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When the minimum legal drinking age was raised to 21 in 1984, Americans were optimistic that alcohol-related problems among teenagers and young adults would decrease. The new nationwide law seemed to make sense: young beginning drivers were prohibited from purchasing, possessing and, presumably, consuming alcohol, meaning that alcohol-related driving fatalities would likely decrease. At the time, the general public had reason to support the national Minimum Drinking Age Act and take hope in this new policy’s goal to make American roadways a safer place for motorists.
Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, the leading cause of death among teenagers was motor vehicle crashes, and studies conducted prior to the national Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 found that “motor vehicle crashes increased significantly among teens” in states with lower minimum legal drinking ages of 18, 19 or 20 years old (American Medical Association). Since that time, all of the states have continued to maintain a minimum legal drinking age of 21, and alcohol-related driving fatalities have generally decreased (McCardell).
However, what the general public is largely unaware of is that the Act itself has little to do with the general decrease in alcohol-related driving fatalities, that alcohol-related driving fatalities among young people have actually increased (Blanchett), and that the current minimum legal drinking age continues to be enforced by all states for reasons other than the apparent general decrease in alcohol-related motor vehicle fatalities. In fact, as this paper hopes to prove, the current minimum legal drinking age of 21 does little to prevent alcohol-related traffic fatalities among teenagers and young adults and is completely ineffective in reducing binge drinking, what many consider till now to be the nation’s most severe and detrimental alcohol-related problem among this age group. As this paper seeks to argue, we must revisit our current national drinking laws and lower the minimum legal drinking age in order to combat the contemporary problem of binge drinking and reduce alcohol-related fatality rates among our nation’s teens and young adults, especially those who attend college.
As immortalized in movies like Animal House and MTV’s Spring Break, college and drinking go hand-in-hand, almost synonymously. But, as news reports and other fact-reporting agencies have shown, the amount of drinking done at college parties is often dangerous, and sometimes, deadly. The National Institute on Alcohol and Alcoholism reports that “more than 80 percent of American youth consume alcohol before their 21st birthday,” that “data from several national surveys indicate that about four in five college students drink” and that “about half of college student drinkers engage in heavy episodic consumption” known as binge drinking. The NIAAA defines binge drinking as having four or five drinks in a row (for women and men, respectively) and regards this practice as a “highly dangerous form of alcohol consumption.”
With so many college students - many of them are underage - engaging in such dangerous social drinking practices, learning why this phenomenon is so widespread throughout U.S. campuses, understanding its consequences and determining how to combat this “major public health problem” (NIAAA) is of vital importance to America’s young adults.
As reported less than three years ago by Molly Blanchett on behalf of Oregon’s KVAL online news source, “College drinking deaths are on the rise across the country” and “a new study finds an increase in drunken accidental deaths, binge drinking and drunken driving among young people” (Blanchett), despite the minimum legal drinking age law upheld by all 50 states. In fact, Blanchett’s research concludes that although alcohol-related fatalities have generally decreased over the last quarter-century, “between 1998 and 2005, the number of drinking related accidental deaths among 18 to 24 year olds jumped [from] almost 400 to 1,825 deaths” (Blanchett). Important to note about this grim statistical data is that almost half of the ages included in this unfortunate demographic group are legally prohibited from purchasing, possessing and consuming alcohol under the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act. A similar published news report reveals today that as of 2004, binge drinking was responsible for “1,400 student deaths a year, including alcohol-related falls and car crashes” (Davis). Clearly, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which was implemented in order to save the lives of young drinkers and prevent alcohol-related deaths among teens and young adults, is not living up to its expected reductions in alcohol-related fatalities. The roadways may generally be a safer place, but not so for young adults. And as binge-drinking continues to rise among college campuses across the United States, the dangers that contemporary drinking habits pose to young adults have only increased; a fact that flies in the face of the objectives of the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act of 1984.
Many voices have weighed in on this topic over recent years as the problem of binge drinking has come to light, with some suggesting that there is a direct correlation between college students’ binge drinking and the minimum legal drinking age and others suggesting that the problem would only be worse if the drinking age was lowered.
In his illuminating article, entitled, “The 21-Year-Old Drinking Age: I Voted for It; It Doesn't Work,” Dr. Morris E. Chafetz, doctor of psychiatry and founder of the National Institute for Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse, discusses how and why the legal minimum drinking age of 21 is ineffective in reducing alcohol-related fatalities in America. The essay also proposes that binge drinking in general, and not just underage drunk-driving, is the real alcohol-related problem for college students, and that alternatives to a legal drinking age would be more likely to reduce heavy episodic consumption of alcohol.
