Moderating drinking laws will moderate young drinkers

By Jonathan Riches
Arizona Daily Wildcat
Tuesday, March 22, 2005

At some point during their journeys back from Mexico, countless spring breakers likely raised a decades-old complaint among young college students: The drinking age in the United States is, well, wack. Not only does a national drinking age of 21 make criminals out of millions of young people, but it promotes dangerous traditions and encourages immoderate drinking habits that could have lifelong ramifications. So, while a group of young people who just spent the better part of a week in a state of drunken debauchery may not have much of anything (including money, or, say, credibility) left, they do have a point.

Traditional arguments for lowering the drinking age in the United States tend to focus on the obvious inconsistencies among other age-restricted laws. In this country, individuals may join the armed forces, elect their leaders, drive an automobile, fly an airplane, marry one another, have contracts enforced against them, and in some cases adopt a child. But, these same individuals may not drink alcohol for up to three years after they gain the legal right to do all of these things.

To put the matter in perspective, what this means is that our laws allow us to take a husband or wife, but prohibit us from taking a sip of champagne at our own wedding reception. Moreover, 18-year-old citizens may fight and die in defense of this country, but they may not have a beer with their older comrades to celebrate their arrival home. Even the staunchest supporter of current drinking laws may be hesitant to suggest that the judgment and maturity necessary to drive an automobile or adopt a child is somehow less than that necessary to drink alcohol.

That said, there are valid arguments for keeping the drinking age at 21. First, there is a great deal of growth that occurs between the ages of 18 and 21. Perspectives and priorities change as people become more comfortable with the idea of adulthood. As a result, the intrigue of alcohol and the desire to party often give way to other considerations. Still, this observation does not account for the often absurd inconsistencies that result from the differing age-restrictive laws mentioned above.

So, if policymakers and citizens have decided that individuals are adults at the age of 18, then let us treat them that way. If, however, we do not think that people reach adulthood until they are 21, then change the age of other activities that individuals can now participate in at 18. But, do not leave 18-, 19-, and 20-year-olds dangling between adolescence and adulthood with but one forbidden fruit separating them from the rest of the adult citizenry.

The second, and more important, argument for keeping the current drinking age at 21 is the statistical correlation between a lowered drinking age and the incidence of automobile accidents. Most of this data comes from the early 1970s, when states were free to set their own drinking age restrictions without losing federal highway funds. Evidence from this period suggests that states with a lower drinking age also had a higher rate of automobile accidents and automobile-related deaths among teenagers.

However, a number of factors may account for this correlation apart from the drinking laws themselves. Moreover, if it is drinking and driving that we are concerned with, then that is the problem we should seek to address. For instance, there is also a correlation between stronger DUI laws and lower rates of alcohol-related accidents. The point is this: If teenagers choose to drink, they will find a way to do so. If lawmakers are concerned with their safety on the road, then they should tailor laws to address that concern. At the same time, it may be wise to fashion laws that seek to create a culture of responsibility rather than prohibition.

This brings us to Europe, custom and the mystic of the magic number 21. In most European countries, the legal drinking age is 16. In some, such as the United Kingdom, it is 18, and in others, such as Poland, there is no minimum drinking age.

While statistical comparisons between the United States and Europe on the number of binge drinkers and alcohol-related accidents are difficult to interpret precisely, one thing is clear from personal experience in that part of the world - Europeans do not mystify alcohol. While many young Europeans overindulge, they do not view drinking as the rite of passage that it has become among their American counterparts.

The American attitude often results in dangerous traditions, such as a "power hour" that killed a young man last year in North Dakota who had attempted to drink 21 shots from midnight on his 21st birthday until the bar closed at 1 a.m.

So, the trick, it would seem, is not to withhold alcohol from young adults, but to promote a mentality that places the significance of drinking in its proper perspective. Then we will find that like most things in life once you take the mystery out you are left with something that is, well, sober.

Jonathan Riches is a first-year law student. He can be reached at