law in June of 1984, due to pressures from hardline supporters driven by advocacy group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (National Youth Rights Association, para. 6). The National Minimum Drinking Age Act required the States to prohibit the sale, possession and consumption of alcohol to anyone under the age of twenty-one (CDC Fact Sheet, n.d., para. 1). Any state that did not enforce this law would eventually lose valuable federal highway funds over time. In some states, this meant losing millions of dollars in funding. For the state leaders, this was a significant amount of money needed to maintain their roads and highways. Understanding the risk of funding loss, it would make sense to comply. By setting the drinking age to twenty-one, the goal was to reduce underage drinking along with drunk driving fatalities among teenagers, and ultimately save lives. So, after three decades, did the law reduce drunk driving and fatality rate?

Peter Asch and David Levy, researchers from Rutgers University studied the drinking age and fatality rates. In their article “The Drinking Age and Traffic Safety”, evidence supported that states that raised legal drinking age had a decline in accident fatality rates. Their findings also suggested that “…Inexperience in drinking creates a driving risk, that is, partially, independent of age” (1997, pgs. 48-49). This means young adults were not experienced in drinking responsibly and when mixed with driving motor vehicles, it proved to be a very dangerous combination. It also suggested that drivers age eighteen to twenty may have less accident and fatality rates if the drinking age was raised to twenty-one. In the years to follow, there would be an eventual rise in accidents and fatality for the twenty-one and over age groups. Since the early 1980’s, even before the minimum legal drinking age of twenty-one was made into law, alcohol-related deaths have been steadily declining (NIAA Fact Sheet, 2010, para. 3-4). One can say that safety features installed in newer vehicles helped save countless lives. For example, the mandatory use of seatbelts while operating or riding a motor vehicle significantly decreased fatalities during automobile accidents (CDC, 2011, p. 3) Automakers continued to improve safety features and the government’s continuous enforcement of safety regulations resulted in lowering accident fatality rates. The reduction of fatality rates was a positive outcome and proved that the minimum legal minimum age law worked to some extent, but it also created the problem of illegal underage drinking.

Lowering the legal drinking age will reduce unsafe, illegal drinking activity because young drinkers do not have to hide from the law. Even with the legal drinking age in place, college students under twenty-one years of age “were drinking more in secret as well as binge drinking” (Archer, 2012, para. 9). In 2008, over a hundred college university presidents from all over the United States signed a statement saying that underage students are still drinking even though the minimum drinking age was set at twenty-one. This collaborative group is known as Amethyst Initiative. Their main focus was to reduce underage drinking and to teach the young students about responsible drinking. They even suggested lowering the drinking age. The group claim that the twenty-one minimum drinking age law was not working, and they urged lawmakers to “not only support discussion about the drinking age, but to create new ways to teach teens about responsible drinking” (Cotten, 2008, para. 16). Even with the strict laws set in place, college students under the legal drinking age will find ways to get drunk. It has been reported that underage drinkers will steal booze from their own house or even buy alcohol illegally.

I realized that it has been decades since I was in my twenties, so wanted to interview someone who was familiar with current college environment to further validate the Amethyst Initiative’s claim. I interviewed Skylar Jauregui, a college senior currently attending Sacramento State University and an avid supporter of lowering the drinking age agenda. During the interview, she stated, “Underage drinking among college students is like a ritual, especially on weekends and drinking age laws are usually not enforced” (personal communication, 19 Oct 2018). Recalling from the house party she last attended, she witnessed excessive drinking during their beer pong games. Her friend Jessica was chugging big Solo cups of beer after losing the game. Jessica drank four cups of beer within three minutes, an incredibly short amount of time to drink 48 ounces of beer. This was binge-drinking! All of their friends cheered while she downed her drinks. Nearly twenty-seven percent of adults eighteen and older have engaged in binge drinking (NIH Fact sheet, 2010, para. 2). I also learned that most parties were held outside of the college campuses, usually in a friend’s house and without adult supervision. She said that one of the hosts, who was underage, has a fake ID so he can buy alcohol. Sometimes the drinks were purchased by an older friend. In some instances, adult relatives bought alcohol for the young drinkers. Needless to say, if young adults were determined to drink alcohol, they will find a way to get their beverage. In college parties, there are unlimited access to beer and hard liquor. I asked about enforcement of the law if underage drinkers were to get caught. She said, “We have parties in private homes and not in public areas, the police will just break up the party and send us home” (personal communication, Oct 19, 2018). So, due to lack of enforcement of the law, this dangerous practice of underage drinking will continue.