Chafetz begins his informative article with some general facts and misconceptions about drunk-driving patterns in America since the drinking age was raised to 21 in 1984. As Chaftez points out with efficient simplicity, over the last 30 years, drunk-driving fatality have become lower not just for 18 to 21 year-olds, but “in all age groups,” and drunk-driving fatality rates “have declined just as much in Canada, where the age is 18 or 19, as they have in the United States” (Chafetz).
While citing scientific findings such as these to show how ineffective the current drinking age is, Chafetz also points toward research and data that reveal how big of a problem binge drinking has become among America’s young adults. Chafetz quotes the National Institute for Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse’s estimate “that 5,000 lives are lost to alcohol each year by those under 21” and that “more than 3,000 of those fatalities occur off our roadways” (Chafetz). With such high alcohol-related fatality rates continuing to directly and negatively impact the safety of persons less than 21 years of age, the question must be asked: is the current minimum legal drinking age really working to reduce alcohol-related injuries and deaths among America’s young people? Noted scholar and former president of Middlebury College, John McCardell, thinks not. According to his research, in order to resolve the contemporary drinking problems plaguing American colleges, the current minimum drinking age, which only continues to be enforced due to the government funding associated with it, should actually be lowered or eliminated altogether.
McCardell’s article examines the origins of the nation’s 21 year-old drinking age law as an attempt to “address the problem of drunken driving fatalities,” while also making clear that, since the law’s inception in1984, states have enforced this drinking age “under threat of highway fund withholding” (McCardell) from the federal government. McCardell makes a case for lowering or abolishing the minimum drinking age altogether due to the law’s ineffectiveness in curbing alcohol-related fatalities (as well as the financially-driven political motives behind the law’s continued national enforcement and support), while responding to the concerns and convictions maintained by those who oppose minimum drinking age reform.
McCardell argues that although drunk-driving related fatalities have generally decreased over the last quarter-century, the results are due to increased public awareness and safety education and have little relevancy to the increased minimum legal drinking age. Furthermore, as noted earlier, the drunk-driving related vehicle fatalities of young people have actually increased. Those like McCardell who wish to reform the drinking age appeal that the current legal drinking age does nothing to resolve “the problem today,” which, as established earlier, is the “reckless, goal-oriented alcohol consumption” known as binge drinking (McCardell). As the studies that McCardell points toward show, incidents of binge drinking have not only remained the same among college men but have actually “increased” among college women since the legal drinking age was raised (McCardell). It seems that whether the minimum drinking age of 21 inadvertently promotes underage drinking by way of making alcohol an intriguing taboo to young people (Procon), causes students to binge drinking in an attempt to consume as much alcohol as possible while it is available to underage drinkers (Procon), or simply does not deter or prohibit young people from obtaining alcohol in the way founders of the Act envisioned it would The current minimum drinking age of 21 has done nothing to address or reduce the real alcohol-related threat to young Americans. As McCardell’s work shows, young Americans continue to die in alcohol-related incidents both on and off of the roadways with increased frequency, in spite of the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act. Clearly, this Act is ineffective in saving young lives from alcohol-related deaths. It’s time to look at other alternatives.
Still, there are those who oppose reform initiatives, clinging to the misconception that “the drinking age to 21 has been a success” (McCardell). Some maintain ideological beliefs about morality and social responsibility that blind them to our newfound knowledge about the drinking age’s (in)effectiveness, while others point toward misinterpreted data about lowered incidents of drunk-driving fatalities over the last three decades (McCardell) when supporting the current law.
According to proponents of the current minimum legal drinking age, “research shows that when the MLDA is 21, people under age 21 drink less overall and continue to do so through their early twenties” and “a higher minimum legal drinking age is effective in preventing alcohol-related deaths and injuries among youth” because “when the MLDA has been lowered, injury and death rates increase, and when the MLDA is increased, death and injury rates decline” (American Medical Association). The hidden misconception inherent in this seemingly reliable information put forth by the American Medical Association, however, is that these findings are taken from studies conducted in the late 80s and early 90s, as noted in the AMA’s references. These outdated study results from several decades ago thus do not reflect the current drinking patterns of America’s youth. Yet, these findings continue to underpin arguments in support of the current minimum legal drinking age, such as co-authors Nelson and Toomey’s commentary, entitled, “Drinking Age of 21 Saves Lives.”
