August 20 2007

Should the legal drinking age be lowered?

Should the legal drinking age be lowered?How odd that stories I wrote in August of 2005 are becoming relevant again in August 2007. First it was school uniforms, and now we’re hearing rumblings about the Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA).

As I said, I first touched on this back on August 20th, 2005, and… well, two years to the day, I’m back to it. There is a movement for a national petition to lower the legal drinking age, and I have to say I support it.

There are a couple of reasons I think this is a good idea:

A) Demystifying – There is a mysterious quality to alcohol while you’re under 21. I know I certainly fell victim to it when I was younger, and I actually feel my drinking DECREASED once the “taboo factor” of it was removed.

While you’re under the legal drinking age, there is more of an urgency to acquiring the alcohol, a sense of cool factor, almost an elation of triumph in the illegal activity.

B) Why is it the last hurdle? – Why is such a simple act the last hurdle to adulthood? Let me borrow from I said two years ago:

It seems silly that drinking is the last of the hurdles into supposed adult hood in this country. Let’s look at some of things you can do at other ages:

15 – Driving with a permit in some states
16 – Driving with a restricted license
18 – Driving with a full license
18 – Enter legally binding contracts
18 – Vote
18 – Join the military
18 – Take out a loan
18 – Get a credit card
18 – Smoke
18 – Get married without parental consent
18 – Buy a rifle or shotgun
21 – Buy a handgun and handgun ammo

So essentially, you can put yourself into debt for life with credit cards, smoke and give yourself cancer, join the military and go fight a war where you can kill or be killed, buy a rifle, drive a 2 ton coffin on wheels or enter into a contract that could change your life…..but don’t you dare think about having a beer while doing any of these things. Getting married, but you are under 21? Sorry, no champagne for you.

drinking voteAnd, surprise, surprise, people agree with me. (as with all online polls, the results are suspect, but still interesting to read.  This is a vote happening on, and as you can see, the clear majority feels that in some way the drinking age should be lowered.  I fully admit there are probably some kids mixed in there, but it does make one wonder.  A more scientific Gallup poll showed that 77% of people opposed lowering the drinking age, but as someone who has taken one of their polls, I don’t agree with the way they word things.

Anyway you slice it, it still seems silly that people who are old enough to decide to head off to war can’t have a beer.  “Well, Johnny, you’re old enough to pick up a gun and be shot by an Iraqi, but put down the beer, you’re not responsible enough for the decision yet.”

The logic of this country astounds me sometimes.

From the MSNBC article, I do like the idea of  drinking education, it won’t work, but I like it.  I think one of the biggest problems with drinking here is we are never taught moderation.  You look at countries like England that allow children to drink with their parents in a restaurant from the age of 16, and that makes sense to me.  You can start to teach your kids about the responsibilities and the effects of alcohol, but instead, here in the USA, you kind of get thrown into the deep end of the pool and are expected to know how to swim.

We have the highest MLDA of any country in the world, and that just seems wrong to me somehow.

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General Rants | | | | | |


  • There will be an increase in drinking and driving problems because young people believe they are immortal and young males drive too fast.. I think the problem isn’t that people have to wait too long to drink but rather that they can do everything else too soon. Part of the reason for this is American parents aren’t closely bonded to their kids past a certain age and just want them out of the house so they can live their own lives so they want them to be able to drive so they can get a job and move out so they cease cramping their parents’ lifestyle as soon as possible. You find in Asian countries that kids and parents stay together quite a bit longer because the parents actually want their kids with them, even as adults. Hence the reason the age that people are considered legally adults is 20.

    The main problem with the concept of “moderation” is that you can’t teach it individually, particularly when it comes to addictive substances. Notions of excess and moderation are cultural and the U.S. is all about extremes.

    If drunk drivers tended only to kill themselves, that’d make the issue less complicated but they often take out innocent people with them. My husband’s best friend died after drinking and driving only a handful beers. My best friend’s husband also died from drinking and driving (though he was an alcoholic). Both of them were well over 21. Age and volume had less to do with it than legal access.

  • Roy

    Man, you are so right about everything!! I should travel back in time to 2003 and pick your brain. ;-P

  • Shari – The problem is, as I stated, even I drank underage, and I won’t lie, I was an idiot. I would drink under a bridge and then, yes, I drove. If you’re drinking in a bar, at least there are better odds of the bartender stopping you from driving, cops patrolling and so on. In a recent study of 20 year olds mentioned in the MSNBC artticle, 85% had consumed alcohol. The consumption, legal or not, is going to happen, if it happens in a legal setting, there is at least a better chance of control.

    No argument about the US and extremes though. Food, cars, drinking, and more.

  • Roy – this argument goes back as far as the Vietnam war, it’s not new for sure.

  • The main problem with legality is that it will increase the frequency of drinking. 85% may have drunk while under age but how often and how much? If you lower the age, the opportunity goes up such that frequency dramatically increases. Instead of once a month r at an unsupervised location or party, you’ll have it happening every week (possibly several times a week) without restraint.

    The U.S. is simply not in a position to offer the sort of freedom to its young people that other countries offer in this regard because of the culture. The culture seems too hell-bent on overindulgence or total abstinence (about everything).

