Should the drinking age be lowered?

While thinking about Doghead, I was reminded of a joke I heard a few years ago: “Sometimes I think it should be illegal for me to drink. Then I remember, it is illegal for me to drink.” It is funny, yes, but it also highlights the uneasy relationship the drinking age has with the real world. The vast majority of Americans drink before they turn 21, and yet the vast majority also believe that the age limit should remain unchanged. This discrepancy points to the complexity of the issue and to the competing values at stake. There are costs and benefits both to lowering it and to keeping it the same. Ultimately, however, I would have to side with the majority—lowering the drinking age would cause more harm than good.

There are three main arguments for lowering the drinking age. One is that since teenagers will drink regardless of any law, it is better for them to do so in regulated environments. As it is, teenagers must go to unsupervised places to drink—places like parties and frat houses where binge drinking is the norm. If 18-year-olds could drink in restaurants and bars, the thinking goes, they would drink with greater moderation.

The second argument is related, addressing the repercussions of binge drinking. If the drinking age were lower, 18-20 year-olds might not be afraid to seek help for alcohol-related issues, lowering the risk of serious and even fatal consequences.

Thirdly, proponents for a lowered drinking age argue that the current law is simply unfair. In the U.S., you are considered an adult once you turn 18. You’re allowed to vote, marry, and join the military, but should you have a celebratory glass of champagne at any of these events, you would be breaking the law. This seems to me the strongest argument. We have a situation in which young men are considered mature enough to die in a war and yet not mature enough to have a beer. It is a bizarre contradiction.

While these arguments do have merit, opponents have made what I believe are stronger counter arguments. First, statistical data disputes the idea that teenagers would drink more responsibly if the drinking age were lower. After the 21-year-old drinking age was established in 1984, rates of binge drinking among the underage dropped significantly. In addition, binge drinking peaks among 21 to 25-year-olds. If legalization has not prevented binge drinking among this group, then it is unlikely to prevent it among younger populations.

The second argument, that teenagers would be more inclined to get help if they weren’t afraid of legal consequences, is flawed as well. In the case of drugs and alcohol, there are policies already in place that allow people to get help without being charged. You don’t need to legalize either to address this problem. Indeed, lowering the drinking age would increase the numbers of drinkers and virtually guarantee an increase in alcohol-related injuries, exacerbating rather than solving the problem.

Thirdly, the fact that 18 is the age of adulthood does not mean that all rights and privilege must be conferred at that time. For example, you have to be 21 to gamble, buy a gun, and, in several states, adopt a child. There are many activities for which one must be older than 18. Considering the dangers alcohol poses to developing brains in particular, it makes sense that drinking is one of these activities, as we should prioritize health over adherence to an arbitrary age of adulthood.

Perhaps the most convincing argument in favor of the 21-year-old drinking age is the number of lives saved. The higher drinking age saves an estimated 900 lives per year in prevented car accidents alone. It has also reduced the prevalence of drinking in those under 18-years-old. Though the law does not eliminate underage drinking, it does make it much more difficult for younger age groups to obtain liquor.

Both proponents and critics of the current drinking age have the well-being of teenagers as their goal, but they disagree on the means to achieve them. For me, however, the answer is clear: keeping the drinking age 21 is society’s safest choice.