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Should America Lower the Legal Drinking Age?

Updated on August 30, 2017

Should the U.S. drop the legal drinking age from 21 to 18?

In a recent poll, 54% of Americans believe the legal drinking age should remain 21, while 31% agree with a group of college presidents who recently issued a call for the drinking age to be lowered to 18. What do you think? Please tell us what you think at the bottom of this lens.

First the pros for lowering the drinking age.

Written by Ruth Engs, Professor at Indiana University

The legal drinking age should be lowered to about 18 or 19 and young adults allowed to drink in controlled environments such as restaurants, taverns, pubs and official school and university functions. In these situations responsible drinking could be taught through role modeling and educational programs. Mature and sensible drinking behavior would be expected. This opinion is based upon reaserch that I have been involved in for over twenty years concerning college age youth and the history of drinking in the United States and other cultures.

Although the legal purchase age is 21 years of age, a majority of college students under this age consume alcohol but in an irresponsible manner. This is because drinking by these youth is seen as an enticing "forbidden fruit," a "badge of rebellion against authority" and a symbol of "adulthood." As a nation we have tried prohibition legislation twice in the past for controlling irresponsible drinking problems. This was during National Prohibition in the 1920s and state prohibition during the 1850s. These laws were finally repealed because they were unenforceable and because the backlash towards them caused other social problems. Today we are repeating history and making the same mistakes that occurred in the past. Prohibition did not work then and prohibition for young people under the age of 21 is not working now.

The flaunting of the current laws is readily seen among university students. Those under the age of 21 are more likely to be heavy -- sometimes called "binge" -- drinkers (consuming over 5 drinks at least once a week). For example, 22% of all students under 21 compared to 18% over 21 years of age are heavy drinkers. Among drinkers only, 32% of under age compared to 24% of legal age are heavy drinkers.

Research from the early 1980s until the present has shown a continuous decrease in drinking and driving related variables which has parallel the nation's, and also university students, decrease in per capita consumption. However, these declines started in 1980 before the national 1987 law which mandated states to have 21 year old alcohol purchase laws.

The decrease in drinking and driving problems are the result of many factors and not just the rise in purchase age or the decreased per capita consumption. These include: education concerning drunk driving, designated driver programs, increased seat belt and airbag usage, safer automobiles, lower speed limits, free taxi services from drinking establishments, etc.

While there has been a decrease in per capita consumption and motor vehicle crashes, unfortunately, during this same time period there has been an INCREASE in other problems related to heavy and irresponsible drinking among college age youth. Most of these reported behaviors showed little change until AFTER the 21 year old law in 1987. For example from 1982 until 1987 about 46% of students reported "vomiting after drinking." This jumped to over 50% after the law change. Significant increase were also found for other variables: "cutting class after drinking" jumped from 9% to almost 12%; "missing class because of hangover" went from 26% to 28%; "getting lower grade because of drinking" rose from 5% to 7%; and "been in a fight after drinking" increased from 12% to 17%. All of these behaviors are indices of irresponsible drinking. This increase in abusive drinking behavior is due to "underground drinking" outside of adult supervision in student rooms and apartments were same age individuals congregate and because of lack of knowledge of responsible drinking behaviors.

Based upon the fact that our current prohibition laws are not working, the need for alternative approaches from the experience of other, and more ancient cultures, who do not have these problems need to be tried. Groups such as Italians, Greeks, Chinese and Jews, who have few drinking related problems, tend to share some common characteristics. Alcohol is neither seen as a poison or a magic potent, there is little or no social pressure to drink, irresponsible behavior is never tolerated, young people learn at home from their parents and from other adults how to handle alcohol in a responsible manner, there is societal consensus on what constitutes responsible drinking. Because the the 21 year old drinking age law is not working, and is counterproductive, it behooves us as a nation to change our current prohibition law and to teach responsible drinking techniques for those who chose to consume alcoholic beverages.

(c)copyright, Ruth C. Engs, Bloomington, IN 1998

This opinion downloaded from http://www.indiana.edu/~engs/articles/cqoped.html

Now, the case for 21

A recently launched initiative by many university presidents calling for open discussion on lowering the drinking age is a threat to public health and safety, Mothers Against Drunk Driving leaders said Saturday in Dallas.