Lowering the legal drinking age to eighteen will promote responsible drinking habits among young adults. According to Dr. Ruth C. Engs, a Professor of Applied Health Sciences from Indiana University, “The drinking age in the United States should be lowered to eighteen in a controlled environment such as restaurant or pubs. In these situations, responsible drinking could be taught through role modeling and education programs” (1998, para.1). We can understand that having a responsible parent or other adult figure present at home when drinking can influence a young adult to have a responsible drinking habit. A habit which will carry on later in life. This is especially true when drinking alcohol in Europe. Drinking age in Europe varies from country to country ranging from as young as sixteen to twenty years old. For example, German population in general have an opposite stance on drinking when compared to the American norms. For example, drinking in Germany starts when young adolescents turn sixteen years of age. Drinking is more of a tradition, for social connection and is not considered taboo. The German society openly embrace alcohol as part of their culture. It is even celebrated during their fall festival, widely known as Oktoberfest. This festival happens once a year where hundreds of thousands of their citizens and tourists alike let loose, drink beer (and lots of it) and have a good time. It is also common to see young adolescents drinking beer or wine with their meals with their parents at a restaurant.

I called on my German friend, Simone Backes to provide me with information on their current laws and social attitude towards the norms of drinking. Ms. Backes is an eight-year veteran of the Polizei, the German Police, and grew up in Germany until her mid-twenties. During the interview, I first asked her differences between the United States and Germany towards the legal drinking age. She stated, “In Germany, the law requires a person to be sixteen to drink beer and wine and have to wait until eighteen years old to be able to buy and consume hard liquor” (personal communication, Oct 21, 2018). It was a custom in her household to have beer or wine with their meals. On her sixteenth birthday, her father poured her first glass of wine at an Italian restaurant to celebrate that momentous occasion. She also said that drinking was a lifestyle for her family. It was a way to unwind. She emphasized that drinking alcohol was also done in moderation. Due to her early exposure to alcohol from home, it was instilled in her that drinking should be enjoyed and not abused. In other words, Ms. Backes had learned to drink responsibly despite starting at what the United States law would deem “too young”.

The drinking age is significantly lower in Germany, but drunk driving incidences among young adults are much lower in comparison to the Unites States. In the article “The Worst Countries in the World for Drunk Driving”, it was stated thirty-one percent of road fatalities that occurred in the United States involved alcohol, while only nine percent of fatalities in Germany (McCarthy, 2016, para. 2). Simone Backes backed this statement by adding one factor to consider was the strict policies on teens when getting their driver’s licenses. New drivers must go through long and costly schooling. In addition, they were also limited on their car’s horsepower. Young drivers were only allowed to drive a car with bigger engines when they reach the required time and experience level. To better understand the reason behind this, think of it as teaching a child how to ride a bike for the first time. Their first bike was small and appropriate to their body size. The bike also had training wheels installed to prevent the bike from tilting sideways. When kids first master maneuvering the bicycle, that is when the training wheels were removed. Backes stated she did not own a car until she was in her early twenties as mass transportation was cheaper and very efficient. “Growing up, I didn’t need a car; it was too expensive to own and maintain” (personal communication, Oct 21, 2018). In comparison to the United States, the German adolescents were allowed to drink at an early age but took them longer to get to drive. The young adults in Germany use public transportation while the American teens drive as young as sixteen and do not have a horsepower limitation. Because of this account, Germany’s drunk driving fatality rates among teens were significantly lower when compared to the United States.

Another point as to why lowering the legal drinking age is beneficial is that it will help improve the economy. According to the National Youth Rights organizations website, if the legal drinking age were lowered to eighteen, there would be more people drinking and revenue from taxes in the alcohol industry would increase by an estimated 350 million dollars and would contribute millions in income to restaurants and bars throughout the country (Barajas, 2016). Let’s take a look at this locally and see how this would help Sacramento’s economy. In a population survey conducted in 2017, it was estimated that there were over twenty thousand adults age 18 to 20 living in the city and nearby suburban area (www.suburbanstats.org). I imagine if a third of that population segment were to drink, there will be more revenues from customers frequenting bars, restaurants and entertainment complexes. I spoke to bartender at a local restaurant in West Sacramento. He said, “If they (government) allowed eighteen to twenty-year-old to drink, man, more customers…at least ten to fifteen percent more, which would mean around three thousand dollars more a week. More drinking customers means I get to take home more tips and better business in this area” (Valdez, L. personal communication, Oct 15, 2018). As you can see, many businesses as well as the government will benefit financially if the legal drinking age was lowered to eighteen.

It is true that becoming an adult in America does come with numerous responsibilities and consuming alcohol at eighteen should be one of them. The minimum drinking age set by the government over three decades ago has resulted in the reduction of drunk driving fatalities, however it also spawned dangerous underage and irresponsible drinking trends. Underage drinkers are afraid to admit that they drink since it is against the law and fear the consequences if they get caught. This causes them to drink in places in uncontrolled and unsupervised environment, usually at house parties. When they drink, it is usually in excess which makes it very dangerous. As a concerned parent who has experienced early life lessons of responsible drinking, we must continue to find alternative ways to reduce excessive drinking and drunk driving. Alternative ways would include mandatory alcohol abuse prevention courses in school, extensive driver’s licensing programs similar to Germany which can help in reducing drunk driving incidences. The government needs to trust its young adults to make their own decisions when it comes to alcohol consumption. If young adults are given the right to vote for president, to live on their own, and perform dangerous military duties, then should make sense that they be given the opportunity to drink at that same age. If the United States asks our young people to be responsible citizens, then the United States should trust them to drink responsively as well.

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