Guest comment: Lower the drinking ages

• The writer is director of the Insurance Studies project at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. The issues she manages include property insurance, adult beverages, gambling industry regulation, and adult entertainment regulation. This commentary first appeared in National Review Online.

By Michelle Minton

Alaska state Representative Bob Lynn (R-Anchorage) is asking the long overdue question: Why do we consider 18-year-olds old enough to join the military, to fight and die for our country, but not to have a drink with their friends before they ship out or while they’re home on leave? Lynn has introduced a bill that would allow anyone 18 years and older with a military ID to drink alcohol in Alaska.

The bill already is facing strong opposition from self-styled public-health advocates. However, the data indicate that the 21-minimum drinking age has not only done zero good, it may actually have done harm. In addition, an individual legally enjoys nearly all other rights of adulthood upon turning 18 -- including the rights to vote, get married, and sign contracts. It is time to reduce the drinking age for all Americans.

In the early 1970s, with the passage of the 26th Amendment (which lowered the voting age to 18), 29 states lowered their minimum legal drinking age to 18, 19, or 20 years old. Other states already allowed those as young as 18 to buy alcohol, such as Louisiana, New York, and Colorado. However, after some reports showed an increase in teenage traffic fatalities, some advocacy groups pushed for a higher drinking age. They eventually gained passage of the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which lets Congress withhold 10% of a state’s federal highway funds if it sets its minimum legal drinking age below 21. (Alaska reportedly would lose up to $50 million a year if Lynn’s bill passes.)

By 1988, all states had raised their drinking age to 21. In the years since, the idea of lowering the drinking age has periodically returned to the public debate, but groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) have been able to fight back attempts to change the law. (Louisiana briefly lowered its age limit in back to 18 in 1996, after the state Supreme Court ruled that the 21 limit was a form of age discrimination, but the court reversed that decision a few months later.)

It’s true that America has a problem with drinking: The rates of alcoholism and teenage problem drinking are far greater here than in Europe. Yet in most European countries, the drinking age is far lower than 21. Some, such as Italy, have no drinking age at all. The likely reason for the disparity is the way in which American teens are introduced to alcohol versus their European counterparts. While French or Italian children learn to think of alcohol as part of a meal, American teens learn to drink in the unmonitored environment of a basement or the backwoods with their friends. A 2009 study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, National Institute of Health, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services concluded that 72% of graduating high school seniors already had consumed alcohol.

The problem is even worse on college campuses, where there is an unspoken understanding between students, administrators, local law enforcement, and parents that renders drinking-age restrictions effectively moot as students drink alcohol at frat or house parties and in their dorm rooms. The result is dangerous, secret binge drinking. This unspoken agreement and the problems it creates led a group of college chancellors and presidents from around the nation to form the Amethyst Initiative, which proposes a reconsideration of the current drinking age.

Middlebury College President Emeritus John M. McCardell, who also is a charter member of Presidents Against Drunk Driving, came out in favor of lowering the drinking age to 18 years old in a 2004 New York Times opinion article. “Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground," he wrote. “Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open."

The most powerful argument, at least emotionally, for leaving the drinking age at 21 is that the higher age limit has prevented alcohol-related traffic fatalities. Such fatalities indeed decreased about 33% from 1988 to 1998 -- but the trend is not restricted to the United States. In Germany, for example, where the drinking age is 16, alcohol-related fatalities decreased by 57% between 1975 and 1990. The most likely cause for the decrease in traffic fatalities is a combination of law enforcement, education, and advances in automobile-safety technologies such as airbags and roll cages.

In addition, statistics indicate that these fatalities may not even have been prevented but rather displaced by three years, and that fatalities might even have increased over the long run because of the reduced drinking age. In an award-winning study in 2010, University of Notre Dame undergraduate Dan Dirscherl found that banning the purchase of alcohol between the ages of 18 and 21 actually increased traffic fatalities of those between the ages of 18 and 24 by 3%.

Dirscherl’s findings lend credence to the "experienced drinker" hypothesis, which holds that when people begin driving at 16 and gain confidence for five years before they are legally able to drink, they are more likely to overestimate their driving ability and have less understanding of how alcohol consumption affects their ability to drive.

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Ann said...

That sounds good to me. I also think the legal drinking age for all should be lowered to 19. That way it will keep those of drinking age out of high school more so than 18 would and would also allow college students to drink legally, even if not right away.

George de Piro said...

I agree that the 21 drinking age is absurd, illogical and counter-productive. A good site to check out is here.

Of course, there is one fairly major issue with reducing the drinking age here in the US: Our alcohol culture is very unenlightened compared to those in Italy, France and Germany. Simply reducing the drinking age won’t solve this; we need a nationwide change of attitude.

We would probably also have to raise the driving age. A German friend once observed, "You do it backwards here. At home, the drinking age is 16 and you learn to drive at 18. This way, you learn how stupid it is to drink and drive while you are still on a bike."

There is an undeniable logic to his quip. It also begs a question: Why, as a society, are we so eager to give 16-year-olds the privilege of propelling a ton and a half of metal 65 mph, but unwilling to let a 20 year-old have a beer with his dinner? If our view of alcohol consumption matched our tolerance for automobile accidents, we’d have no drinking age at all!

Full disclosure: I am a professional brewer, but don’t need to expand into the youth market to increase my revenue.

Ann said...

That is an interesting comparison to Europe. Many countries in Europe do not have a drinking age or do not enforce it.

The point about driving seems to make sense, however Europe has more deaths by car accidents per capita than we do.

Also, the reason why our driving age is "low" is due to when we were a farming culture and needed extra hands to drive the equipment. Although the laws did change so that you can drive farm equipment at a younger age than 16.

I think it’s important to still be at home when learning to drive as it is a skill that needs to be taught and not every state requires driver ed prior to getting a license (which I think promotes retardation on the road ;) )

Professional brewer! What a cool job!

George de Piro said...

#3 Ann: In Germany, everyone must learn to drive at an accredited school, so being at home is not an issue. It costs serious money to take the classes, too, not like the lame mandatory NY class.

Learning to drive from family rather than pros just perpetuates the bad driving habits that we see every day here. We would do well to emulate the Germans in this regard.