Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Should the US lower the drinking age?

Were you 21 (or of legal age) when you took your first sip of alcohol?

Not me. Back when I began drinking, the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) was still 19. Lawmakers raised it to 21 the year following my 19th birthday, so I could legally drink for a few months, then it became illegal again.

That's the official story, anyway. The truth is, I began drinking at age 16 and the law failed to affect my behavior one way or another. Illegal IDs were common in high school - I had one for a while - or else somebody's older brother would buy a keg from the next county over (Tyler and Smith County were and are "dry") and the kids would get drunk out in a dimly lit cow pasture or at somebody's rural lakehouse. While I'm not proud of it, I recognize that my personal history is hardly unique.

To be sure, such experience from my own callow youth inclines me to sympathize with the call by university presidents this week to lower the MLDA. My high school class was a virtual case study in the law's ineffectiveness. We were yo-yo'ed back and forth between drinking's legality and illegality, yet I knew no one who changed their behavior on that basis. There were no shortage of serious drinkers in my high school class, and for those who didn't drink it was a personal (often a religious) choice, not a fearful submission to state power.

To my mind, encouraging more widespread respect for law and the justice system - and discouraging an oppositional culture that disdains government authority - is the best argument behind lowering the drinking age. It's simply fiction that kids with a car and a driver's license can't get access to alcohol (though it's not as easy as buying illegal drugs, which don't have to come from a licensed distributor). Inevitably, from the perspective of youth themselves, there's a hypocrisy behind the actions of a government that says an 18 year old can vote and join the army but cannot legally drink alcohol. They're held accountable as adults when they screw up, but they're not treated as adults in the most common social settings.

For some, highway safety is the only relevant factor. A survey of studies in 2003 from the Centers for Disease Control estimated:
that changes in the MLDA result in changes of roughly 10% to 16% in alcohol-related crash outcomes for the targeted age groups, decreasing when the MLDA is raised, and increasing when it is lowered.
But experts dispute the role of the MLDA in that decrease compared to broader cultural changes. Road deaths due to youth drinking in Canada, for example, declined at similar rates to America even though they didn't raise their drinking age to 21. The group Choose Responsibly argues that:
This downward trend in drunken driving across the industrialized world suggests that something other than a change in the drinking age was at work. Thanks to successful public education efforts, attitudes toward drinking and driving changed over time. The “designated driver,” a term unknown in 1984, indicates such an attitudinal shift.
One also notices that cigarette smoking has declined over the same period, which argues that public health campaigns focused on education instead of criminalization - both for alcohol and cigarettes - have significantly impacted behavior. I don't doubt that cultural changes like the introduction of the "designated driver" reduced drunk driving. From my own experience, I doubt raising the MLDA did so nearly as much.

In general, I think we have too many laws and use criminal sanctions to attack what are essentially social problems, which is what's happened with the MLDA. The United States has a more widespread culture of addiction, including but not limited to alcoholism and binge drinking, than most other modern nations, which is why America makes up 5% of the world population and about 50% of global demand for illegal drugs. Setting the drinking age at 21 drives that culture underground during teens' formative years instead of intervening to change it. At least that was my experience.

The corruption from overcrimnalization of social problems affects everyone, not just those who violate the law. Even kids I knew in high school who didn't drink would never have ratted out those who did. The lesson taught by these statutes informs youth that some laws needn't be taken seriously, that it's okay to conceal "crimes" by others from authorities, and most importantly, that one's interaction with the law should begin by second guessing it based on your own values, only complying if you agree with its premise. Whether that's a meritorious view is debatable, but it's undebatably not in the government's interest to promote its widespread adoption.

Defying one law makes it easier for youth to justify defying another, perhaps with more serious consequences. I'm sure if I hadn't needed it to buy alcohol, I'd have never considered getting a fake ID in my teens. But because of underage drinkers, there exists an underground fake ID industry in every state with a massive customer base. That makes us all less safe because, as 9/11 showed, fake IDs can be used for a lot more devious purposes than buying a six pack.

In Grits' sidebar I've added a couple of poll questions for readers: Were you of legal age when you first took a drink, and should the drinking age be lowered? Be sure to register your opinion there in addition to, as always, the comment section below.


Jonathan said...

As you mentioned, if we are to try an eighteen-year old as an adult in a court of law, and allow them to fight in our political wars, it follows that it is their inalienable right to be treated as adults in every other facet of life, including the right to drink alcohol, etc.

Anonymous said...

Last night the News Hour on PBS had a discussion about lowering the legal drinking age to 18. The moderator was Judy Woodruff and the two opposing views were presented by Joseph Califano and the President of Kenyon College.

It was very interesting that no one called Joseph Califano on his research. He was allowed to use Columbia University's status to give his presentation more gravitas even though his Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse is not funded or affiliated with Columbia.

