Drugs

So Why, Exactly, Is the Drinking Age in the US Stuck at 21 Years?

The arguments for keeping such an absurdly high drinking age have almost no basis. It's time to reconsider why 21 is the USA's drinking age.

 You can drive a car at 16, you can vote at 18. But  almost 80 years after repealing alcohol prohibition in the United States, there's still a minimum legal drinking age of 21. And the debate over the issue is in a Siberia of political hibernation.

Cconsider another recent report, this time from economists Christopher Carpenter and Carlos Dobkin. Published in this spring issue of the Journal of Economic Perspectives, Carpenter and Dobkin's "The Minimum Legal Drinking Age and Public Health" concluded that "evidence strongly suggests that setting the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) at 21 is better from a cost and benefit perspective than setting it at 18 and that any proposal to reduce the drinking age should face a very high burden of proof."

How did they arrive at that seemingly obvious conclusion? By crunching the lethal numbers.

"We analyzed survey data on alcohol consumption and administrative data on mortality collected from death certificates," Carpenter told AlterNet. "We used two different methodological approaches that gave us very similar answers."

"First, we showed that, as documented by other authors, when states raised their drinking ages to 21 in the 1970s and 1980s there were significant decreases in both alcohol consumption and fatalities among 18- to 20 year-olds," Carpenter said. "Second, we showed that during the late 1990s and 2000s, when the minimum legal drinking age was 21 in all states, there is a large discrete increase in both alcohol consumption and deaths -- primarily traffic fatalities and suicides -- that occurs precisely when people turn 21 and that persists for at least two years. This is true even when we account for 21st birthday 'celebration' effects, and suggests that increased access and exposure to alcohol at age 21 in the U.S. causes significant increases in drinking and mortality."

Case closed? Not so fast, said Barrett Seaman, author of Binge: Campus Life in an Age of Disconnection and Excess and president of ChooseResponsibility.org. In 2008, Seaman and ChooseResponsibility.org co-founder and then-president emeritus John McCardell, kicked off that debate by obtaining the signatures of 136 college presidents for the Amethyst Initiative, whose primary argument was that America's MLDA was simply not working. The Initiative did its job nicely, as the asked-for national debate kicked up dust in the mainstream and online media, eventually influencing Carpenter and Dobkin's responsive report. 

"Our research, among other objectives, sought to examine the Amethyst Initiative's key claim that the age-21 minimum drinking limit in the United States is not working," Carpenter told AlterNet. "The findings demonstrate that the age-21 drinking limit in the US is working, in the sense that it significantly reduces drinking and alcohol-related mortality."

But Seaman and McCardell remain unconvinced, years after the Amethyst Initiative's debut. Around the same time Carpenter and Dobkin's report landed, Seaman testified before the New York State Medical Society to gain support for the Amethyst Initiative from physicians this time instead of college presidents. He claimed that many more presidents voiced personal support but refused to sign because of blowback from their constituents or predictable opposition from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Both parties agree on preventative measures like education and tough drunk-driving punishments like interlocked ignition systems, license revocation and jail time. But they inevitably part ways on lowering the MLDA, despite the fact that America is the only major nation with a MLDA of 21. Flanked by Micronesia, Fiji, Indonesia, Palau and Sri Lanka, the U.S. stands mostly alone while other nations hover between a MLDA of 16-19, and others, like Greece and Austria, have none at all. 

"Our study did not consider the experience of other countries that have different MLDAs, though this is an important area for future research," Carpenter said. "A difficulty in cross-country comparisons is that there are many other differences between the U.S. and countries with lower drinking ages besides the drinking age policy itself, such as differences in the social acceptability of drinking, differences in alcohol availability regulations and differences in vehicle ownership rates. Understanding the role of public transportation systems is also an interesting area for future work, but is beyond the scope of our study."

But there's a cold logic beyond all of these data and cultural differences: If Americans are currently able to marry, vote and kill for their country at 18, what's a beer, or three, between loyal citizens? Especially when they're already drinking anyway.

