Drugs

Is It Time to Lower the Legal Drinking Age?

The U.S. is out of step with the rest of the world.

Photo Credit: Pixabay

New Hampshire lawmakers are once again considering lowering the drinking age in the state. The proposal this year, from Rep. Dan Hynes (R-Merrimack), would allow 20-year-olds to drink alcohol in private settings, but not buy it or consume it in public.

It's just the latest effort to lower the drinking age in the Granite State. Earlier efforts to lower the age to 19 for active-duty service members or allow those 18 and over to drink when accompanied by adults failed. This year's effort is likely to fail, too—but maybe it shouldn't.

When it comes to the legal drinking age, the United States is out of step with the rest of the world. In more than 100 countries, the legal drinking age is 18 or 19, while only the U.S. and 11 other countries (Côte d'Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Kiribati, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Samoa, and Sri Lanka) set it at 21.

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Our northern neighbor, Canada, has a drinking age of 18 or 19, depending on the province, and our southern neighbor, Mexico, sets the age at 18. Most European countries go with 18, and the others go even lower.

In fact, more countries have a legal drinking age lower than 18 than set it at 21. Those include a dozen European countries, such as Portugal, which allows drinking anything at age 16; Germany, which allows beer drinking at 16; and Switzerland, where 16-year-olds can drink beer and wine.

Setting the legal drinking age is the domain of the states, but that has not really been the case in the U.S. Although in the 1970s, more than half the states lowered the drinking age from 21 to 20, 19, or 18 as they shrugged off the hangovers of Prohibition, Congress in 1984 made the states an offer they couldn't refuse: With the enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, the states could choose between raising the age to 21 or losing their federal highway funds. They went with keeping their federal dollars.

By 1988, every state in the country had raised the legal drinking age to 21. (There are some delimited exceptions: underage drinking is allowed in 29 states if done on private premises with parental consent, 25 states if for religious purposes, and 11 states if for educational purposes.)

One of the main arguments propelling the 1984 law and bolstering it ever since is that keeping the 21 age limit reduces traffic accidents and fatalities. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that a drinking age of 21 decreased the number of fatal traffic accidents for 18- to 20-year-olds by 13 percent.

But proponents of lowering the drinking age can point to comparative data to argue that the evidence is not nearly so clearcut. Many countries with a drinking age of 18 have fewer drunk driving accidents and fatalities than the U.S., and during the 1980s, as 21 was becoming the law of the land across America, the rate of traffic accidents and fatalities in the 1980s decreased less than that of European countries whose legal drinking ages are lower than 21.

There are a number of other arguments for and against lowering the legal drinking age, admirably adumbrated at Procon.org, but outside of debates in the realm of public health, two arguments for lowering the drinking age are especially compelling: The first is the argument for consistency and the second is the argument for liberty, or perhaps more precisely, the pursuit of happiness.

The consistency argument is simple: Eighteen is the age of legal adulthood for everything except being able to drink alcohol. Alcohol should be no exception. You can get married, sign contracts, vote, join the armed forces—but you can't have a beer?

The liberty argument is pretty simple, too: Drinking alcohol is an enjoyable activity. Adults under 21 should not be denied that enjoyment when other pleasurable activities are legal at age 18.

Maybe it is better to have a higher legal drinking age, but the age of 21 is not ordained by God. Whether states should continue to keep it should be informed not only from a public health or harm reduction perspective, but also by considerations of the values we hold. Where do we draw the lines?

 

Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute