Should the US Lower the Minimum Drinking Age?

by Sheela Doraiswamy on November 5, 2012

image from freedigitalphotos.net

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.