Should the legal minimum drinking age be lowered from 21 to 18? Is it even a federal issue? That’s what some politicians are wondering as the next election cycle gets underway. It’s long been somewhat of a puzzle that American 18 year olds can vote, go to war, take on debt for their education, get married (not to mention sign these marriage, loan and enlistment contracts), and yet they cannot legally have a beer. How did the minimum legal drinking age come about?
It all goes back to Prohibition, and the American love affair with cars. The minimum drinking age itself stems from the pre-Prohibition temperance movement, where it was seen as a form of graduated prohibition, a sort of stepping stone to the full-on ban of alcohol. After the Prohibition experiment failed and was the law was repealed in 1933 by the 21st amendment, states were allowed to individually determine a minimum drinking age. Most chose 21 as the cutoff age, but in the 1970s many states lowered the age to 20, 19 and even 18 years old (the latter for the purchase of beer). Soon though, the tide turned: groups likeMothers Against Drunk Driving gained prominence, and a number of studies came out revealing the high number of traffic collisions among teens in states with lower drinking ages.
As a result, citizen groups and lobbyists pressured states to restore the drinking age to 21. From the late ’70s to the early ’80s, states began raising their minimum legal drinking ages, but even then with ages differing between states, many worried that teens would just drive out of state to purchase alcohol. Finally, in 1984 the federal government passed the Uniform Drinking Age Act to make sure that all states had the same drinking age laws. States who didn’t follow the law within two years would risk losing 5 to 10% the federal transportation funds that are used to link state highways to federally funded roads.
Though motor vehicle accidents continue to be the leading cause of death among teens, the death rates from drunken collisions dropped after the legislation passed. A few years ago, when Slate covered the topic of the national drinking age, they focused on the immediate effect the law had on underage drinking:
“According to the federal study Monitoring the Future, underage drinking dropped instantly. From 1977 to 2007, the percentage of 12th graders drinking at least monthly fell from 70 percent to 45 percent—almost immediately after the law was enacted, and lastingly. Fatal car crashes involving drunk young adults dipped 32 percent, resulting in 1,000 fewer lives lost per year. Impressively, this decrease occurred despite minimal efforts at enforcement; the mere presence of the law was protective.”
So what are the possible benefits to lowering the drinking age? Some heads of universities have noticed that despite the high legal drinking age, binge drinking is on the rise. These members of the Amethyst Initiative argue that the 21 year limit “drives drinking out of bars and restaurants and into dorm rooms and fraternity houses, where there is less supervision from the non-intoxicated and less encouragement of moderation.” Even though countries with lower drinking ages don’t necessarily have youth that drink more responsibly, by forcing younger drinkers to do their imbibing in public, there may be more potential for regulating their behavior.
Tennessee University law professor Glenn Harlan Reynolds notes that the drinking age appears to be more of an issue of personal freedom and federal regulation, under the guise of safety concerns. He also points out one feature that could get many politicians to consider overturning their state’s minimum legal drinking age (as well as the National Uniform Drinking Age act) — the youth vote.
- Lowering the Drinking Age (volokh.com)
- Alaska Bill: Old Enough to Fight, Old Enough to Drink (foxnews.com)
- Alaska law would allow military to drink at age 18 (seattletimes.nwsource.com)