Should the US Lower the Minimum Drinking Age?

by Sheela Doraiswamy on November 5, 2012

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As discussed in last week’s blog post, binge drinking is a big problem on college campuses, which can lead to problems such as unintentionally injury and motor vehicle accidents, among numerous other things. There are certainly a lot of dimensions to this issue, but one of them that I hear many students bring up is that of the minimum drinking age. A certain college student I know likes to give the argument, “The government trusts us enough to vote and to join the army at age 18, but not to handle alcohol.”

In 2008, there was even a petition called The Amethyst Initiative, which was signed by 100 or so college presidents, asking congress to rethink the minimum drinking age and lower it from 21 to 18. Let’s look at some of the arguments for and against lowering the drinking age.

Arguments for Lowering the Drinking Age

Those in favor of lowering the drinking age basically argue that the current minimum drinking age of 21 doesn’t serve much benefit as it is. For example, in an editor’s note published in a 2007 issue of the Journal of American College Health, author Dr. Reginald Fennel argues that the current drinking age is essentially like prohibition all over again– meaning that, even though alcohol is outlawed for people under 21, that certainly doesn’t stop them from drinking. Proponents of the Amethyst Initiative also make the argument that by making alcohol illegal for this subgroup, we’re encouraging underage students to drink in “underground” situations (such as private parties)  so that they don’t get caught, but where they lack much supervision and safety. If 18-20 year olds could legally buy alcohol, they argue, these students would be able to drink in more supervised and controlled places such as bars.

They also claim that with the mindset that they’re not supposed to drink, underage students may actually be more likely to binge when given alcohol (in other words, they may think along the lines that “this is my only chance to do this, I may as well enjoy it” and drink more than would have without restriction). In fact, underage students are more likely to binge drink than their peers who are of age.

Finally, they argue that if the minimum drinking age is lowered to 18, so that most college students would be legally allowed to drink, it would allow colleges to have more open discussion about the issue, and they could feel free to provide more information about safe drinking, rather than focusing their efforts on trying to restrict it.

Arguments Against Lowering the Drinking Age

Unsurprisingly, there’s been a large amount of backlash to this idea. Advocates of the current drinking age of 21 argue that there’s plenty of evidence that the law works as it is, and decreasing the age will only lead to more problems.

In one sense, they are right. According to a review of literature published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, author Ralph Hingson cites several studies on the issue done in the 70s and 80s. In 1971, some states did try and lower the drinking age to 18, and in the years following had an increase in fatalities from alcohol-related motor vehicle accidents. These numbers declined after 1988, by which time all 50 states had raised the minimum age back to 21.

Another article by Robert Voas and James C. Fell also argues that lowering the drinking age to 18 will have too many unintended consequences. Aside from increasing motor vehicle accidents again, they claim that this will make it easier for even younger adolescents (high school students) to obtain alcohol from their 18 year old peers. They also discuss the fact that there hasn’t been as much research on binge drinking among 18-25 year olds who don’t attend college, and we don’t know how lowering the drinking age may effect this group.

So Who’s Right?

While both sides make some valid arguments, it seems like there’s a bit more evidence to support keeping the drinking age at 21. However, as Fennel also argues, most of this evidence relates that drinking age to motor vehicle accidents, and doesn’t acknowledge that the current minimum drinking age has done nothing to curb the binge drinking rates on college campuses, and that other factors such as increased motor vehicle safety could also influence the decrease in motor vehicle fatalities related to alcohol.  In response to the idea that lowering the drinking age will only increase binge drinking, proponents of the Amethyst Initiative have also discussed the idea of creating a “drinking license” for 18-20 year olds, who would have to take a course on safe alcohol consumption and pass a test before they can legally buy alcohol. Whether or not this would work should be a subject of further research. For now, it’s probably safe to say that public health experts should look to other interventions in the quest to decrease binge drinking on college campuses.




Andrew Maynard November 6, 2012 at 8:48 am

This is a tough issue Sheela! Growing up in the UK, I’m used to the drinking age being 18, and with that cultural background I have a hard time with the US age limit of 21 – especially as I see my kids not being allowed to have the same life-experiences as myself. At the same time, I understand the arguments – I’m not convinced that there is that much more maturity amongst drinking teens in the UK, and the car culture within the US does raise serious DUI issues. That said, surely there is a more responsible way of enabling teens to transition into socially and culturally accepted drinking habits without being unduly paternalistic – as well as having multiple standards of what constitutes adulthood.

Sheela Doraiswamy November 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm

I’m glad you brought up the age limit in the UK, as I’ve heard a lot of college students (and even some parents) make the argument that “other countries have lower drinking ages, so why should The US’ be so high?” It would be interesting to look at the cultural differences that might account for the lower age, especially any cultural norms related to drinking habits. I’ve often heard people make the argument that in European countries, it’s a lot more common for people to have a glass of wine with dinner, to drink around their kids, etc (I have no idea if this is actually true, just something that I’ve heard), so teens there don’t really see alcohol as a big deal the way they do in the US. I’d be curious to see if there’s any research on whether such things really have that big an influence on teen and college students’ drinking behavior.

