In recent times, the minimum age for drinking in the United States has come under debate. Currently, in the United States, all 50 states bar individuals below the age of 21 from consuming alcohol. Because of the National Minimum, Drinking Age Act passed in 1984, every state had raised the minimum legal drinking age (or MLDA) to 21 years of age by 1988.
Although many have argued that the minimum drinking age in the United States should be lowered to 18 years of age, research has now demonstrated that keeping the age at 21, is not only beneficial from the perspective of reducing alcohol-related highway fatalities but also non-transportation related illnesses and injuries.
In the summer of 2008, more than 100 college presidents and other higher education officials signed the “Amethyst Initiative”. This initiative calls for a reexamination of the minimum legal drinking age in the United States. One of the main arguments of this initiative is that MLDA results in more dangerous drinking which can be avoided if the age limit were to be lowered.
Another initiative called “Choose Responsibility” proposes “a series of changes that will allow 18–20 year-olds to purchase, possess and consume alcoholic beverages” (http://www.choose responsibility.org/proposal/.) Supporters of this initiative propose that “supervised drinking” will result in fewer instances of dangerous teen drinking which will, in turn, reduce the number of drinking-related accidents and fatalities.
Several states, including Kentucky, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Missouri, South Dakota, Minnesota, and Vermont, have put forth various legislative proposals to lower their state’s drinking age from 21 to 18, though no state has adopted a lower minimum legal drinking age yet.
However, many studies have pointed out the dangers of doing so. Consumption of alcohol contributes to a significant public health problem. Researchers Hingson et al. (2003) conducted a survey of over 14 thousand students from 119 colleges and found that students exposed to alcohol below the age of 19 were more likely to become frequent and heavy drinkers. Many reported driving after 5 or more drinks. Carpenter and Dobkin (2011) reported that consuming over 5 drinks resulted in a blood alcohol level of 0.1, while the legal limit in the U.S is .08. This constituted “binge” drinking which results in moderate to severe impairments in coordination, concentration, reflexes, peripheral vision, and depth perception. In the 18 – 25 age group, 80% of deaths were a result of motor accidents caused due to impaired abilities. Hingson (2003) also found that “Respondents who consumed alcohol at younger ages believed they could consume more drinks and still drive safely and legally; this contributed to their greater likelihood of driving after drinking and riding with high or drunk drivers.” If the drinking age is lowered, the incidence of bars and pubs selling to patrons younger than 21 is mind-boggling. Not only would it result in a greater number of risky behaviors but also an increased number of violent, aggressive acts in individual neighborhoods (Stewart 2012).
Much of the attention has mainly been concentrated around drinking and driving. However, reiterating the dangers of teen alcohol consumption, the U.S Federal Trade Commission (2010) included other negative outcomes such as altered brain development, poor academic grades, and reduced workforce productivity.
Researchers Birckmayer & Hemenway (1999) examining data from 1970 – 1990 found that teen suicide was higher when the teens were exposed and consumed alcohol at ages younger than 21 years. Their study estimated that lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 would increase the number of suicides in the 18 – to 20-year-old population across the country. Alcohol consumption also interferes with brain development among teens, making them vulnerable to memory loss, depression, violence, and addiction and reducing decision-making ability.
Arguments have usually been made comparing the legal consumption age in countries across Europe, many of which are below the age of 21. However, critics point to the fact that many studies show that when the consumption age is lowered a greater percentage of teens between the ages of 15 – 16 consume alcohol (38%) as compared to 20% of teens in the U.S in the same age group.
Mark Rosenker, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board in 2007 also maintains that “when teens drink and drive they are highly unlikely to use seat belts. These are the facts, and it would be a serious mistake and a national tragedy to weaken existing drinking age laws.
But perhaps one of the biggest reasons as to why the drinking age should not be lowered is because alcohol consumption is seen as a pathway to other drugs. Calling it the “gateway theory”, Kandel et al (1992) showed that the age and frequency of use of alcohol were predictors of the slide to stronger mind-altering or psychoactive drugs in both men and women. Following individuals from 15 to 35 years of age, the researchers were able to conclude that usage of alcohol or cigarettes at an early age lay the groundwork for the consumption of stronger drugs in the future.
Realizing this strong evidence against lowering the drinking age, poll after poll shows that 87% of the American public is strongly opposed to lowering the drinking age. Both state and national surveys reveal that there is strong support for MLDA 21.
Plain logic states that as teens develop into adulthood, they become more mature. They are less likely to be swayed by peer pressure and can be counted on to make less dangerous choices. Time and again, teens seem to be pressured into committing foolhardy tasks after drinking. While raising the minimum age for drinking to 21 years may not completely do away with teens engaging in dangerous behavior, it may at least decrease the incidence of fatalities and violent acts.
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