Minimum Legal Drinking Age

When thinking about college, most people envision a life of partying, drinking with friends until the early hours, and being hungover during classes, as this is what is portrayed through media. Is this really the life the young adults in America should be striving for or should the students be envisioning a positive education environment with a previously established, healthy relationship with alcohol? Most adults in America ages 18-20 are already drinking, even though the U.S. legal drinking age is 21.

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With so many already drinking underage, why not lower the minimum legal drinking age to 18? In order to promote safe drinking habits, the minimum legal drinking age in America should be lowered from 21 to 18.

In America when one turns 18, they are considered an adult. This age comes with many choices and responsibilities. The right to vote, smoke, get married, sign contracts, and even join the military. All these choices do not require any parental consent as they are now an adult. This raises an ethical question: if one is viewed as an adult in society’s eyes then why can they not drink at 18? Why deny them this responsibility as an adult? They can vote for what they do or don’t want to see in America’s future, why the ban on alcohol? If they want to smoke, causing harm to their lungs, why can they not drink? Two 18-year old’s can marry without any parental consent or guidance, a choice that is meant to be lifelong, yet they cannot make the decision to drink. They can sign a contract with the government to put their own life on the line for their country and still, they cannot drink. Why is it deemed acceptable that they can change their lives in one single moment, yet they cannot have one tiny alcoholic drink? Supporters of the drinking age to be set at 21 do not see this as an adult right; instead, they argue that other “rights” are granted at the age 21, such as adopting a child or renting a car. However, the age to rent a car is controlled by each state government. Most state governments proclaim that their current legal driving age is an acceptable age to rent a car. Afterwards, the private companies may set their own limitations. Adopting a child is also set by state laws. These private companies have their own rights to create their own restrictions and who they interact with. The aforementioned “rights” are not set by the Federal Government. Therefore, if the legal age in which one is considered an adult in America is indeed 18, why does the government restrict legal drinking until age 21? This is due to The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which declares that states must have a drinking age of 21, or 10 percent of federal funding for roads would be reduced, a deduction that would cost states billions of dollars. This act led all 50 states to make the minimum legal drinking age 21.

Today, 45 out of 50 states have adaptations to this law; six states allow underage drinking in private, non-alcohol-selling premises, 29 states require parental consent for private drinking, and eight states allow underage drinking on alcohol-selling premises with parental consent. The remainder of the states have adaptations for educational, medical, governmental, and religious purposes. However, this still raises the ethical question of why parental consent is needed if they are an adult at age 18. No one needs parental consent to vote, that would take away the freedom of choice. With 45 out of the 50 states having adaptations to the drinking age act, shows just how many Americans do not think the drinking age should be 21. These adaptations would not exist if most of the population believed the drinking age was rightfully set at 21. Instead, society has created ways around the legal drinking age while still achieving the 10 percent of federal funding for roads. The legal drinking age of 21 is not respected, and therefore does not work. In fact, 136 college and university presidents have signed the amethyst initiative pledge stating that the drinking age of 21 is “not working,” citing binge drinking and fake IDs. College students are finding ways to illegally drink. According to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse, underage drinking accounts for 17.5% ($22.5 billion) of consumer spending for alcohol in the United States proving that the minimum legal drinking age of 21 is ineffective. Underage drinking is happening as these young adults go off to join the workforce or attend college. America’s current policies are creating more harm than good. In order to have a safer environment, the time has come to lower the drinking age. Should society not be promoting healthy drinking habits, in safe atmospheres instead of letting these adults experience the dangers of alcohol in an uncontrolled, unsafe setting?

