Upon turning 18, Americans are granted a myriad of legal rights and privileges. Aside from various state exceptions, 18-year olds are able to enlist in the army, participate in the political process, and legally enter into binding contracts.
Perhaps the only significant exception to this principle concerns the minimum drinking age. For over thirty years, young Americans have been barred from going into a bar and purchasing alcohol. As millennials confront a legal system that could allow death in military combat before the ability to consume a single beer, it is worth pondering the efficacy of a 21-year old drinking minimum. To die in combat without having legally tasted a Budweiser on a hot summer day would be even more of a tragedy.
Exposure to alcohol in college is inevitable. Parties and other campus events typically embrace the college drinking culture, and access to alcohol is easy for underclassmen. Although alcohol is readily available and widely used by underage students, fear of breaking the law exacerbates the dangers of drinking. The possibility of being cited or arrested for illegal drinking compels underage drinkers to consume alcohol behind closed doors. Once there, students not only tend to binge drink, but are generally more reluctant to notify authorities in the event of an emergency.
“Pre-games,” or small parties where friends meet up and drink prior to going out, have become pervasive in both college and high school environments. Underage drinkers who know they might not be served alcohol at a bar or fear being arrested for drinking may drink as much as they can at pre-games before going out. Binge drinking has become a common practice for many students. According to a CDC report, about 90% of alcohol consumption by youth under the age of 21 in the United States takes place when binge drinking. This is a shocking statistic given the danger this type of drinking behavior poses to students’ safety.
The NIAA compiled data on the consequences of heavy drinking and found that every year, 700,000 students are assaulted after drinking, 600,000 students are injured, and 1,825 students die as a result of alcohol poisoning and alcohol-related accidents.
To put this in a global perspective, 84 percent of the world’s population has a lower drinking age, or no age limit whatsoever, for legal alcohol consumption.
Historically, America has rarely maintained a consistent outlook for the legal drinking age. Prior to prohibition in 1919, no federal drinking age existed, and only a few states had a legal age limit. After prohibition was repealed in 1933, many states began to enact drinking age limits. The most common age was 21.
After the passage of the 26th amendment in 1971, which allowed 18-year olds to vote, many states lowered their drinking ages to 18 to coincide with the new rights afforded to their citizens. But in the 1980s, states began to raise their drinking ages back to 21.
In 1984, Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act (NMDA), which mandated that the states must raise their drinking ages to 21 or their federal highway funding would be cut by 10 percent. The Act was largely the result of efforts by MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) to end drunk driving, which President Ronald Reagan called “a national menace, a national tragedy, and a national disgrace.”
By 1988, all 50 states had adopted a drinking age of 21. Several states passed laws with provisions that automatically repealed the law if the NMDA was found unconstitutional. But when the Supreme Court upheld the NMDA, states lost a reason to lower the drinking age below 21.
Today, the most prevalent argument for a high drinking age is that it reduces the number of traffic fatalities due to drunk driving. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that 900 lives are saved each year due to the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA). If this statistic were true, a higher drinking age might be justifiable. But the NHTSA’s study is suspect. It uses old data and ignores lurking variables that explain the massive drop in traffic fatalities since the late 1980s, when the law was fully implemented.
A 2007 study by Harvard professor Jeffrey Miron and Yale Law’s Elina Tetelbaum points out that traffic fatalities have been in decline since data was first compiled in the 1920s. During the 1970s, as drinking ages were being lowered across the country, the number of traffic fatalities actually declined among 15-24 year olds nationwide. This national traffic fatality data drew the correlation between a low drinking age and traffic deaths into doubt.
State level data tells a similar story. On the charts below, the red line indicates the year in which each shown state implemented a 21-year drinking age. These charts show that passage of strict drinking age legislation did very little to change wildly fluctuating yearly fatality rates. Once again, stricter age limits on drinking did not make roads any safer for young drivers.
Drinking age laws do not make much of a difference in traffic fatality rates because drunk driving laws are already quite strict. The prospect of a DUI is a strong deterrent for most drinkers, much larger than the deterrent of a poorly enforced drinking age. The young people who ignore drunk driving laws are the same young people who ignore the drinking age. Likewise, those who follow drinking age laws almost certainly would never drink and drive.
Rather than deter underage people from drinking, current laws have often backfired and created unhealthy drinking habits among youths. According to a report by the U.S. Surgeon General and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 80 percent of people consume alcohol before the age of 21.
The dangers associated with alcohol, regardless of age at consumption, can be extremely hazardous and even fatal. Yet, excluding young Americans from legal consumption has not shown any signs of marked improvement and, if anything, has only made matters worse. Perhaps, it is time America sober up to shrewd alcohol legislation.
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