    You can only count on a bartender stopping you if you drink too much. If you drive too fast or recklessly, you can kill or be killed with as little as two beers under your belt. As I said, that is what killed my husband’s best friend so it isn’t an abstract notion. Also, studies show that reaction times are markedly altered with relatively small amounts of consumption.

    I say the age of conscription should be increased to 21 and I wouldn’t have a problem if everything else were legally changed to reflect 21 being the age where you can legally be an adult. Don’t push drinking back, move everything else forward (except driving which is necessary for work).

  • Roy

    I think they should just lower the age to 18. When you give responsibilities to people I believe the majority will live up to those responsibilities. Having the limit at 21 just makes young people feel like kids longer and delay embracing adulthood. From a maturity point of view I don’t believe there is much difference between 18 and 21 anyways. Treat people like kids and they will always be kids.

  • Sorry, Roy, but there’s absolutely no indication that giving people the privileges of adults will make them into adults. Drinking alcohol isn’t a “responsibility”, it’s a privilege and Americans have shown that access often equals excess. An excellent case in point is the way in which giving credit cards to college kids only results in them racking up more debt by the time they graduate. Responsibility is something Americans shirk, not live up to.

    In Asian culture, this is different as they have different ways of looking at responsibility and obligation. In the States, people in debt declare bankruptcy and say screw their creditors. People who spill coffee and burn themselves sue the place that sold them the drink. People who overeat sue the company that made the snacks. In the U.S., it’s a culture of not being responsible and I have no confidence that giving more privilege will help people grow up any faster.

  • Roy

    The sad truth about America, I guess. Still, I would like to believe that the majority would behave responsibly.

    Speaking of credit cards, you should watch that documentary “Maxed out” Yikes!!! Scared the crap out of me.

  • Jack

    I love these comments, esp. Shari’s point about our “overindulge or ban it all!” culture. I blame the fact that the US was founded by the descendants of criminals and religious fanatics…

    Anyway. This is a crotchety old 36-year-old’s opinion, so factor that in.

    1) I think the formulation “I’m old enough to die for my country, but not old enough to drink?” is a BS abstraction–how often have I heard this from college freshmen who would never dream of enlisting? But it suggests a change that I’d get behind in a big way: keep the legal drinking age at 21, *except for military enlistees.* I think we can take military enlistment as evidence that this 18-year-old, at least, is responsible enough to handle a beer. Heck, do it for marriage, too. Both are life choices that take you off your parents’ tax return.

    2) I’d support legislation that decriminalized drinking for 16-year-olds in a parent’s presence or in the presence of another adult whom their parents have designated as a responsible custodian. (I love this idea; I love anything that gives parents of teens some leverage.)

    3) Alcohol education class = stupid blow off taught by a guidance counselor. (And who takes a guidance counselor’s advice seriously?) If we’re really serious about this idea of changing how people think about drinking, I think a drinking apprenticeship would be a much better idea. Pair each 17-year-old up with an experienced, serious, but responsible drinker with extremely good taste.

  • Dammit, Jack, why do you always have to be right about so many things?

    1) Yes, your solution of waving the drinking age for enlisted/married people is a far better solution than a blanket one. There will be people though that say “Screw it, let’s get married so we can have a beer!”, and that will cause an all new set of problems.

    2) That’s how it’s done in England, and I agree with it. Let the parents educate their children in drinking. Here we have a “Well, here you go, learn to swim on your own!” mentality.

    3) Who would determine who the “responsible” drinkers are though?

    (and no, I haven’t forgotten about dinner… I swear!)

  • Jack

    Ha! Sean, I just had the funniest idea. I just imagined a couple of 18-year-old guys living in Massachusetts–we’ll call them Wayne and Garth for the moment. Since 1) they can only drink if they get married or join the army, 2) no damn way are they gonna join the army, and 3) neither has a girlfriend or any hope of getting one, they just marry each other.

    It might let a lot of the latent homosexuality in burnout/headbanger culture finally work itself out…

    More seriously, I think that any solution to underage drinking is going to create a set of problems. If it’s more restrictive, you just create more lawbreakers. If it’s less restrictive, you give de facto permission for more drinking. An all new set of problems is what you’re going to get, no matter what. I think the trick here is deciding which problems you’d rather have and on what scale. I for one am not convinced that a bunch of 18-year-olds will rush headlong into marriage or the army so that they can drink. On the other hand, if you do let some 18-year-olds drink legally, you can bet your ass they’ll buy for their 18-year-old friends who aren’t allowed…

    I think I meant the “drinking apprenticeship” thing to be kind of a laugh–I think I’d call it “drunkardship” or something. I do think that in life, people become appreciators of good booze (and thus more responsible drinkers?) by being exposed to people who themselves appreciate good booze. I don’t know that a formalized apprenticeship would really work. Probably not. But I think that’s true across the board: I’m skeptical about institutionalized public education efforts, like traffic school or DARE. I think they’re usually done in a boring and mechanical way that fails to really change anyone’s behavior. (I saw some numbers on DARE a year or two ago that were pretty damning.) I think that a drinker education program that took the form of a bar crawl, would actually have a much better chance of success than a classroom experience.