Unfortunately, most underage drinking happens in an unsafe environment where alcohol consumption levels are left unchecked. If the legal drinking age was lowered to 18, the excitement of drinking and breaking the law would be taken away. Lowering the drinking age would decrease the number of unsafe house parties with alcohol where consumption levels are left unchecked and unsupervised. These parties encourage dangerous drinking habits where binge drinking occurs, and drinks are spiked with drugs. If one who is underage becomes ill from alcohol, their peers around them are less likely to seek medical or other assistance. This is because underage drinking is illegal and would risk self-incrimination. Though if the drinking age was 18, it would increase drinking in bars, restaurants, and clubs where alcohol consumption levels will be monitored, creating a safer environment for young adults. Most young adults still live with their parents, and this time of living with two experienced adults would create a perfect time to learn how to have a healthy relationship with alcohol. Teaching 18-year old adults about alcohol before sending them off into the workforce or college without any knowledge of alcohol is a wise decision. These young adults would gain experience, understand their limits with alcohol, recognize healthy drinking habits, and drink in a safe controlled location. This would be a vital life-long lesson to teach before they leave the home, instead of pushing them out the door with no experience and essentially letting them loose, uneducated, into a world of dangerous possibilities. Lowering the minimum legal drinking age to 18 would promote a safer, healthier environment creating less alcohol abuse, and less drunk driving on the roads.

Many countries that have a minimum legal drinking age of 18 have less traffic accidents and deaths due to alcohol. In the United States, 31% of all traffic incidents involve alcohol. That is a huge number and is higher than other countries with a drinking age lower than 21. The United Kingdom is 16%, Germany sits at 9%, and China at only 4%. China, a country with a population four times bigger than the U.S., has a low alcohol-related traffic incidents percentage. The United States should be promoting healthy drinking habits and lowering the statistics of alcohol-related incidents. If the number of incidents could be reduced by lowering the drinking age to 18, why keep the minimum legal drinking age at 21? On the other side, reports show that since the minimum drinking age was moved up to 21, drunk driving fatalities decreased by a third. However, this only shows deaths without any consideration of technology advancements in the last 30 years. Today society has vehicles with more safety features than the past, an improved driver education, better medical technology, and laws to enforce safe driving habits. Raising the drinking age did little or nothing to affect these numbers. Just because the fatalities have decreased by a third does not mean all alcohol-related traffic incidents have decreased by a third. In fact, the 2 years before the minimum legal drinking age was moved to 21, a decline in all drunk driving fatalities occurred across all age groups. This shows that drunk driving fatalities have been on the decrease since 1982 and has nothing to do with the minimum drinking age being set at 21. When compared to other countries’ alcohol-related traffic incidents, the U.S. has a significantly higher number than those without a minimum legal drinking age of 21.

In the past, states have set their own minimum legal drinking age for alcoholic beverages. Due to the drinking age law stating that if a state decides an age other than 21 that state will lose 10% of its federal highway funds, the debate is so bizarrely fixated on traffic incidents. However, this debate should be about the allure of a culture that encourages and promotes freedom and responsibility, not about vehicle accident statistics. State governments should be allowed to create and enforce their own minimum legal drinking age without having repercussions from the Federal Government. Most states were happy with their drinking age being based off each state’s unique demographics, cultures, history, and legal laws, but this act made many states bow to federal government pressure rather than to lose millions of dollars in highway funds. For example, most states are currently satisfied with their own set legal driving age, due to each state’s unique circumstances. To have the federal government come in and say to set a minimum legal driving age at 20 or lose millions in school funding would cause most, if not all, states to change the driving age. For states with a culture of farming, it is more reasonable to have a driving age of 14 and for states with bigger populated cities, a driving age of 18 is more practical. The federal government is overreaching their authority with the minimum legal drinking age, and the states must accommodate them to receive their federal funding. This produces a negative outlook on the enforcement of this law.

For many law enforcement agents, enforcing the minimum legal drinking age of 21 is simply not a priority. Many state law enforcement institutions lack the resources, time, effort, and money to enforce the drinking age. There are current perceptions that the punishments are inadequate, and the underage drinker will continue to drink regardless of the consequences. This shows a lack of respect for law enforcement agents and as a result, many do not actively seek out underage drinking. Underage drinkers will find ways to obtain alcohol; if there is a will there is a way. One commonly known method is to acquire and use false identification such as a fake driver’s license. This is how disrespect with the law of the United States grows; it starts off small with underage drinking but can lead to non-compliance with other more significant laws. Lowering the minimum legal drinking age would take away this thrill of breaking the law from these young adults and slow the progression of criminal activity.

