JOIN OUR NEWSLETTER
img

Reasons to Challenge the Drinking Age

The drinking age deprives millions of people of their freedom and leads to hundreds of thousands of arrests each year. On top of this, the drinking age promotes unsafe drinking habits and fails to teach moderate use. It’s time to look honestly at the ineffectiveness, the injustice, and the harm that this law causes to our society.

1. The punishments for underage drinking cause widespread harm.

For every life the drinking age is supposed to save, it disrupts or ruins a hundred others. Here are just a few of the different groups of people who face harmful penalties from laws related to underage drinking:

  • Underage drinkers Using a report by the FBI, sociologist Mike A. Males estimates that in 2015 police arrested 163,000 people under age 21 for liquor law violations. Underage drinkers face a wide variety of legal consequences, including fines, driver’s license revocation, community service, and even jail time.
  • College students In addition to the consequences that any underage drinker can face, college students can face additional penalties from their schools. These include probation, loss of financial aid, and suspension or expulsion.
  • Bar and restaurant workers can face a wide variety of consequences if underage drinking happens on their watch. In addition to thousands of dollars in fines and jail time, their liquor licenses may be suspended, losing them thousands more in profits. Employees who serve minors—even by accident—can be fired.
  • Parents can face criminal repercussions if their children drink. For example, in 2003 Elsa and George Robinson were sentenced to 27 months in prison for providing alcohol at their son’s birthday party. Such parents can even lose custody of their children.
  • Underage non-drinkers You don’t actually have to drink or possess alcohol in order to get punished for it. In many jurisdictions, police can charge minors in attendance (MIAs) at parties where underage drinking happens, even if they weren’t drinking. High school students can also be forced to take an invasive blood test simply for being at a football game when a beer can was found under the bleachers.

2. Raising the drinking age has not saved lives.

The most popular argument used to defend the drinking age is that it saves lives. However, this claim is highly questionable. Here’s what actually happened when the drinking age was raised to 21:

  • It did not cause a significant decrease in drunk driving deaths. Although drunk driving deaths fell during the 1980s, this decrease was already underway when the drinking age was raised in 1986. There were a lot of other factors that contributed to the decrease, such as increased seat belt use, lower BAC limits, and more negative social attitudes towards drunk driving.
  • It moved drunk driving deaths from one age bracket to another. In an unrefuted study, Peter Asch and David Levy showed that raising the drinking age merely transferred drunk driving deaths from the 18-20 age group to the 21-24 age group. Their research confirmed their hypothesis that the real risk factor for drinking and driving is being an inexperienced drinker, not being under 21.
  • It had no effect on long-term alcohol deaths. The long-term rate of alcohol deaths among a group of people has less to do with whether drinking is legal for them, and more to do with other societal factors. Many other countries with stricter alcohol prohibition than the US have worse long-term alcohol problems. Meanwhile, many other countries with easier access to alcohol than the US have fewer long-term alcohol problems.

 

 

3. The current drinking age causes bad drinking habits.

The drinking age ensures that most of us start drinking in secret. Secrets of any kind are psychologically unhealthy, causing anxiety, negative thought patterns, and depression. Combined with an emotion-amplifying drug like alcohol, it’s no wonder the psychological effects of illegal drinking can be disastrous.

In addition to psychological problems, the secrecy of underage drinking can make it unsafe. Concentrating all the alcohol for the week into a single party leads underage drinkers to consume 90% of their alcohol through binge drinking. Underage drinkers may consume extra alcohol in order to get rid of evidence and avoid detection. They may also drink more since they do not know when they will be able to drink again and do not want to waste a scare resource. Binge drinking is an extremely dangerous way to consume alcohol, costing the US $224 billion annually in healthcare and other damages.

The drinking age also leaves inexperienced drinkers without experienced friends and family to keep an eye on them. This lack of support, combined with inexperience, increases the risk of sexual assault, unprotected sex, and drunk driving. Of course, alcohol can impair judgement and make people more vulnerable. But many of the negative consequences of drinking are less likely to happen to a drinker who is under the supervision of responsible friends or family members – benefits we are unlikely to have when we can only consume alcohol in secret.