"The percentage of 18- to 21-year-old binge drinkers has not budged in the 25 years since the minimum legal drinking age was raised, and the number of young people consuming alcohol before turning 21 is more than 80 percent of the total population," McCardell told AlterNet. "How does this show the effectiveness of the law? There's no evidence of more significant problems in other countries. There are more alcohol-related traffic fatalities per capita here than in any other country. If consuming at 18 is so health-threatening, where is the brain damage in Europe? Where is the alcohol dependency? There's no evidence, none."

"The larger philosophical issue, and a proper answer, would involve a lengthy discussion of 'wet' versus 'dry' cultures," Seaman explained. "The U.S. and U.K. are 'dry' cultures, in which the tendency is all-or nothing when it comes to drinking. 'Wet' cultures like France and Italy treat alcohol as another food. I would submit that establishing legal drinking ages is not the way to solve alcohol-related problems, and that stricter enforcement of tougher drunk driving laws, like in Scandanavia, plus education is the way to go."

Seaman's testimony to the New York State Medical Society was stuffed with supporting statistical arguments. He quoted a recent Council on a Drug-Free America survey stating, in a nutshell, that American teens have had their first full drinks between 12-15, see nothing wrong with having done so, actually have fun doing so, and in fact know some teens who drink at least once a week or use alcohol to deal with stress. (Like fathers and mothers, like sons and daughters.)

He rejected claims that America's MLDA is responsible for a 13 percent decline in alcohol-related fatalities, claiming that the National Highway Safety Administration's statistics on the matter were already in decline before the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984 -- although it wasn't until 1987 that it took full effect in all 50 states -- and that the decline only last for the first seven years before stopping in its tracks. Meanwhile in Canada, an even greater decline was underway, although its MLDA still hovered between 18-19.

"The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism says that 5,000 lives are lost to alcohol each year by those under 21, and more than 60 percent of those fatalities are off the highways," McCardell argued. "The problem today is not traffic safety. It is binge drinking. The law has not curtailed drinking. It has simply forced it underground, into the least safe of environments."

Seaman agreed, citing personal research, conducted from dormitories across 12 different campuses, that showed teens had zero problems getting access to alcohol, and zero hesitance about drinking themselves into hospitals. 

"They were drinking more intensely, more purposefully, where the purpose was specifically to get drunk," Seaman testified. "What 21 has done more effectively than anything else is to separate young people from more experienced adults at precisely the time in their lives when they are going to experiment with alcohol anyway. Instead of learning to drink -- moderately -- from older, presumably wiser adults, these young people are learning to drink only from each other. And in doing so, they are learning some very bad habits. But until we lower the drinking age to a level that is consistent with our recognition of adulthood and all the privileges and responsibilities that come with it, we are never going to solve this problem."

For what it's worth, the problem doesn't seem unsolvable. U.S. mortality has fallen to an all-time low, although suicides are up and prescription drug abuse has surged 400 percent in the past decade. But we've always been good at finding ways to kill ourselves and each other, so watching alcohol statistics leapfrog one another is often like choosing between beer and wine at the bars. It's a matter of mood and motivation. In fact, the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act's chief punishment for states that did not increase the MLDA to 21 was to withhold 10 percent of those states' federal highway funds. Of course, that money that would be put to much better use building the kind of public transportation alternatives that keep drunk youngsters from other countries in trains they don't control rather than cars they can't stop crashing. It's a no-brainer solution to this allegedly intractable problem, but aren't they all?

In the final analysis, the solution to this glamorous dilemma really has nothing to do with the minimum legal drinking age at all. As inevitable cannabis legalization looms, thanks to support from political luminaries as different as Kofi Annan and George Schulz, the folly of footballing alcohol-related fatalities from one demographic to another comes to resemble game theory for geeks. 

 

 

Scott Thill runs the online mag Morphizm.com. His writing has appeared on Salon, XLR8R, All Music Guide, Wired and others.