Should the Drinking Age be Lowered?

January 27, 2014

An “Ideally” Arbitrary Number

Justin Anderson

Being a 20-year-old student unable to accompany his peers to bars, I personally have little influence in arguing to lower the drinking age from 21 in the United States. There are many known arguments that I could cite in defense of my stance: any person old enough to lay their life on the line to fight for our country should be old enough to order a cold one; the rest of the world has a lower drinking age than the U.S.; and the use of cigarettes is proven to have more long-term health problems than drinking, and yet cigarettes can be legally purchased three years earlier than an alcoholic drink. This is all common knowledge. So, despite my burdensome identity in regards to this argument, I suggest that the drinking age in the U.S. be lowered to 18. Currently, the drinking is age is set at 21, an age deemed ideal by the U.S. Government. While it is set to protect one’s development, placing a qualitative trait (maturity), to a quantitative measure (age), is fundamentally flawed. Everyone matures differently, be it physically, mentally, or emotionally, and at considerably different rates. Although adulthood is legally considered to be 18 in the U.S., many individuals who have reached this age do not take on the responsibilities associated with being an adult, such as paying electrical bills or financing health insurance. This can be the result of many factors, including parenting, socio-economic status, pursuing higher education. However, the disparity between individuals’ maturity and age exists regardless, and this is unlikely to change in the near future. To claim 21 years as the age of maturity for the masses, by any definition, is a shapeless argument, for it is a number largely unrelated to the innumerable experiences necessary to become mature. To tell the masses they must not drink until the age of 21 carries little weight. Abstaining from alcohol until one is of “legal age” is largely an act of moral solidarity, rather than simple law-abiding. It is a common fact that many underage individuals take part in the consumption of alcohol, despite knowing and acknowledging that it is illegal. People tend to follow social norms and moral compasses, neither of which is directly set by politics. Legally, people over 18 years are adults and, as a result, should take responsibility for their health and actions. Regardless of whether or not alcohol is legally available to them, individuals under the age of 21 will find a way into the Crystal Palace if they wish, whether through the front door with a fake I.D. or the back window with the help of an older friend. Some of these means may actually be more unlawful, such as a charge of identity fraud, which may result from the use of a fake I.D.

Essentially, the legal accessibility of alcohol has nominal effects on an underage individual’s decision to consume alcohol. While some may argue that setting the drinking age at 21 helps to create a barrier and thus decrease some of the negative effects—such as drunk driving—the legal availability does not eliminate these incidents. The Prohibition Act in the 1920s is the perfect example. When something is outlawed or inaccessible, it becomes more desirable and more likely to be abused. Having alcohol available to adults—those over 18 years— would render it less special and less susceptible to be abused by rebellious young adults. If alcohol was available like other substances at 18, such as cigarettes, more young adults would be able to go to bars, where they would be less likely to get dangerously drunk, as they are in public and under the surveillance of sober bartenders.

Drinking alcohol is an adult activity that should be treated as such. When one becomes an adult, they should systematically receive the privileges that come with it. By enabling 18 year- olds to legally order a drink, novice adults are given a choice to follow the law and are given the responsibility not to abuse it.

Justin Anderson is currently a junior studying Informatics. An advocate for “Staying in the Blue,” Justin is a Resident Adviser at Alice Lloyd Hall and Vice President of Kappa Theta Pi, a professional technology fraternity. He votes, pays for taxes, and abides the law, but cannot order a beer.


21 Minimum: Saving Lives

Marie Hansen

After Prohibition, nearly all states restricting youth access to alcohol designated 21 as the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA). Between 1970 and 1975, however, 29 states lowered the MLDA to 18, 19 or 20. These changes occurred when the minimum age for other activities, such as voting, were also being lowered (Wechsler & Sands, 1980). Michigan was one of these states. In Michigan the drinking age was originally established by statute and in 1972 it was officially lowered to the age of 18 by the Age of Majority Act.

After these changes, scientists began studying the effects of the lowered MLDA, focusing particularly on the incidence of motor vehicle crashes, the leading cause of death among teenagers. Several studies in the 1970s found that motor vehicle crashes increased significantly among teens when the MLDA was lowered (Cucchiaro et al, 1974; Douglas et al, 1974; Wagenaar, 1983, 1993; Whitehead, 1977; Whitehead et al, 1975; Williams et al, 1974).

According to Michigan Office of Highway Safety traffic crash data , in 1972, when the drinking age was lowered to 18 in Michigan, the number of 18-20 year old drinking drivers that were involved in crashes more than doubled. By the last year of the 18-year-old law, they had more than tripled. In 1979 – the first year the drinking age went back up to 21 in Michigan – alcohol related crashes with drivers in this age group fell by about a third. Unfortunately, the number of drinking drivers aged 18-20 in crashes did not return to the levels seen prior to 1972 until 1990.

With evidence that a lower drinking age resulted in more traffic injuries and fatalities among youth, citizen advocacy groups pressured states to restore the MLDA to 21. As a result of such advocacy campaigns, 16 states increased their MLDAs between September 1976 and January 1983. Resistance from other states, and the concern that minors would travel across state lines to purchase and consume alcohol, prompted the federal government in 1984 to enact the Uniform Drinking Age Act [23 U.S.C. § 158]. This law mandated a 10% reduction in federal transportation funds to those states that did not raise the MLDA to 21.

Michigan was one of the 16 states that raised its drinking age to 21 between 1976 and 1983. In 1978, the Legislature passed measures raising the drinking age to 19. However, citing the alarming number of alcohol-related traffic accidents and fatalities, and concerns about the greater amount of alcohol available to high school students, the question was submitted to the voters. Therefore, at the November general election in 1978, Michigan voters approved a constitutional amendment setting the drinking age at 21. A 1980 ballot measure, proposing to lower the age to 19, was soundly defeated. [1]

Among alcohol control policies, the MLDA has been the most studied. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) looked at 49 peer-reviewed studies of places that changed their drinking age and found conclusively that a 21 minimum drinking age decreases fatalities by 16 percent. It also helps those slightly above the drinking age.

In addition to the previously mentioned research documenting the relationship between the MLDA and alcohol related traffic crashes, there is a whole body of research showing that the brain continues to develop well into young adulthood. Many scientists are concerned that drinking during this critical developmental period may lead to lifelong impairments in brain function, particularly as it relates to memory, motor skills, and coordination (Hiller-Sturmhofel, et al, 20042005).

It appears that the MLDA “had a spillover effect on the drinking behavior of 21 to 25 year-olds. One study found that college students who had been high school seniors in States when the MLDA was 18 drank more while in college than their counterparts who had been high school seniors in States with an MLDA of 21. High school graduates of the same age who were not attending college also drank more on average if they had been seniors in States with an MLDA of 18” (O’Malley, et al, 1991.)

Thus, establishing a minimum 21 year old drinking age is recognized as one of the most effective strategies for reducing harm by many agencies, including U.S. Center for Disease Control, the American Medical Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving. It is a strategy that saves lives.

[1] Michigan Legislature, Moving On – Rights and Responsibilities of Young Adults, 2006.

Marie Hansen is the Business Manager for Michigan Alcohol Policy Promoting Health & Safety. She has worked in alcohol prevention and education for thirty years including managing the alcohol education program at Michigan State for fteen years and coordinating Prevention Network’s outreach to Michigan colleges and universities from 2000 to 2008. She has her Master’s degree from Colorado State University and is a Certi ed Prevention Consultant.