At its national conference at the Hilton Anatole hotel in Dallas, MADD hosted a panel discussion called "Why 21?" to discuss the movement to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18.

Discussion centered on the Amethyst Initiative, a statement launched in July and signed by 130 university presidents asking elected officials to reconsider the drinking age and seek ways to educate young adults on the uses of alcohol, according to its Web site.

Chuck Hurley, chief executive officer of MADD, said he believes that the initiative is little more than a cry for help by university presidents frustrated by their inability to get a handle on the problem of underage drinking on campuses.

"I think the initiative has become an embarrassment to the presidents who signed it." Mr. Hurley said.

MADD president Laura Dean-Mooney said the list of universities whose presidents have signed on to the initiative is useful for another reason - those are schools she won't allow her daughter to attend.

But Dr. Louis J. Agnese Jr., president of the University of the Incarnate Word and among those who signed the initiative, said the issue partly boils down to fairness. It's not fair that youths who are old enough to die for their country do not have the right to drink alcohol until age 21, he said in a prepared statement.

"An 18-year-old is allowed to vote, get married, enlist in the military and enroll in college because society accepts her or his ability to make decisions as an adult," he said. "We should be consistent and also respect their intellectual capacity to understand the responsibility that comes with drinking, just like we already do with voting, working, getting married, joining the military or attending college."

Ms. Dean-Mooney disagreed.

"This is not about rights and responsibilities," she said. "It's about public health and safety."

Mr. Hurley said that one of MADD's biggest challenges is presenting science to the public, because whatever data it offers is considered biased, Mr. Hurley said. He asked attendees to encourage medical professionals and scientists to present their findings to the public.

Francisco Portilla, MADD volunteer from Puerto Rico has three sons and says it is an uphill battle educating them about alcohol. Mr. Portilla said he and his wife constantly tell their sons not to drink and drive.

"If it were me, I would raise it to 25," he said.

Some Points

  • Since the early 1980s, the number of young people killed annually in crashes involving drunken drivers under 21 has been cut in half, from more than 5,000 in the early 1980s to nearly 2,000 in 2005, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • In a July 2007 Gallup poll, 77 percent of Americans say they would oppose a federal law that would lower the drinking age in all states to 18.
  • Traffic crashes are the No. 1 killer of teens, and 28 percent of fatal traffic crashes involving teen drivers are alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
  • In 2006, about 10.8 million people ages 12 to 20 (28.3 percent) reported drinking alcohol in the past month. About 7.2 million (19 percent) were binge drinkers, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

SOURCE: Mothers Against Drunk Driving

One more reason for keeping it at 21: More scholarship opportunities because your Facebook page doesn't show pictures of you falling down all over the place with a beer in your hands!

Driving Under The Influence--What Is It; What's It Going To Cost You

Drinking ages around the world

The table below records the minimum legal purchase ages both on- and off-premise and by beverage type (beer, wine and sprits). The World Health Organization defines on- and off-premise as follows:

On-premise retail sale refers to the selling of alcoholic beverages for consumption at the site of the sale, generally in pubs, bars, cafes or restaurants.

Off-premise retail sale refers to the selling of alcoholic beverages for consumption elsewhere and not on the site of sale. Off-premise sale takes place, for example, in state monopoly stores, wine shops, supermarkets, and petrol stations or kiosks, depending on the regulations of the country. (World Health Organization, 2004, p. 15)

The first number is for on-premise; the second for off-premise:

Albania

None

None

Algeria

18

18

Argentina

18

18

Australia

18

18

Austria

16/18 (see notes)

16/18 (see notes)

For distilled spirits, the age limit is 16 in three Federal States and 18 in six Federal States (there are nine Federal States in Austria). However, some Federal States differentiate by alcohol content, rather than by beverage type. Thus, drinks with an alcohol content of 12% ABV or more can only be consumed by individuals aged 18 and over, which therefore includes some wines and all mixtures containing spirits (e.g., alcopops, cocktails).

Azerbaijan

18

18

Bahamas

18

18

Belarus

18

18

Belgium

16 beer and wine.