In this article, the authors continually reiterate that “a drinking age of 21 has led to less drinking, fewer injuries and fewer deaths” (Nelson and Toomey), mirroring the findings from the early 90s that continue to inform the published conclusions about drinking problems and the current minimum drinking age, as drawn by the American Medical Association. While these findings were indeed true at one point, they are inaccurate now, as they do not reflect, but rather, ignore, the current drinking habits and vital statistics of contemporary young Americans, as reported in more recent study findings such as those quoted above. Yet, these outdated conclusions continue to inform and perpetuate the argument that the drinking age is effective in reducing alcohol-related problems and fatalities among teens and young adults in America.
Nelson and Toomey reject the conclusion drawn by fellow CNN contributor, John McCardell, that lowering the drinking age “will lead to less drinking and related problems among college students” (Nelson and Toomey). In order to refute McCardell’s claims, the authors, like many other proponents of the current minimum drinking age, point toward New Zealand’s increase in “alcohol-involved traffic crashes and emergency room visits among 15- to 19-year-olds” soon after lowering the legal drinking age (Nelson and Toomey). Interesting to note that this time, the authors use more recent study data to support their claims, though they are careful not to reveal the actual date of these findings, referring only to New Zealand’s increase in alcohol-related incidents as a result of the lowered minimum legal drinking age as a “recent” occurrence (Nelson and Toomey).
Meanwhile, a 1995 essay published by scholar Eva Pyörälä demonstrates how a lower minimum legal drinking age actually deters instances of binge drinking in other parts of the world, though proponents of the current minimum legal drinking age conveniently ignore these findings. In her scholarly essay, author Eva Pyörälä compares the drinking patterns of several Finnish and Spanish college students between the ages of 20 and 24. The students come from regions where either wine or hard liquor is the drink of choice, and where drinking is used as a social tool as well as a means toward achieving drunkenness. Pyörälä’s study is guided by questions to the students pertaining to social drinking patterns, such as “What is a pleasant drinking situation like? What is an unpleasant drinking situation like? What was your best experience of drinking and drunkenness like?” (219). A few of the Spanish students reported binge drinking and drunkenness, while many other Spanish and Finnish students did not. Contrary to the argument about international drinking patterns in relation to the minimum drinking age put forth by Nelson and Toomey, Pyörälä’s study finds that some of the social drinking patterns reported by overseas students under 21 actually produced positive bonding experiences that did not lead to binge drinking or drunkenness, or their related consequences to college students (219-221). It seems that while overseas statistics can be manipulated to support proponents of the current minimum legal drinking age’s findings, international anthropological data also demonstrates quite the opposite.
So, if the current minimum legal drinking age of 21 does not address the issue of binge drinking and is ineffective in significantly preventing alcohol-related fatalities among America’s college-aged citizens, what, then, is the alternative? While the current drinking age does little to decrease alcohol-related problems (including binge drinking), to simply abandon the current minimum drinking age law won’t automatically alleviate the issue, either. In looking for possible solutions to the issue, I turn once again to John Mccardell’s work. As McCardell notes, in response to the perceived ineffectiveness of the legal drinking age, several organizations are calling for a revision of the drinking age law, which simply (and ineffectively) demands people not to drink before a certain age. Instead of restricting alcohol, these organizations propose a lowered age limit (comparable with the rest of the world’s), increased alcohol education or even an alcohol licensing system to teach young adults how to drink responsibly and in moderation, which will be more effective than simply telling a certain age group not to drink at all. Like driving, a drinking license would require young adults to learn about and demonstrate appropriate and acceptable drinking habits before granting drinking privileges. Although there is no guarantee that a licensure policy would eliminate binge drinking; it would give young adults the opportunity to learn how to drink responsibly and practice safe drinking habits in accordance with their maturity and demonstration of responsibility, as opposed to allowing or forbidding one to drink in accordance with the arbitrary nature of their physical age.
As my research has shown, education, public awareness and the promotion of responsible drinking habits are the ultimate influences of responsible drinking, not a steadfast law that ineffectively prohibits people from drinking by way of illegalizing alcohol use prior to a certain age. If we truly want to see a decrease in binge drinking and its related dangers on American campuses, then we need to see a decrease (or elimination) in the legal drinking age as well. In its place, we should focus our efforts on promoting and measuring the responsibility of American drinkers and stop looking at birth dates as an indication of drinking rights. Until we can revise our policies concerning the inevitable consumption of alcohol by persons under 21 in America, we have no choice but to continue to bury our youth as they continue to lose their lives to binge drinking, upon which the current minimum legal drinking age seems to have no effect.