Carol Shannon November 6, 2012 at 11:35 am

I well remember these discussions in the popular press around the time that Michigan first lowered, then raised, the drinking age. It’s interesting that, despite research, we don’t seem to be much further ahead in our understanding of the problem. I agree with Andrew that America’s driving culture adds another dimension to the issue: in many countries, you’re walking or taking a train or bus, not hopping in a car to get home.

I’d like to encourage you to take a closer look at some repetitions of words in your post. You use a lot of “argues” and “claims”, and reasonably so. But you might consider, in your final read-through of any piece, checking for too many uses of the same word. If you find them, search your dictionary or thesaurus for options. There are some wonderful synonyms that you could conisder: from the more aggressive “dispute”, “contend”, and “assert”, to the calmer “maintain”, “reason”, and “discuss”.

Angela November 6, 2012 at 12:44 pm

Thank you for raising this issue, Sheela! Alcohol regulation is an interesting and difficult issue all over the world. What rarely seems to be addressed in the debates is the social pressure/requirement to drink alcohol. By this I don’t mean peer pressure among teens, but pressure by the wider society. If you don’t drink a glass of wine at dinner parties or a pint with your colleagues, people treat you with suspicion as much as when you drink too much. In Germany, where I grew up, you are initiated into ‘social drinking’ (legally!) from the age of fourteen (with beer) and you can buy beer and wine from the age of 16 (for spirits, it’s 18). I guess the idea is that are basically taught how to drink socially, not anti-socially. There is status attached to ‘drinking the right way’. As I don’t drink, I’m regarded as anti-social/not part of culture by default.
As long as alcohol has a cultural function, people will perform in interaction with it (acceptance, refusal, experimentation etc). The limit of the drinking age is part of that culture, though not all of it, so, to me, it appears more like an anxiety about cultural definition than about road deaths. The question ‘why do young people want to drink so badly?’ appears to be swept under the carpet. A colleague of mine, James Kneale, is actually doing quite a bit of research on this in view of UK drinking culture.

Sheela Doraiswamy November 8, 2012 at 3:14 pm

Thanks for your comment, Angela. I think you raise a lot of really interesting points about the issue, especially the culture of social drinking. I think in college especially, it’s seen as a social norm to go to parties and get as drunk as possible, where as outside of college, it’s acceptable to be more responsible about it (even though I agree with you that people who don’t drink socially are still looked at with a little suspicion). As I pointed out in the article, one of the main reasons colleges want the age limit lowered is that they want to try and promote more responsible drinking, and try and change the idea that binging is ok.
And thanks for the link you provided. It would be interesting to see the sort of drinking related problems among students in other countries, I think, since many college students I know like to argue that, “other countries have a drinking age of 18, but they’re all fine!”

Don Bross November 8, 2012 at 12:34 am

Hi, I have been following your blog for quite a while and seen allot of good post. But this one really does take the cake, how long did it take you to write this?

kenneth February 5, 2013 at 1:37 pm


aed939 November 8, 2012 at 10:50 am

I would be in favor of supervised, controlled drinking for 18-20 year olds. Specifically, I would permit one drink a day under the following circumstances: 1) when accompanied by a parent or legal guardian, or 2) at a restaurant, dine-in only, with purchase of a meal (beer or wine only). The drink must be ordered before or during the meal order, and the drink must be served before the main course or entree is served. I would also have a 3-tiered blood alcohol limit for driving; for example: 0.05 for age 21+, 0.02 for age 18-20, and 0.01 for 17 and under. I would continue to ban 20 and under from purchasing alcohol to take out, or at the liquor or grocery store.

Dan November 8, 2012 at 11:53 am

Here are the countries around the world where the drinking age is 21 (everywhere else is lower, or has no legal age requirement):
Sri Lanka
United States

Perhaps there is something to be learned from other nations that have a lower limit but somehow manage to deal with it.

Sheela Doraiswamy November 8, 2012 at 3:39 pm

Hi Dan. Thanks for providing the list. I think it would definitely be very interesting to look into drinking-related problems in those countries. Many of those strike me as places that are very culturally different from The US, though, so I would wonder if social drinking is as popular in those places as it is here, especially among students.

Josh November 8, 2012 at 2:32 pm

I would pick 19 as a target age, not 18. If it were 18 a substantial portion of high school seniors would be able to buy alcohol and they would distribute it to other high school kids at unsupervised parties (as currently happens at colleges where some students are of age and some aren’t).

Alternately it could be 21 or upon graduation from high school. That would prevent high school kids from having access and provide an incentive to graduate – graduation rates would skyrocket.

