In most countries, 18 is considered the age of adulthood. When I reach adulthood this coming fall, I can legally join the military, buy a rifle, adopt a child, smoke a cigarette, apply for a medical marijuana card in 21 states and vote for elected officials. Heck, I could even star in a pornographic film if I wanted to.
It is time adults in the U.S. be allowed to once again add “drink alcohol” to their list of enumerated rights when they turn 18. After the ratification of the 26th Amendment in 1971, most states recognized this inherent adulthood privilege by lowering their drinking age to 18. But since 1984, American citizens are prohibited from purchasing and consuming alcohol unless they are three years into adulthood — at age 21.
“It doesn’t really make sense for someone to turn 18 and be able to vote and go to war for your country, and not be able to have an alcoholic beverage legally,” Palo Alto High School principal Kim Diorio said.
The most obvious reason for lowering the minimum legal drinking age to 18 is that the current law is plain old ineffective. According to the Center for Disease Control, just over 70 percent of high school students in 2011 had consumed alcohol at least once in their lifetime and 21 percent of students in the same year had participated in binge drinking, which is defined as consuming five or more drinks on one occasion.
The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse reports that underage drinking brings in $22.5 billion each year, which equates to nearly 20 percent of all alcohol sales annually. Underage drinking is already financing a sizable portion of the alcohol industry and by lowering the drinking age three years, the nation’s economy can only be further stimulated.
Would the United States be negligent in lowering the drinking age? Would the government be promoting some sort of rudimentary lifestyle? Our global neighbors seem to suggest the answer is ‘no.’
Out of the International Monetary Fund’s list of 36 “developed countries,” only four have drinking above the age of 18 and the U.S. is the only one with a drinking age of 21. Even the U.S. Virgin Islands maintains a minimum legal drinking age of 18.
Joseph Lang spent the spring semester of his sophomore year at Paly before returning to his native Austria. He “think[s] 21 is a bit extreme” and he noticed stark differences between the drinking cultures of the U.S. and Austria, where the drinking age — and the voting age, he pointed out — is 16.
“If a 16-year old in Austrian drinks too much and passes out, people can call an ambulance without having to be scared to get in serious trouble with their parents, school or even the law,” Lang said. “Not so in the U.S. If someone passes out from drinking too much there, it is quite a delicate situation because bystanders have to judge if calling an ambulance is worth the risk of them or their friends getting in trouble.”
Just because the drinking age in Austria is five years younger and drinking is “so anchored in our culture,” Lang explains, it seems as though their culture is not promoting a dangerous way of living.
In 2012, 39 people in Austria from drunk driving accidents, according to Statistik Austria. Mothers Against Drunk Driving reports that approximately 28 Americans die each day from drunk driving accidents. So basically, 2 days in the U.S. brings more deaths from drunk driving than an entire year in Austria.
The drinking age of 21 has also perpetuated a sort of culture where underage drinking becomes so desirable merely because of illegality. Anna McGarrigle, a Palo Alto High School alumna (‘13) and current freshman at the George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says that the drinking age of 21 has only done more harm than good.
“The only thing I’ve seen the drinking age do is create stronger repercussions and a stronger desire to engage in forbidden drinking,” McGarrigle said. “When I’ve visited friends at colleges like McGill [University in Quebec, Canada,] where the drinking age is 18, the alcohol is nonexistent frankly because drinking is not illicit like it is here [in the U.S.], so the social scene is much more rounded out and less focused on just getting [wasted].”
The illicitness of underage drinking has promoted a lifestyle in which many believe that the only way to drink underage is to binge drink; drinking for the sole purpose of getting drunk is the connotation that surrounds alcohol for most teenagers. Aaron White, a professor at the Duke University Medical Center in June 2006, found that about 40 percent of college freshmen admitted they engage in binge drinking and that 20 percent drink between 10 and 15 alcoholic beverages every drinking session. This is a stark difference from European drinking culture, Lang explains.
“Drinking is generally a socially more acceptable thing here [in Austria],” Lang said. “You can get alcohol everywhere, not just at liquor stores — even at McDonald’s. And it is totally normal to see people with cans of beer in the subway on Friday nights.”
