In the United States, there is a great deal of controversy surrounding the minimum legal drinking age of 21. The age of adulthood, celebrated around the world, has a unique meaning in this country. When one thinks of turning 21, one thinks of bar-hopping and in general just going above and beyond binge drinking. This sample persuasive paper touches on the American drinking age presents both sides of the argument and concludes why it should remain at 21 years of age.
21 as the Legal Drinking Age: Why It Works
The 21st birthday is the one many people look forward to the most. It may even have the most social significance in the U.S. because it removes all age-related constraints from an individual. Though the drinking age is 21 now, it has not been this way for very long. In fact, it was only thirty years ago, in 1982, that President Reagan signed the law into being. According to the group “Choose Responsibility,” what pushed Reagan to signing this law was the large amount of drunk driving accidents, and a lot of lobbying from MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving). MADD was founded by Candy Lightner when her daughter was killed in a drunk driving accident by a repeat offense drunk driver, and the 21 drinking age law was signed with the hope of curbing drinking by adolescents, especially ones behind the wheel.
Choose Responsibility and The Amethyst Initiative for lower drinking age
Though people under 21 are not allowed to drink, they are allowed to drive without taking driver’s education, smoke cigarettes, buy pornography, and even serve in the military at the age of 18. The implications for this seem staggering to some —a soldier is allowed to die for the country but not allowed to have a beer? This point has been of major concern to many groups, including ones like “Choose Responsibility” and the Amethyst Initiative, organizations focused on lowering the drinking age to 18 and promoting responsible drinking. These groups say that they would implement more education about alcohol in colleges across the country, and hope that if the secrecy of drinking was brought to light and talked about that students would become more responsible drinkers:
The 21-year-old drinking age ties the hands of parent and places them in an untenable position. They must either ignore the reality of alcohol consumption among young people and forbid their children from drinking or break the law by serving alcohol to their under-21 children. Neither option is acceptable to a responsible parent, or in a society governed by rule of law. Parents need to be re-enfranchised, again involved in the process of teaching their children how to make informed, healthy decisions about alcohol and its use (Choose Responsibility).
Choose Responsibility insists that if students were only more educated on alcohol, and if parents were more involved in that education, that students would drink less—regardless of age.
The Amethyst Initiative beliefs and makeup
The Amethyst Initiative is a group of university presidents who stand with “Choose Responsibility” in promoting education on alcohol while lowering the drinking age to 18. John McCardell, founder of the initiative, said in a 2010 CBS interview that “[t]his is a law that is routinely evaded… It is a law that the people at whom it is directed believe is unjust and unfair and discriminatory.” According to the Amethyst Initiative’s statement:
“21 is not working… A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’ – often conducted off-campus – has developed.”
McCandall addresses a concern shared by “Choose Responsibility,” which is similar to the idea of teaching sexual abstinence—not responsibility and safe sex—and ending up with pregnancy.
“Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students… By choosing to use fake IDs, students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.”
Because they are not allowed alcohol, for some students drinking becomes a mystified activity that they long to take part in— and when they do, they overdo it.
Mothers against drunk driving (MADD) against lower drinking age
The issue of binge drinking is of dire concern. All sides of the debate agree on one thing: college drinking is out of hand. But the other side of the debate, groups like MADD, argue that lowering the drinking age will not stop excessive drinking. If anything, they believe, that will encourage it. Many proponents of keeping the law as it is point to science, and to the “48 tests” that have extensively shown the benefits of the drinking age being 21. When speaking on the current drinking age and lowering it to 18 in the same 2010 CBS interview, president of MADD, Laura Dean-Mooney, said
“It saved over 1,000 young people’s lives every year for the last 24 years. Why would we go back? We tried this in the ’70s and ’80s. It simply did not work then; alcohol-related fatalities went up in that age group” (CBS/AP).
Studies have shown a decrease in drunk driving accidents since 21 become the drinking age, and people like the mothers of MADD seem to be correct in not wanting to regress.