Extreme proponents of lowering the minimum legal drinking age believe that there should not be a legal drinking age. Currently, 19 countries practice no minimum legal drinking age. Children grow up with alcohol present in their lives, develop healthy drinking patterns, and respect alcohol instead of abusing it. Countries who practice this have extremely low statistics comparatively on alcohol-related incidents such as violence, drug abuse, and traffic violations. This is viewed as extreme in America’s eyes due to the vast difference between the two types of cultures. The U.S. would not be able to make such a drastic cultural switch in a short time period, which is why the practice of having no minimum legal drinking age is currently an unattainable option. Perhaps this is why many opt for a less dramatic cultural change. Besides the 19 countries who practice no minimum legal drinking age, 138 countries practice a minimum legal drinking age of 19 or younger. Most of these include European countries, where drinking at home with the parents is practiced. Then upon age 16, the children may purchase beer and at age 18 they can purchase wine and spirits. Many who believe the United States’ minimum legal drinking age should be lowered from 21 to age 18 look at these countries to argue that, “if it works for them, why not for us.”

However, many supporters of the current minimum legal drinking age do not believe this is a valid argument. This is due to underage drinking is medically irresponsible when the brain is not yet fully developed. Scientists have medically proven that alcohol does affect an adolescent brain’s memory. Drinking before the brain is fully developed can cause forgetfulness and a lack of ability to retain information. Alcohol does affect a fully matured brain as well but in a different way. Rather than long-term effects, alcohol consumption creates a temporary deficient in motor abilities and can cause sedation. Due to society’s current culture, most deny or ignore the effect alcohol has on a developing brain. A human’s brain is not fully matured until age 25 according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Thus, to support the minimum legal drinking age of 21 based on the effects of alcohol on an immature brain is idiotic. This thinking completely ignores the last 4 years of brain development. If one truly believes one should not be drinking alcohol until the brain is fully matured, then they should be arguing that the drinking age should be set at age 25 or above. However, most supporters of the drinking age of 21 see 25 as too high of a number. The only question left to ask then is: is there really a difference between the ages 18 and 21, or is 18 indeed an acceptable age to drink?

What should the minimum legal drinking age be in America? The culture cannot accept a drastic change to no drinking age, and most would argue that age 25 is too old. If the federal government set the minimum legal drinking age to 18, states that would like to enforce a higher drinking age would be free to do so and those states who wish to see the drinking age remain at 18 would be satisfied. If 18 is the age where kids become adults in their country’s eyes, they should be able to have the choice whether to drink or not. This age would help promote a healthier relationship with alcohol, take away the taboo of drinking, respect towards law enforcement, and lower alcohol-related statistics. The minimum legal drinking age in the U.S. should be lowered to age 18.

Works Cited

  1. Carpenter, Christopher, and Carlos Dobkin. “The Minimum Legal Drinking Age and Public Health.” The Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 25, no. 2, 2011, pp. 133–156. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23049457.
  2. Hiller-Sturmh?¶fel, Susanne, and Swartzwelder, Scott. Alcohol’s Effects on the Adolescent Brain??”What Can Be Learned From Animal Models. pubs.niaaa.nih.gov/publications
  3. Moss, Howard B. “Special Section: Alcohol and Adolescent Brain Development.” Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, vol. 32, no. 3, 2008, pp. 427–429., doi:10.1111/j.1530-0277.2007.00606.x.
  4. ProCon.org. “Minimum Legal Drinking Age ProCon.org.” ProCon.org. 9 Oct. 2018, drinkingage.procon.org/
  5. Wavrin, Anna, and Hall-Blanco, Abigail. “Lower the legal drinking age” Newsday.com. 03 Jan 2017, www.newsday.com/
  6. Wechsler, Henry, and Toben F. Nelson. “Will Increasing Alcohol Availability By Lowering the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Decrease Drinking and Related Consequences Among Youths?” American Journal of Public Health, vol. 100, no. 6, June 2010, pp. 986–992. EBSCOhost, doi:10.2105/AJPH.2009.178004.
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