He has no evidence based research, only many policy papers written out of religious ferver. It is very discouraging to see him presented as an authority on drug policy when he has only opinion.

It is truly a case of the Emperor having no clothes.

Anonymous said...

It might be better to keep the legal drinking age at 21 and raise the driving age to 18.

Anonymous said...

It is important that the benefits of decriminalization are revealed at every possible opportunity. The United States is becomming a police state because legislators have gone crazy trying to make criminals out of more and more citizens.

Issues such as gay marriage, abortion, legalization of marijuana use and the legal drinking age should be discussed in public forums at every opportunity.

Thanks for a great post, you covered the important points in favor of reducing the drinking age. I support more training for teedage drivers in the public schools to mitigate the risks associated with their first driving experiences.

Anonymous said...

Hello from across the pond. The age you are allowed to purchase alcohol in the UK is 18. (Unless you are buying beer, wine or cider in conjuction with a substantial meal when the age is 16. The age is lower in some European countries. In the UK you may legally drink from age 5 but you can't buy it. The reason why the US brought in the 21 age limit was to try and reduce the accident rates amongst young drivers. While a worthy aim in attempting to reduce these accident figures, blanket prohabitions do not address the underlying problem and indeed may exasberate the problem by causing riskier behaviour (Such as having a keg party in a remote area which people have to drive to and away from after they have been drinking. Indeed there would be no barman to say "You've had enough" As for crimanalising the surrounding offences, such as minor in possesion this will hardly engender respect for the law.

Anonymous said...

The public health objectives should be to reduce the incidence of severe and frequent alcohol intoxication. If those objectives are achieved there will be a reduction in the incidence of public order offenses (in particular DUI and public intoxication).

Do minimum age to drink laws help to achieve the public heath objectives? I am not aware of any convincing evidence that they do. Are we better off today than we were in 1983 before the 1984 federal uniform uniform age to drink law was passed?

Kevin said...

I'm not sure that I agree with the underlying argument, which seems to be that because people disobey a law, you should abolish it. Especially the part which goes on to state that this will make people respect the law in general.

If you want to lower the drinking age, fine. But the broader argument that abolishing unpopular laws increases respect for the law is problematic. If people got one law abolished by disobeying it, why should they grant any law respect? Doesn't it instead ratify disrespect for the law in general?

To be sure, there are solid arguments for lowering the drinking age, from the idea that laws should punish criminals, not control social behavior, to the idea that if you can serve in the military, you should be able to drink. But to pretend that abolishing a disobeyed law will promote the respect for law seems silly.

Gritsforbreakfast said...

Kevin, the argument isn't that "abolishing unpopular laws increases respect for the law." Maybe it will; I hope so, but that's speculative. What we know already is that tolerating the routine violation of law by the vast majority of people pits police against average citizens and makes the law a laughingstock, which is how teens view the minimum drinking age.

In other words, the failed status quo has degraded the credibility of the law in the eyes of the public, particularly youth who the law applies to. Do you disagree? IMO it's a better outcome to tolerate teen drinking than to promote a sham where enforcement is arbitrary, resented, and everyone in the public can see the emperor wears no clothes.

Just look at the outcome so far of Grits poll question - more than 90% of people took their first drink before it was legal. If that sample is accurate, the law's nothing but a gesture - it's impossible to enforce comprehensively because of sheer numbers, even if the political will exists. So with that rate of mass violation, what, exactly, is the point of keeping the law on the books?

Anonymous said...

To generate revenue through citations and tickets! Duh!

Anonymous said...

The real danger from underage drinking is that the offending minors will become intoxicated, then climb behind the wheel of a car. This amplifies the situation greatly. If drivers licenses were as hard to get (and keep) here as they are in countries like Germany, the underage drinking wouldn't be such a problem. As it is, I wish the legal drinking age was 25.

Something also to consider is that if you lower the drinking age to 18, you also run the risk of the parents not being held legally responsible when they give junior the keys so he can have a night out with the boys, and run over your wife and kids on the way home.

Don Dickson said...

My parents both smoked, and both drank. And they allowed me at a very early age to taste what they were drinking. But they would never have let me have a cigarette.

So now, you guessed it, I'm a smoker, and a drinker too, but not an alcoholic.

I'm reminded of my favorite print ad of all time, a Dewar's Scotch ad campaign that ran in NYC some years ago on the sides of bus stops and what-not. It was a full-length photo of the most beautiful young woman you ever saw, wearing only a towel, and holding a bottle of Dewar's in one hand and a glass in the other and smiling ohh-so-sweetly. The caption was "Remember: you once thought girls were yucky too."

In France, it is customary for adolescents to have wine at the family dinner table. I'd have to research the propensities of the French to become alcoholics or to drink and drive, but I suspect the problem is worse here than there.