MADD’s Influence on American Drinking Habits
Researcher Drew Saylor agrees with MADD, and defends the current drinking age of 21 in her article “Heavy Drinking on College Campuses: No Reason to Change Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21.” Saylor (2011) opens by explaining what binge drinking is—5 or more consecutive drinks for men, 4 or more for women—and listing the many side effects of binge drinking by the population who binge drinks the most: college kids. Besides the long-term consequences, binge drinking is associated with:
“risky sexual behavior, increased risk of physical or sexual assault, and violence” and that it significantly affects “academic performance, social relationships, risk-taking behaviors, and general health.”
One long term effects of binge drinking in college is that adolescents who drink a lot form habits and behaviors that may follow them with age:
“alcohol use at a younger age in general can have lasting repercussions such as an increased likelihood of alcohol-related disorders and substance abuse in adulthood” (p. 331).
In “Will Increasing Alcohol Availability by Lowering the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Decrease Drinking and Related Consequences Among Youths?” Henry Wechsler and Toebn Nelson (2010) point out that:
“[t]he heaviest-drinking college students are more likely to have been heavy drinkers in high school” (987). It has been proven in many tests that people who drink at younger ages are more likely to become alcoholics. Moreover, James Fell (2011) of the Alcohol, Policy, and Safety Research Center of the Pacific Institute for Research & Evaluation points out that “Binge drinking among 8th, 10th and 12th graders has been steadily going down since the drinking age was raised to 21” (Los Angeles Times).
Saylor discusses many reasons why the drinking age should remain 21, but focuses on drinking-related traffic accidents:
“There is an extensively documented association between MLDA [Minimum Legal Drinking Age] 21 and decreased alcohol consumption, fewer alcohol-related problems, and reduced traffic accidents and fatalities” (p. 331).
She argues that young people are learning to keep drinking and driving separate because with the age limit of 21, drinking is seen as an extreme activity, and one that deserves caution.
New Zealand drinking age decrease
Saylor uses the example of New Zealand to illustrate her point. In 1999, New Zealand changed its legal drinking age from 20 to 18, and higher rates of drunk driving ensued,
“mirror[ing] the US findings from previous decades [before 1982’s implementation of 21 as the legal drinking age]” (p. 332).
After New Zealand’s drinking age lowering, drunk driving accidents rose:
- 12% for males aged 18-19
- 51% for females aged 15-17
It was stated that:
“Such findings are more recently supported by a meta-analytic review that showed raising the MLDA is associated with a 16% median decrease in alcohol related crash outcomes, while lowering the MLDA results in a 10% median increase in such crash outcomes” (p. 332).
Having a drinking age of 20 and lowering it to 18 makes New Zealand a perfect example of what could go wrong if they same law was implemented in the U.S.
Trouble finding balance
The debate about the drinking age is clearly very polarized, and there does not seem to be a happy medium in which both parties could be satisfied. There are only two options—the law will be changed or it will stay the same. While there only a few countries in which the drinking age is 21 (besides the U.S. there is Indonesia, Mongolia and Palau), there are many countries in which the drinking age is 18, and even more countries where there are no age restrictions (Choose Responsibility).
Argument for lower drinking age
To determine if the law really should be changed it is important to understand the opposing organizations and their biases to ascertain whether their points are valid. The Amethyst Initiative, for example, is comprised of college presidents, whose interests include creating inviting environments for students. College kids seem to agree with the initiative, because most of them dislike having to sneak around and risk arrest over the purchase of alcohol. Of course, it would make their lives easier if the legal drinking age was lowered to 18, justifying the overwhelming.
Not all college presidents, however, support the initiative. In the 2010 CBS interview, Donna Shalala, the president at the University of Miami, was asked to sign the initiative, but refused. Her reason was that she thinks the drinking age of 21 has had a positive effect on colleges:
“I remember college campuses when we had 18-year-old drinking ages, and I honestly believe we’ve made some progress…To just shift it back down to the high schools makes no sense at all.”