John November 8, 2012 at 2:55 pm

The drinking laws definitely should be returned to 18 years of age. The biggest problems by far, dwarfing motor vehicle fatalities, are on the college campuses. Under the current law, college officials have no choice but to pretend that no drinking is occurring at their school. As a result, enormous amounts of alcohol are consumed in a completely unsupervised manner. By reducing the age back to 18, we could once again have some responsible supervision.

John R April 15, 2013 at 11:42 am

I am not sure I agree with John on the point of returnign the age to 18. How would uyou increase responsible surevision if you allor MORE people access to aclohol. They will still drink behind closed doors. They will stil pass it off to those that are not of age. All you are doing is lower the bar and how acceptable alcohol is. I for one do not want to be at a club or bar and have to deal with more people that are not mentally or scoially ready to handle alcohol, themselves or the combination of. Granted there will always be stupid people; but adding more stupidity will increase problems. If you’re going to lower the drinking age, you have to do it slowly and over time. The flood gate will come crashing down if you just decide to lower it all at once.

BK November 8, 2012 at 3:25 pm

All you have to do is watch tv and I think you will see young people are much more immature than they used to be.
in addition they don’t want to grow up move out of thier parents house.
So my opinion is they should not only keep the drinking age where it is but they should raise the voting age.

CLWTex November 9, 2012 at 6:46 pm

I vote 19, other than trying to control alcohol in high school age, I see little benefit to moving it to 21. Already children may drink with their parents. I see no improvement of driving from 18 – 21 and the horrible habits of “Pre-gaming” for going out (ie get drunk before you go) is much more dangerous than allowing someone to make up their mind and have a drink during an evening. I grew up with drinking at 18. I would never have thought of a need to binge drink then get in a car and go out. I could choose how much and when to drink while I was out. I now have a mature 19 year old daughter, rights of an adult, straight A at a major university and unable to have a drink until she is a senior in college is ridiculous. I find her greatly more mature and responsible than most others I know in far into their 20’s. For her not to have the ability to go out and have a drink if she desired offends me.

Garza January 29, 2013 at 11:56 am

I thipnk the age to buy alchohol should stay 21 but you age to drink it chould be 16-17 depending on what your parent say, if they allow you to drink or not.

kenneth February 5, 2013 at 1:35 pm


Joselyn February 5, 2013 at 4:00 pm

I agree with you Kenneth

Joselyn February 5, 2013 at 3:57 pm

I don’t think lowering the drinking age is such a good idea. 16 year olds can get the 18 year olds to buy the alcohol for them. There will be more car wrecks and more youngsters in jail. It would be really stupid from the government to lower the drinking age to 18.

Alex March 16, 2013 at 11:25 pm

Ok, so the government (or i guess it varies by state in the US) can make a law stating that you cannot have ANY alcohol in your blood while driving until you’re 21 years of age? Here in Ontario (Canada) our drinking age is 19, but you have to be 21 to drive with alcohol in your blood.

Marcus February 7, 2013 at 12:26 pm

if the age was lowed in the year 2013 i bet by 2020 the deaths by drinking will go up at least 15%.

clay February 7, 2013 at 1:40 pm

if you people really think about this you would understand that most underage people get drunk to make there parents mad or to get attention therefore if the drinking age was lower then they wouldnt have to break the law to do it and they would get tired of drinking and they would give it up

Amanda February 25, 2013 at 7:29 am

Drinking for younger ages is not about disobeying your parents or peer pressure. I wasnt the best child, but Ive matured and have grown up, my friends and I didnt drink because our parents told us not to, we did it because we were young and immature. Some parents say their child(ren) are more mature than others their age and should be allowed; thats the point your child may be mature, but most are not, dont give them the opportunity to go do it. They arent educated enough at all. Its like education about drugs, not to long ago it was just say no, then they changed it to educating these kids about them. The same has to be done with alcohol, but lowering the age is not what should happen. The argument that the young adults would drink in supervised and controlled places like bars is just rediculous, Im sure there are bars like that, but maybe few and far between.

Alex March 16, 2013 at 11:28 pm

I think that they should make the age for alcohol in restaurants 18, and 19 to buy alcohol from a store. I know many people that have started drugs, only because they couldn’t get alcohol. It’s funny how it’s becoming easier to buy drugs, but harder to get alcohol, there are much worse things out in the world than alcohol.

Anonymous March 27, 2013 at 9:15 am

i drink all day :3

savannah May 3, 2013 at 8:35 am

hi i just read your blog searching for statements in one of my final papers for college. i completely agree with you, not only because i am eighteen but because of my background. i grew up in the US but i do have the Portuguese and Italian heritage. i was brought up to i can have wine at dinner, and i can drink at special occasions. i have always been very responsible with my alcohol, except one occasion which was my graduation party, my parents allowed me to get buzzed and then they took the alcohol away. i honestly think that if parents teach their children rather than brushing it off the rug then lowering the drinking age will not cause so many accidents. i really enjoyed reading this and that other people share the same ideas as myself.

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