The Minimum Legal Drinking Age and Public Health

The legal drinking age should remain twenty-one because drinking below the age of twenty-one negatively impacts brain development, contributes to alcohol dependence, and causes more deaths.

Argument Developing

The first claim – Topic Sentence 1

The first reason that the legal drinking age should remain at twenty-one is that alcohol negatively impacts the development of a young person’s brain, which leads to memory loss and poor decision making.

Young people who drink have more trouble making new memories and memorizing information. While an adolescent’s brain is developing, the skill for judging the consequences of actions and responding to stress is being formed.

A Committee on Developing a Strategy to Reduce and Prevent Underage Drinking found that the hippocampus of a brain, which makes new memories, was smaller in youth that drank alcohol than youth that didn’t. This, in turn, made youth who drank perform more poorly on memory tests than their nondrinking peers. The research also showed that “alcohol use during adolescence may have a direct effect on brain functioning: negative effects included decreased ability in planning and executive functioning, memory, spatial operations, and attention—all of which are important to academic performance and future functioning” (Bonnie, R.

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J., & OConnell, M. E. 2004 p. 65). The impairment of this essential brain development due to alcohol leads to decreased school performance, risky sexual activity, and drunk driving.

According to the Task Force of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, most college students stated that their drinking affected their grades due to absence, low test grades, and lack of work.

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(Task Force of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2002) Furthermore, “400,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 had unprotected sex and more than 100,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 reports having been too intoxicated to know if they consented to have sex”. (Task Force of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2002). They also reported that 2.1 million college students drove drunk in 2001. (Task Force of the National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2002).
The second claim – Topic Sentence 2

Lowering the drinking age could also lead to a higher percentage of alcohol dependence and substance abuse later in life.

The younger a person is when they start drinking, the more likely they are to develop a dependence. “Research shows the people who start drinking before the age of fifteen are four times more likely to meet the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.” (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 2020)

Lowering the drinking age could lead to not only alcohol dependence but also substance abuse later.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, people with alcohol disorders are eighteen times more likely to use prescriptions that are not for medical use. Two studies were conducted to get these percentages from 2001-2005. (NIDA, 2008)

Alcohol dependence and substance abuse could then lead to health problems.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alcohol contributed to approximately 88,000 deaths, and one and ten deaths among working-age adults died because of the use of alcohol. Alcohol also contributes to higher blood pressure, heart disease, increased risk of a stroke, and other health-related problems. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019).

A third claim – Topic Sentence 3

Arguably, the most important reason to keep the drinking age at twenty-one is that the law “saves lives.”
Drinking at a younger age could lead to more drunk driving accidents because youth who drink and drive are at a higher risk of accidents than adults who do the same. According to the California DMV, “Teenagers who drink and drive are at much greater risk of serious crashes than are older drivers with equal concentrations of alcohol in their blood.” (State of California DMV, n.a)

Lowering the drinking age could also lead to more accidental deaths, such as drowning, burning, and falling. Excessive drinking is responsible for more than 4000 deaths among underage youth each year. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020). “In 1999 nearly 40 percent of people under age 21 who were victims of drownings, burns, and falls tested positive for alcohol.” (Bonnie, R. J., & OConnell, M. E, 2004, p. 60) If the legal age for drinking was lowered to anything below twenty-one, this death toll would only increase.

There could not only be more accidental deaths, but there could also be more intentional deaths because youth who drink are more violent and suicidal. Heavy alcohol use can lead to feelings of hopelessness, which in turn can bring suicide thoughts and attempts. In 2000 alcohol was associated with 12 percent of males and 8 percent of females in suicides of people under the age of twenty-one (Bonnie, R. J., & OConnell, M. E, 2004).

Refuting Opponents’ Arguments

Opposing view 1

College administrators believe that the drinking age should be lowered to eighteen. They think that having the age at twenty-one has only encouraged drinking more by making it an act of rebellion that takes place “underground.” While this argument sounds logical, previous countries that lowered the age to eighteen found the results to be problematic.

Former college president S. Georgia Nugent believes that the twenty-one-year-old age limit has created, rather than solved, problems. (Nugent, 2015). Although Nugent makes a strong case, she does not seem to have looked at this law from all sides. When states adopted the Minimum Legal Drinking Age, car crashes saw a sixteen percent median decline. There was also a decline in drinking among young adults from eighteen to twenty years old from fifty-nine percent in 1985 to forty percent in 1991. That is a significant decrease and shows Nugent’s error in taking all the facts into consideration. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020).

Opposing view 2

At the age of eighteen, a person becomes a legal adult; they can vote and enlist in the military. However, they cannot drink alcohol, and some do not think that this is fair. While they do have a point about certain responsibilities and privileges that come with reaching adulthood, at age eighteen, a person’s mind, body, and judgment are still developing.

New Zealand's minimum purchase age for alcohol was reduced from age twenty to age eighteen in 1999. A study conducted in 2004 and 2005 by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism determined this change to be detrimental. Their results showed increased drinking and risky behaviors among 16-19-year old’s due to this change. They also found that this demographic was drinking more in different contexts, such as night clubs. (Gruenewald, et al., 2015)

Updated: May 19, 2021
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The Minimum Legal Drinking Age and Public Health. (2020, Sep 12). Retrieved from

The Minimum Legal Drinking Age and Public Health essay
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