Sunday, August 3, 2008

Why the US Drinking Age Should Be 18

The question of what is the appropriate legal drinking age in the US has often been a lively topic of discussion but even more so in the years since we have been sending 18-20 year olds to war with some of them giving the ultimate sacrifice. Although lowering the drinking age from 21 has never been a popular political position, interestingly enough even some conservative commentators like George Will have questioned the wisdom of keeping our national drinking age at 21.

But when you think about it, a lot of the laws surrounding alcohol consumption are driven by our attitudes towards it. An interesting way to determine a person’s attitude on this subject would be to ask the following question:

Do you believe the consumption of alcohol is more a good thing or a bad thing?

The answers I believe would be most revealing. Some, mostly those who enjoy alcohol would likely say that it is mostly a good thing. Others may dwell on the misery it brings from alcoholism, drunk driving, and sometimes even death. So who is right?

In a balanced view — one that I subscribe to — both views are correct but with the following qualifiers: Responsible consumption of alcohol is a good thing while irresponsible consumption is a bad thing. So by not including the qualifiers, the person answering the question has to put in his or her own qualifiers that reveal ones attitude.

We are bombarded with reminders of what makes irresponsible drinking a bad thing — and with good reason I might add. But especially for those who dwell on what’s bad, the other side needs some equal time. Responsible consumption of alcohol has the capacity to bring pleasure to our lives which for those who choose to drink make it a good thing. For example, alcohol can help to make pleasant or joyous social occasions even more so. And some of my fondest travel memories were my tours of some of the vineyards in California’s Napa Valley where I would sample some of the wines while taking in the incredibly beautiful countryside. But when I found a wine that I fell in love with I then asked the people at the vineyard store whether I could buy it in my home state of Pennsylvania. To which they would usually reply, “Not Pennsylvania — that’s a control state!”

And control is the operative word. For example in Pennsylvania, all wine and liquor stores are operated by the state’s Liquor Control Board. Alcohol is evil you know; we have to control it before it overruns us all!

But in the interest of perspective, we need to ask what percentage of people actually becomes alcohol dependent?
Estimates vary, but it appears that it’s about 5% of the overall population and at least in the US it’s about 8% of the adult population. Without trying to minimize the importance of those who need our help, it should be pointed out that the overwhelming majority of people who drink do so responsibly and without problems. So laws to try and control drinking can be well intentioned. But especially if they are too intrusive, they can become a needless nuisance to responsible drinkers while irresponsible drinkers are just going to do what they want or need to anyhow.

Given all of this, it is easier to understand why experiments with
Prohibition in the US along with just about every other non-Islamic nation in the world have ended in repeal. And while there were enough people in the US in favor of Prohibition to have it passed as a Constitutional Amendment to try and deal with irresponsible drinking, we just couldn’t bring ourselves to bust otherwise law-abiding people who were drinking responsibly. So it was decided that in the interest of treating adults like adults, the repeal of Prohibition was passed.

In my view, the US Prohibition for adults between ages 18-21 is just as misguided. And yes, they are adults by just about any other definition one can think of. One of the principal arguments for lowering the drinking age has been if someone was old enough to go to war, they were old enough to drink. But sociology professor David J. Hanson
in this link expands the argument:

The fact is that citizens are legally adults at the age of 18. They can marry, vote, adopt children, own and drive automobiles, have abortions, enter into legally binding contracts, operate businesses, purchase or even perform in pornography, give legal consent for sexual intercourse, fly airplanes, hold public office, serve on juries that convict others of murder, hunt wildlife with deadly weapons, be imprisoned, be executed, be an employer, sue and be sued in court, and otherwise conduct themselves as the adults they are. And, of course, they can serve in the United States armed services and give their lives defending their country. One of the very few things they can’t legally do is consume an alcohol beverage. They can’t even have a celebratory sip of champagne at their own weddings.
In addition, this creates the absurdity in that someone between 18 and 21 who is arrested for ‘underage’ drinking is treated by the legal system as an adult which means that a conviction goes on his or her permanent record instead of receiving the protected status of a juvenile even though the only reason for the arrest may be based on that person’s youth!

And while many of us in the US can’t even conceive of people being allowed to drink before age 21, when almost all of the rest of the world discusses its problems of underage drinking, they don’t even consider those over 18.

Before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, individual states in the US were allowed to set their own drinking ages without interference from the federal government. But with those under 21 driving to and from neighboring states with lower age limits sometimes with too much to drink, something had to be done. One solution of course would be to lower the age to 18 everywhere to keep these people near home to drink but due to efforts from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) the age was raised to 21 everywhere based on their belief that our brains do not stop developing until our early 20s and that alcohol retards this development.

But in addition to what was supposedly their charter cause, fighting for the passage and enforcement of anti-drunk driver laws, MADD is also quite active in lobbying for legislation that limits access to alcohol regardless of how responsible the consumer may be. Because of this, there are
those who are critical of MADD for being what they view as a neo-prohibitionist group that has gotten out of hand — with one of the critics being its own founder, Candy Lightner who left MADD in 1985.

Despite the threat of losing some federal highway funding by doing so, there is some legislative action starting up in
some states to lower the drinking age. Of course, MADD is there to doggedly lead the fight against that.

Just like Prohibition from the 20s, Prohibition for those between 18 and 21 is just as difficult to enforce, especially on college campuses where the legal and illegal aged population is mixed together. Rather than the adversarial position between people of this age and authority figures on drinking, some are advocating teaching responsible drinking as in the Time article
Should You Drink with Your Kids? . But although the writer is willing to suggest something like this, he still feels that lowering the drinking age is “going too far”.

But is it really? Right now there are already laws that punish people who drink irresponsibly and drive under the influence no matter what their ages are. And you can be sure that irresponsible people like this don’t care about these laws. All we can do for them is to put our efforts into preventing these people from hurting others through anti-drunk driving enforcement.

So that leaves our present law to do little more than legally prohibit 18-20 year olds who are willing and able to drink responsibly from doing so. And that is not a good thing!

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