When I attended the U. of Delaware, the MLDA was 20 in Delaware but only 18 in Elkton, Maryland, only a mile down the road. One enterprising resident of my dorm who drove a pickup truck made almost hourly runs across the border with the bed of the truck teeming with thirsty students. So much for controlling alcohol abuse at the good ol' U. of D.

Anonymous said...

We have a car culture unrivaled on almost any other continent (Australia may come close). So yeah, I'd guess we have more incidences of "drinking and driving" than the French.

Plus the way our cities are laid out, you have to drive more to get places.

Anonymous said...

In Italy, there is no lower limit to drinking in private. In public, the magic age is 16, as is the age for purchase.

Compare drinking problems in the US with drinking problems in Italy.

Anonymous said...

Or you could just put so much tax on alcohol that buying it is beyond most teen's abilities.

Anonymous said...

Americans are being nanny stated to death. We're being bombarded by special interest nit pickers who want to oulaw everything they don't like. It's not live and let live. It's make em outlaws. There is no way our trusty politians are going to lower the drinking age to 18. MADD would be all over them like you know what. Hell, they just made another nanny state law that you can't smoke in public. And that law was built around a complete hoax that SHS is harmful. Its know wonder people has lost respect for law and politians and our government.
And people feel helpless to do anything about it because they know it's gone beyond repair.

Anonymous said...

Scott, Although I appreciate your daily thought provoking posts, I LOVED this one. I didn't grow up in a dry county, and i'm a bit older than you (missed the yo yo drinking age, but my younger sister lived through it) buy I sure can remember the keg parties in the pasture. As for the lowering the drinking age, I very much believe if the Justice System and the military are going to treat you like an adult, you are for all purposes an adult. But you know, doesn't really make as much difference to me since i'm old ;-)

Soronel Haetir said...

From personal observation I see smoking bans as far more respected than the drinking age. Smoking bans regulate public activity where alcohol consumption is often private or semi-private.

I do have problems with smoking bans in places like bars and resteraunts where the patrons consent. I have far less problem with cities making such ordinances regarding sidewalks because those belong to everyone.

I would be curious as to how many bars would start allowing smoking again after say a 2 year ban. Could it simply be inertia for either allowing or not?

Anonymous said...

//Something also to consider is that if you lower the drinking age to 18, you also run the risk of the parents not being held legally responsible when they give junior the keys so he can have a night out with the boys, and run over your wife and kids on the way home.//

So, why should mom and dad be responsible for an 18 year old if they drink and drive? Another police state mentality. They're 18, legal to vote, marry, die for a senseless war.. Tell me again why mom and dad should be responsible?

To follow along the lines that our friends in Europe have, they teach their children (gosh what a concept) to respect things like alcohol, and there are very harsh laws in place to deal with those few that decide not to abide by common sense. The whole bible-thumping mentality has so screwed up our perception of what is 'right' versus what is truly a hazard has created a society in America that not only allows but commends ignorance.

If we were to actually get back to the laws of nature, those of the whole of society, then I imagine that not only would teen drinking slowly crawl to new lows, but also such things as drug use, pregnancy, gang activity, crimes against persons, et. al. Unfortunately though, our inability as a population to be responsible, to be free-thinking individuals and guide our own principles, has been so programmed out of our thoughts that it is now thought of as criminal to believe in such abstract methods.

Soon, when the government has all the control they want and the 1984 Orwellian predictions are apparent, such things as free speech, free thought, freedom to live will only be a comical anecdote in the history of America.

W W Woodward said...

I have mixed thoughts about the legal drinking age. When Texas lowered the legal drinking age to 18 a few years ago it resulted in lowering the de facto drinking age to 14 or 15. Many high school seniors are 18 years of age and associate with 16 and 17 year old juniors and sophomores who in turn associate with 15 year old freshmen. Where the 18 year olds go so go the younger peers. A legal drinking age of 21 at least tends to keep the de facto age a couple of years higher and out of the reach of the high school population. You will notice I stress, “tends to”. (or at least, I intended to. I still can't seem to make italics. Has to do with 'puter illiteracy)

When I was still an active peace officer the penalties for underage possession and consumption were rather light compared to the draconian measures taken against young drinkers of today. Usually a $25 fine and confiscation of the alcoholic beverage. Unless the officer was a real hard ass or the youngster was a multi-repeat offender or a belligerent wise ass, officers would normally have the kid dump the beer, clean up the cans, and go home. If the youngster was pretty well buzzed, we’d get somebody to drive the car and take him home ourselves or call mom or dad to come get him.