“[At George Washington University,] we have relatively moderate policies and enforcement, so the drinking age by no means keeps students from drinking,” McGarrigle said. “Going to school in a city also complicates things because clubs, bars and fake IDs are normal, so a lot of partying happens off-campus. If college culture wasn’t so dangerously associated with binge drinking, I think that everyone would be much safer.”
Not allowing 18, 19 and 20-year-olds to drink in supervised environments forces them to drink clandestinely in places that may promote unsafe practices, such as fraternity houses and house parties. The accessibility of alcohol is so rampant that it is almost impossible to deter teenagers in high school and college from consumption.
“Teenagers are still going to party and they are still going to drink alcohol [whether or not] you want them to, and I’d rather have my kids drink in a public space where you can at least control it a little bit [as opposed to being] passed out with just a bunch of drunk friends around,” Lang said. “It also allows parents to teach their kids how to drink responsibly without having to break the law.The problem in America is that in order to drink alcohol, teenagers have to break quite a few laws and it creates a… dangerous, situation. If someone wants to drink, they’re gonna find a way.”
Judy Workman, a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley, furthers this idea of “when there’s a will, there’s a way” when it comes to alcohol.
“Well in college people who are 21 buy alcohol for everyone and they don’t card or anything at frat parties so it really doesn’t matter how old you are unless you’re the one actually providing the alcohol,” Workman said regarding the accessibility of alcohol for an underage drinker.
In 2008, a group of presidents of some of the United States’ most respected colleges began a petition in support of a debate to lower the drinking age. The petition — called the Amethyst Initiative — currently has the signatures of 136 college presidents, including the likes of Dartmouth College, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and Pomona College. In other words, 136 colleges believe it would be safer to not have a drinking age of 21.
While not supporting a specific policy change, Amethyst signees believe that the current drinking age “is not working as well as the public may think, that its unintended consequences are posing increasing risks to young people, and that it is time for a serious debate among our elected representatives about whether current public policies are in line with current realities,” according to its website.
One of the most troublesome parts of the current drinking age is that it withholds certain rights from individual states. Technically, the drinking age is a matter that states have the age to set for themselves, not the federal government. It only seems that way because all states now have the same drinking age.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 coerced states to raise the legal age to 21 by withholding ten percent of federal funding for highways from states that did not comply. States that were perfectly content with a drinking age of 18 were forced to give way out of the fear of losing millions of dollars.
At the very minimum, states should at least set their own legal drinking age so as to reflect their distinctive values, demographics and histories. Underage drinking is already allowed in 29 states if it is done on private property with parental consent, in 25 states for religious practices and in 11 states for educational purposes.
The last time the United States withheld alcohol from a certain demographic — granted, in this case, that demographic was every single person in the country — was the Prohibition, which lasted from 1920 to 1933. Mark Thornton, a former professor of economics at Auburn University, found that Prohibition also promoted unsafe drinking practices.
“It should be noted that annual per capita consumption and the percentage of annual per capita income spent on alcohol had been steadily falling before Prohibition and that annual spending on alcohol during Prohibition was greater than it had been before Prohibition,” Thornton wrote in a 1991 study.
Furthermore, around 80 percent of total alcohol sales during Prohibition were distilled spirits, compared to around 50 percent from 1890 to 1920 and from 1933 to 1960, suggesting that it is not just college students who tend to drink to get drunk when they are illegally consuming alcohol.
Just as during the Prohibition, today’s law enforcement does not have the resources to punish every violator of drinking laws. The arbitrariness and inconsistency of enforcing the drinking age has only led to a greater contempt for the police and has tainted their image.
Some may argue that just because underage drinking is so widespread as it is, that it doesn’t justify lowering the drinking age. If everyone started doing cocaine, would we just decide to legalize cocaine? Probably not. But more than a matter of “everyone is already doing it so let’s just change the law,” lowering the drinking age to 18 is a matter of granting legal adults a right that they should already have since they are considered of age to make responsible decisions.
If I am going to have the right — or obligation in a time of war — to join the Armed Forces and sacrifice my life for this country, Uncle Sam better at least hand me a beer before I ship off overseas.