In the past century, the United States has been host to a smattering of drinking ages from 18 to 21. In some states, loopholes allowing 18-year-olds to drink alcohol were not closed until as recently as 1995. As of now, all 50 states and the territories of the United States, besides Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, hold minimum drinking ages of 21 years old. The United States is one of only seven nations to have the highest drinking age of 21, with most countries in the world falling somewhere between the ages of 16 to 18.
So why, in a country who’s had a younger drinking age for so many years prior, has the minimum drinking age been fixed at so high a number? In reality, a drinking age of 18 would be much more feasible and able to ensure safe, healthy drinking for people between 18 and 21 years old.
A common argument in keeping the drinking age so high in America is to keep alcohol away from high school-aged kids. The biggest reason for this is the fact that alcohol can be dangerous to the adolescent brain, inhibiting development and even possibly causing bad habits and addiction later in life. These concerns are cetainly valid, but the drinking age is hardly successful in America with preventing high schoolers from obtaining alcohol.
In fact, More and more teenagers today are acquiring fake identification early in the high school career, with some people acquiring fake IDs as early as their sophomore year. (LiveScience, “Fake ID use is common, fuels underage drinking,” 10.18.13) Because of this and their desire to make more money, many liquor stores are rather lenient with younger buyers—as long as they have some sort of reasonable ID. If these high schoolers do not have a fake ID, they can also instead use older siblings, friends, acquaintances or even parents who are willing to purchase alcohol for them. If the drinking age were lowered, it would prevent this whole slew of black market illegal activity that puts so many people at risk.
As for the health risk and bad habit dangers that alcohol poses, introducing alcohol at a younger age will help to prevent the binge drinking culture that this country has developed. What raising the drinking age has failed to do is reduce drinking itself. Now, compared to when drinking was legal at 18, teenagers instead just drink in unsupervised settings. The imposing risk of getting caught causes teenagers to drink a lot of alcohol in a short period of time, increasing the likelihood that they will drink a lot more than they can handle.
Proof of this mentality is apparent in the age of Prohibition. When alcohol was banned in the United States from 1920 to 1933, everyone continued to drink alcohol, but they instead did so in secret. This meant that people drank as much as possible before authorities could show up to subsequently get them in trouble. (The New York Times, “Return the Drinking Age to 18, and Enforce it”, 2.10.15)
If an 18-year-old drinking age existed, the practice of “pre-gaming” in college would be virtually eliminated. Without the fear of being punished by police or college campus security officers, students would not feel the need to get drunk prior to going out for the night. Most importantly, many underage drinkers are reluctant to seek help for a friend who drank too much because of the risk of getting in trouble. A lower drinking age would encourage more openness and promote safety when kids are drinking.
What is really shocking is the number of opportunities 18-year olds have without the ability to legally drink. Today in the United States, 18-year olds, who are considered adults in our society, can drive a car, vote in elections, get married, and even fight for their country. However, what they cannot do is drink elgally.
These four things together arguably hold much more responsibility and require more responsibility than drinking alcohol does. Drinking alcohol is simply very much a part of adulthood. People drink at business dinners and social gatherings and it’s unfair to make young people wait to be exposed to that part of life.
One of the biggest reasons people promote a higher drinking age is preventing car accidents and saving lives. Drinking and driving, or driving under any sort of intoxication is a very significant issue, proven by the fact that in this country, a person is injured in a drunk driving accident every two minutes, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). If this is not shocking enough, two out of every three people will be involved in a drunk driving accident in their lifetime. While this is a huge concern, the fact of whether lowering the drinking age would affect these statistics is debatable. For example, “countries that use 18 for both the drinking and drive age generally have safer highways than the United States,” (The New York Times, “Lower the Drinking Age to 19”, 2.10.15)
Raising the drinking age since the 1980s has been successful in decreasing drunk driving incidents, but this also has to do in part with stricter seatbelt and D.U.I. laws. (The New York Times, “Return the Drinking Age to 18, and Enforce it”, 2.10.15) It is true that drunk driving is higher for newly-legal drinkers, but any increase in drunk driving for 18-year olds would most-likely be counteracted by a decrease in drivers close to the age of 21, due to the fact that they will be more familiar with alcohol as a drug as well as its effects.
—Sarah Sandler ’18 is a student at Vassar College.