Today penalties in Texas for underage possession or consumption include suspension of drivers license, varying lengths of community service, a hefty fine, and required attendance at AA meetings or substance abuse programs - in addition to being carted off to the local calaboose and maybe spending the weekend in jail and being required to come up with bond money. That’s just for the first offense. An underage drinker/driver is subjected to 0% blood alcohol tolerance. Youngsters still drink and still drive after drinking. Draconian laws don’t seem to be the answer to underage drinking any more than an answer to substance abuse.

“An 18 year old is old enough to die for his country but you want to insist he’s not old enough to drink.” Yeah, he’s old enough to die for his country but the idea is that we would like to see him not die in a bar fight or an automobile accident as a result of being loaded up on alcohol. Statistically speaking, the average 18 year old is safer in combat than in an automobile on the streets and highways of America.

I’m definitely not a MADD supporter. In my opinion, those people are more interested in headlines and in coercing you out of your hard earned money than in saving lives. But, that’s a “whole ‘nother story”.

Maybe we should just wipe all alcohol related laws off the books. Let alcohol consumption by minors be a matter for the individual and that person’s parents. If the kid drinks and manages to achieve adulthood alive and unaddicted, well and good. If he dies young, drunk, and stupid that may (or may not) be a guilt the parents will have to live with for condoning their child’s use of alcoholic beverages.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

was legal at 18 and I fully support a MLDA of 18. But only after my 15 and 16 year old daughters turn 21! I am only half joking...

hipparchia said...

abolishing unpopular laws makes a lot of sense, actually. if it's unpopular enough, then probably it was pretty stupid place and should never have been passed in the first place.

jim crow laws come to mind.

abortion, sodomy, miscegenation... then there were those pesky little constitutional issues, prohibition, emancipation...

i'm very much in favor of decriminalizing as much stuff as possible, and putting our money into caring about people, rather than persecuting them or locking them up. treatment for drugs and alcohol addiction; treatment for mental illness [thanks for that npr link in your other post btw]; if alcohol and tobacco are legal them why not marijuana?


oh, almost forgot the original topic. the legal drinking age was 18 when i turned 18 and it wasn't raised to 21 until after i turned 21, but i can remember kids all through high school getting fake id's [or making and selling them, the budding little capitalists!]. just from looking back on those times, i'd be willing to bet that education has played a bigger role in cutting down on drunk driving.

i wasn't really into it. our parents had let us have an occasional taste of their drinks from the time we were little kids, and i never really liked the stuff. a glass of wine with dinner on a special occasion, or some champagne on new years, support small and/or local microbreweries by buying a beer or two if i'm out with friends... that's enough for me.

Anonymous said...

If I had my way, the age of adulthood for ALL purposes would be lowered to 16 -- not just drinking but voting, driving, sex, the right to leave school, and the right to leave home.

But since that probably won't fly politically, I suggest a compromise. The drinking age was raised to 21 primarily to prevent 18-year-old high schoolers from supplying their younger classmates with booze. (At my school this backfired amusingly: marijuana was much easier to get than booze, a result of prohibition that its advocates ignore. But I digress.) Therefore, how about letting 18-year-olds drink in bars but NOT buy alcohol to take home? That way, they still can't supply alcohol to younger classmates, and (given "dram shop" laws which I believe we now have in all 50 states) there would be some supervision even if parents aren't there to provide it.

Anonymous said...

I was younger than 18 when I took my first drink--a sip of wine with dinner at age 14--under the supervision of my parents.

Today, if I did the same as my parents with my own children, I could find myself in jail and my 14year old twins in foster care.

The legal drinking age when I took my first drink was 18. The year after I turned 18 it was raised to 19, and was changed incrementally each year until it reached the current 21.

I didn't agree then and don't agree now with a drinking age of 21.

In America, an 18 year old is an *adult*, fully recognized as capable of VOTING, signing binding legal contracts, managing their own affairs, of being sent off to war, being held accountable for their own behavior as an adult--including prosecution and incarceration for breaking the law.

If we send 18 year olds to Iraq, and they can sign a contract to buy a house or a car (good luck in this tight credit market), or take out credit in their own name, then they are certainly old enough to drink.

The current drinking age does *nothing* to curb underage drinking. In fact, it only drives it underground and makes it all the more attractive to teens and young adults. It makes booze "Forbidden fruit".

Make drinking legal at 18, the novelty quickly wears off for most teens. Those teens that end up with drinking problems probably would have them anyway and it has nothing to do with their age.

Alcoholism has a genetic component to it. If a person has a history of alcohol/addiction in their family, their predisposition to alcohol problems is already there, no matter what the legal drinking age is.

We need to return to common sense and either raise the age of legal adulthood to 21 (ie, voting, drinking, contracts, military service, etc) or lower the drinking age to 18 to match the other adult privileges and rights bestowed upon adults.

We can't have it both ways.