Is It Time To Reconsider The National Drinking Age?

beer_mugHas the United States drinking age of 21 failed? More than 100 college presidents think it has, signing a proposal to lower the drinking age to 18 in an effort they hope will curb binge drinking and promote moderation on college campuses. Spearheaded by former Middlebury College President John McCardell, the Amethyst Initiative was drafted in response to a growing concern among college administrators that the high nationally mandated drinking age in the United States is promoting an unhealthy culture of clandestine binge drinking among college students. The initiative has been signed off by the presidents of prestigious institutions including the presidents of Duke University, Dartmouth College and the University of Maryland.

The initiative has stirred strong criticism from groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving, as well health and transportation officials, says the Washington Post. Groups such as MADD claim that the higher drinking age saves over 900 lives per year in drunk-driving related deaths. Other critics contend that college administrators are simply trying to transfer their responsibility in dealing with teenage drinking by putting the burden on parents and high school administrators.

I find the topic to be an interesting one, and see compelling arguments on both sides. As a recent college graduate, I can attest that the message that school administrators send to the students is often convoluted – underage drinking was explicitly prohibited on campus, yet administrators acknowledged that it is nearly impossible to control, and as a result often minimally enforced the policy. Whenever it was perceived by the students that the school was being forced to crack down on underage drinking, underclass students tended to respond in expected and dangerous ways, by locking themselves in dorm rooms and “pre-gaming” with bottles of hard alcohol.

Lowering the drinking age would also be beneficial to small businesses in college towns, particularly bars and music venues. During the 1970s, the small New England town where I went to college had several bars and other establishments catered to students, yet these businesses shut down when the national drinking age was enforced. As a result there is relatively little interaction between the students and members of the community, as well as few places for students to go that aren’t owned and promoted directly by the school itself.

Unfortunately for the signatories of the Amethyst Initiative, it is extremely unlikely that lowering the drinking age will ever be seriously considered on the national stage. The national drinking age is enforced by Congress by tying the 21 and over age to federal highway funding - it is unconstitutional for Congress to directly mandate a drinking age, yet does so by threatening to cut any state’s access to federal highway funding if the drinking age is ever lowered. With the vast majority of the voting public over the age of 21, few voters are directly affected by the drinking age, yet most voters have a real concern in maintaining federal highways.

It is unfortunate that there is little chance of a serious debate on this important issue, and I find it disappointing that groups such as MADD overwhelmingly oppose any real discussion. The decrease in drunk-driving related deaths is a significant and compelling argument for keeping the drinking age at 21 – yet how does this compare to injuries and deaths related to binge drinking, and have these numbers actually been increasing as the college presidents say they have? More importantly, how does a culture of binge-drinking and excess affect people later in life – would a lower drinking age and an emphasis on moderation result in lower rates of alcoholism in the future? These are important questions that I would hope could be addressed by these groups, yet fear that they will never be seriously discussed at a national level.


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