Still, there are presidents like McCandall who disagree with the progress, and students who put up a fight. Wey Ruepten, a senior at Duke, argues on the “Choose Responsibility” line that
“[i]f you treat students like children, they’re going to act like children” (CBS/AP).
This is the argument that many Amethyst members stand with, but it has not been proven accurate.
Argument against lower drinking age
MADD, on the other hand, points out that the Amethyst Initiative is just looking for an easy way out of a difficult situation. Dean-Mooney criticized the initiative by accusing universities with presidents who belong to Amethyst of not obeying the law and contributing to the “party-school” mythos:
“It’s very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses…College presidents don’t want this passed down to them from college presidents who are being irresponsible” (CBS/AP).
Dean-Mooney is one of many MADD members who feel that college presidents in the future will have to clean up the mess of the ones who currently belong to the Amethyst Initiative.
The argument for lowering the drinking age is comprised of:
- College presidents have an investment in student’s satisfaction
- A clear bias in attracting students
- An argument founded in financial gain
The argument against, however entails:
- MADD has an interest in preventing alcohol-related injuries and deaths
- MADD participants have a moral investment
- No financial gains in terms of keeping the drinking age at 21
Kids will be kids
Though I agree with “Choose Responsibility” that there should be more education about safe drinking, I don’t think that is the best way to prevent alcohol-related accidents. I think that more education should be required in conjunction with keeping the law at 21, and I do not believe 18 is a mature enough age to handle the responsibility of drinking. Teenagers will drink anyway, whether legally or not, but at least if the law is hanging over their heads they might be less likely to make a mistake like driving drunk. If they do, as Saylor claims, think of drinking as an extreme activity, then they will hopefully not participate in any other extreme activities while drunk. Ruepten says that if you treat people like children then they will act like children, but college-aged kids are going to act like children either way. No law is going to take the excitement away that many students feel when they leave home during the first week of college, anxious to make their own decisions and prove that they can handle situations like drinking. No matter what the law is, drinking will always be a “cool” thing to do. It has been proven in many tests that the drinking age of 21 works to prevent adolescents from excessive drinking or at least scares them away from drunk driving.
Saylor makes the argument that we shouldn’t discard these studies in favor of what students want, but should embrace the research and keeping adding on even more measures for safety:
Instead of removing one of the most researched and supported policies in the alcohol control arsenal, we should seek to add to and improve this effort with increased enforcement, additional legislation, and efficacious interventions. Addressing the deleterious effects of youth alcohol use presents an extremely complex and challenging public health and policy issue, but we must remain committed to implementing and enforcing evidence-based practices and legislation (p. 333).
Instead of just getting rid of the law and trying to make an easy fix, Saylor agrees with MADD that there is much more that can be done to address binge drinking that does not involve a sweeping rejection of what has been proven to work. It would be beneficial if all colleges could teach students how to drink responsibly, instead of hoping that the law speaks for itself. I think a combination of law and education is best, but each opposition stands strong against its rival. Until there are significant changes in studies of alcohol and underage drinking, there is good reason to believe that the legal drinking age of 21 is working just fine.
“A Spirited Debate on a Lower Drinking Age.” (2010, March 1). CBS/AP. Retrieved November 7, 2012, from http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-201_162-4366046.html
McCardell, John. “Drinking age – Choose Responsibility.” (n.d.). John McCardell – Drinking age – Choose Responsibility. Retrieved November 9, 2012, from http://www.chooseresponsibility.org/
Ogilvie, J. P. (2011, May 30). Is lowering the drinking age a good idea?. Los Angeles Times. Retrieved November 7, 2012, from http://articles.latimes.com/2011/may/30/health/la-he-drinking-age-20110530
Saylor, D. (2011). Heavy Drinking on College Campuses: No Reason to Change Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21. Journal of American College Health, 59, 330-333.
Wechsler, H., & Nelson, T. (2010). Will Increasing Alcohol Availability By Lowering the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Decrease Drinking and Related Consequences Among Youths? American Journal of Public Health, 100, 987.
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