4. Increased enforcement would make things worse, not better.

People who defend the drinking age like to say that if we simply enforced it more, nearly all of the problems caused by underage drinking would stop. But this is not true. Currently, the drinking age turns 7.7 million Americans into lawbreakers. The vast majority of these are never caught. Despite the harsh punishments for underage drinkers, only 1 in 1,000 instances of underage drinking actually results in an arrest. Even if we arrested ten times as many people as we do now (which would be extremely difficult and expensive), it would still not be enough to deter underage drinking. The law is simply unrealistic, and yet people would rather see it routinely disobeyed than see it repealed.

A poorly enforced law can cause problems by encouraging people to not take laws seriously, but increased enforcement would only make matters worse. It would mean arresting even more people (some of them certainly innocent), disrupting even more lives, pushing more people into jails, and creating more criminals. The US already has the highest incarceration rate in the entire world. Arresting everyone who drinks before they turn 21 would not only contribute to this problem directly by imprisoning otherwise law-abiding people, but would also place many drinkers and servers in adult jails and expose them to other types of criminal behavior. Jail can have serious long-term consequences even if you are only there for a short amount of time.

7. The highest drinking age in the world hasn’t put us ahead of other countries.

The United States is one of only a handful of countries (and the only Westernized one) that sets its drinking age to 21. And yet this higher drinking age has not put us ahead of other developed countries in any measurable way.

The US actually has worse traffic accident statistics than similar countries that set their drinking age at 18. According to the World Health Organization, other high-income countries have a traffic fatality rate of 8.7 per 100,000 people, whereas the US has a rate of 11.4 per 100,000 people. This is partly because of our society’s strong car culture, but also partly because of how we approach traffic safety. In much of the US, the top law enforcement priority is stopping underage drinking. In Europe, the top law enforcement priority is catching speeders and drunk drivers on the roads: the ones who actively pose a threat.

The US also has a higher prevalence of alcohol-related problems such as alcohol-use disorders, alcohol dependence, and harmful use of alcohol than many European countries—all of which have lower drinking ages and higher rates of alcohol consumption. The US even has a higher prevalence of “heavy episodic drinking” among its population than developed countries such as Australia, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, and Spain. Clearly, the highest drinking age in the world does not have the dramatic benefits our society pretends it does. It is strange for a country that values individual liberty to be such an outlier, and yet to have so little to show for it.

 

img

OUR BLOG

img

Lowering the drinking age could be cost effective

In the 1980s, states decided to raise their drinking age to 21. Surprisingly, it wasn’t because of safety, public pressure, or even their own emotions. The...

BY Sebastian Barajas
img

Youth Rights Election Results

While the shocking upset for president is at the forefront of media coverage right now, there were several youth rights issues on the ballot yesterday that...

BY NYRA
img

Drinking Age on the Ballot in Massachusetts

I am a long time NYRA member and thanks to my petitioning efforts, next month in Amherst Massachusetts voters will be able to vote on whether...

BY Matthew Malone
img

Wacky email of the week – on the drinking age

At NYRA, we get emails. Many write to thank us for our work. Some write to share new ideas or to provide thoughtful feedback. And some...

BY Bill Bystricky
img

Youth Rights 101, Part 9: Not a Drop to Drink

This is part of the Youth Rights 101 series. Please check out Youth Rights 101: Introduction for the rest of the series and more information. Alcohol...

BY Katrina Moncure
img

Continuing King’s Legacy

Every year around this time, we hear the same soundbites from Martin Luther King’s poetic but relatively innocuous “I Have a Dream” speech. In some schools,...

BY Bill Bystricky
img

NYRA Runs Lower the Drinking Age Billboard

NYRA is beginning a local advertising campaign in Abilene, Texas to initiate reforms towards a lower drinking age and to raise awareness of youth rights. This...

BY Alex Koroknay-Palicz
View More
img

Youth Rights Election Results

While the shocking upset for president is at the forefront of media coverage right now, there were several youth rights issues on the ballot yesterday that...

BY NYRA
img

Lowering the drinking age could be cost effective

In the 1980s, states decided to raise their drinking age to 21. Surprisingly, it wasn’t because of safety, public pressure, or even their own emotions. The...

BY Sebastian Barajas
img

Drinking Age on the Ballot in Massachusetts

I am a long time NYRA member and thanks to my petitioning efforts, next month in Amherst Massachusetts voters will be able to vote on whether...

BY Matthew Malone
View More