18 for spirits.

None for beer and wine. 18 for spirits.

Belize

18

18

Bolivia

18

18

Botswana

18

18

Brazil

18

18

Brunei

Illegal

Illegal

Bulgaria

18

18

Burundi

16

16

Cambodia

None

None

Cameroon

18

21

Canada

18/19 (see notes)

18/19 (see notes)

18 in Manitoba, Alberta and Quebec. 19 in British Columbia, New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Labrador, Northwest Territories, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Prince Edward Island, Saskatchewan, and Yukon.

Cape Verde

18

18

Central African Republic

18

18

Chile

18

18

China, People's Republic of

18

18

China, Republic of (Taiwan)

18

18

Colombia

18

18

Comoros

None

None

Congo, Republic of

18

18

Costa Rica

18

18

Croatia

18

18

Cyprus

17

17

Czech Republic

18

18

Denmark

18

16

Dominican Republic

18

18

Ecuador

18

18

Egypt

18 for beer.

21 for wine and spirits.

18 for beer.

21 for wine and spirits.

El Salvador

18

18

Equatorial Guinea

None

None

Eritrea

18

18

Estonia

18

18

Ethiopia

18

18

Fiji

21

21

Finland

18

18

France

16, but 18 for spirits.

16, but 18 for spirits.

Gabon

None

None

Gambia

Illegal (18 for 5% non-Muslim population)

Illegal (18 for 5% non-Muslim population)

Georgia

16

16

Germany

16 for beer and wine. 18 spirits.

16 for beer and wine. 18 spirits.

Ghana

None

None

Greece

17

None

Guatemala

18

18

Guinea-Bissau

None

None

Guyana

18

18

Hungary

18

18

Iceland

20

20

India

18 to 25, depending on state.

18 to 25, depending on state.

Indonesia

21

21

Ireland

18

18

Israel

18

18

Italy

16

16

Jamaica

None

16

Japan

20

20

Kazakhstan

None

18

Kenya

18

18

Korea, Republic of (South Korea)

19

19

Kyrgyzstan

None

None

Latvia

18

18

Lesotho

18

18

Libya

Illegal

Illegal

Lithuania

18

18

Luxembourg

16

None

Malawi

18

18

Malta

16

16

Mauritius

18

18

Mexico

18

18

Micronesia

21

21

Morocco

None

16

Mozambique

18

18

Namibia

18

18

Netherlands

16, but 18 for spirits that have an ABV of over 15%.

16, but 18 for spirits that have an ABV of over 15%.

New Zealand

18

18

Nicaragua

19

19

Niger

18

18

Nigeria

18

18

Norway

18, but 20 for spirits defined as 22% ABV.

18, but 20 for spirits defined as 22% ABV.

Pakistan

Illegal (21 for non-Muslim population)

Illegal (21 for non-Muslim population)

Palau

21

21

Panama

18

18

Papua New Guinea

18

18

Paraguay

20

20

Peru

18

18

Philippines

18

18

Portugal

16

16

Russia

18

18

Samoa

18

18

Seychelles

18

18

Singapore

18

18

Slovenia

18

18

Solomon Islands

21

None

South Africa

18

18

Spain

18 (16 in Asturias)

18 (16 in Asturias)

Sri Lanka

18

18

Swaziland

18

Sweden

18

20, but 18 for beer with ABV of 3.5% or less

Switzerland

16/18, depending on the canton, for beer and wine.

18 in all cantons for spirits.

Thailand

18

18

Togo

None

None

Tonga

18

None

Trinidad and Tobago

18

18

Turkey

18

18

Turkmenistan

18

18

Uganda

18

18

Ukraine

18

18

United Kingdom

18 (see notes)

18

Beer and wine can be purchased on premise at 16 years of age if with a table meal and when accompanied by an adult aged 18 years or over.

United States

21

21

Uruguay

18

18

Vanuatu

18

18

Venezuela

18

18

Zambia

18

18

Zimbabwe

18

18

What Do You Think? - Please include your age in your response. I will not approve responses with foul language or those that disrespect the views of other poste

Should America lower the drinking age to 18?

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