A Review of the Drinking Age

Many people often say that their most memorable—or perhaps least memorable—birthday was their twenty-first. Twenty-one years old, of course, is the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) for alcohol. Because of the freedom that comes with the ability to legally drink, the age of twenty-one has been deeply ingrained in American society as a sort of rite of passage, but it wasn’t always that way. American drinking laws, in fact, have changed dramatically over the years.

From the early 1970s until 1984, many states had their own drinking ages ranging from eighteen to twenty years old, since regulations pertaining to the age for legal alcohol consumption are delegated to the states by the Tenth Amendment. For much of that time period, Dartmouth College even sponsored pong tournaments. It was in 1984 that President Ronald Reagan, otherwise a good friend of The Review and champion of limiting government overreach, passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The act compelled states to raise their drinking ages to a national minimum of twenty-one, skirting Tenth Amendment issues by making it a “choice” to either comply with the minimum or lose precious highway funding.

We also mustn’t forget another important irregularity in the history of our country’s drinking laws: prohibition. From 1920, when the Eighteenth Amendment to the constitution was ratified, until 1933, when it was repealed by the ratification of the Twenty-First Amendment, “the manufacture, sale, or transportation” of alcohol was illegal throughout the United States.

The National Drinking Age

The National Drinking Age

In the earlier years of our republic, drinking laws fluctuated as well. Before the mid to late 1800s, there was no minimum drinking age anywhere in the country. What little information that is available shows that Wisconsin passed the first such ordinance in 1839, which prevented the sale of wine or liquor to anyone under the age of 18 unless they had a parent’s consent. Select other states followed in the 1880s as the temperance movement gained strength; however, for many states there was little regulation of the consumption of alcohol until the Eighteenth Amendment.

Drinking laws also vary throughout the rest of the world. European governments fail to see any reason for waiting until twenty-one and neither do governments on most other continents. 61% of countries allow the consumption of alcohol at eighteen or nineteen, while another 11% allow teenagers at sixteen or seventeen to partake. England, France, Russia, India, and Australia all have MLDAs between eighteen and nineteen, and Germany, Spain, Switzerland, and Belgium have MLDAs between sixteen and seventeen. Even China’s repressive regime, ranked 141st (below Russia and Turkey) on the Cato Institute’s Freedom index, has no MLDA. America has the highest MLDA of any Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development country. The few other countries who share the MLDA of twenty-one with the United States include the failed state of Iraq and a number of small Pacific Islands.

Clearly, the drinking age is fungible. Countries around the world have set many different guidelines. Even within the United States, it has changed many times over the years and could change again. Considering that a change in the drinking age in the United States is perfectly possible, there are many strong reasons in favor of a change in that age. The MLDA ought not be twenty-one, but rather it should be eighteen—the legal age of majority in just about every other aspect of American life.

First off, there is no significance in the age twenty-one with regards to physiological development. Many opponents of a lower MLDA will argue that the extra three years of (theoretically) not drinking yields better results because it allows the brain to develop. In truth, say MIT researchers, the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that affects decision making and that is mostly affected by alcohol, isn’t fully developed until age twenty-five. This means that current law allows four full years of legal alcohol consumption while the brain is still developing. Clearly, the arbitrary age of twenty-one is not linked to science or brain development.

Second, the twenty-one years old drinking age is a safety hazard. Adults aged eighteen to twenty seek less help because alcohol is illegal and the consequences and stigma are greater. If the drinking age were lowered to eighteen, adults younger than twenty-one would be significantly safer. Considering the fact that the purpose of a drinking age is to ensure the safety of all Americans, lowering the drinking age eighteen makes a lot of sense.

To start with, there is one formality we must get out of the way. People younger the twenty-one do drink, and in fact they drink quite heavily. Some 90% of underage drinking is binge drinking, according to a National Academy of Medicine report. Even conceptually, the prohibition of alcohol doesn’t work. Making something illegal does not stop people from obtaining it if they care enough. Look at Prohibition in America in the 1920s and early ‘30s. Bootleggers made millions sneaking alcohol into the United States from abroad, while moonshiners made illicit alcohol wherever they could and speakeasies opened their doors to serve a large clientele. In the same way that prohibition drove Americans to more secretive and dangerous drinking habits (like drinking poisonous methanol wood alcohol either by accident or out of desperation), “prohibiting” adult Americans aged eighteen to twenty-one from drinking leads to more secretive and dangerous drinking habits.

With an MLDA set at eighteen, adults aged eighteen to twenty would be more likely to seek out help in emergency situations involving alcohol. Let’s look at a hypothetical Friday night at Dartmouth where someone has a little too much to drink, a mistake that could happen to anyone, even a twenty-five-year-old. This intoxicated student, starts to feel nauseous and begins to vomit. If the student were an adult over the age of twenty-one, he or his friends would be more likely stray on the side of caution and call for help if necessary. After all, that is what emergency services are for. Anyone over twenty-one with health insurance would be transported to a hospital and would not face immense costs. However, “minor adults” between the ages of eighteen and twenty are in a different situation. If this student falls into that category and needs help, he faces stigma and serious consequences.

For instance, the Good Sam Policy—an effective policy which allows students to anonymously call help for their friends without facing academic consequence— could be utilized. This policy is a brilliant Band-Aid that Dartmouth has devised, considering the drinking age nationwide is twenty-one. However, there is still a stigma and very real consequences for an adult under the age of twenty-one receiving a Good Sam. In terms of the stigma, Good Sam closes a lot of doors on campus. For example, you can’t be an Undergraduate Advisor (UGA) if you’ve been Good Sammed. If you try to get help for having one accident, you’re not allowed to serve the Dartmouth Community by being a UGA. Furthermore, receiving a Good Sam costs $400 (for care at Dick’s House) and (for under twenty-one-year-olds) comes with compulsory attendance in classes called “BASICS” that are supposed to “help” with drinking. Preliminary interviews with BASICs graduates show that the class is essentially useless. The teachers even acknowledge the great majority of the “students” do not have real drinking problems and only attend because Dartmouth has mandated it. Why? Because although the attendees are adults, they are under the arbitrary age of twenty-one. If an adult twenty-one or over felt sick and needed help, they could call for other forms of help and avoid the stigma and consequences of the Good Sam policy.

A third reason the drinking age should be eighteen is because it works in the rest of the world. Europe is a classic example of the success of the lower drinking age. According to an initiative called Choose Responsibility, fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds experience far fewer instances of dangerous intoxication in European countries where the drinking age is eighteen or younger, than American teens of the same ages. The initiative also found that in Southern Europe, where the drinking age is not higher than eighteen, only 10% of drinking ends in intoxication. Comparatively, in the U.S., 50% of drinking ends in intoxication. The same substance is significantly more dangerous in the U.S. than in Europe. Why? It’s simple: the higher drinking age. In Europe, alcohol doesn’t carry the same taboo. From a young age, parents expose their children to alcohol. They teach their children how to use it responsibly and in a socially acceptable manner. However, alcohol has a heavy stigma attached to it here in the U.S. As a result, parents seldom talk to their children about it. Consequently, American teens suffer and risk much more dangerous drinking conditions than European teens.

Anti-eighteen advocates would now argue that Europe is different. They would say that there is a car culture in the U.S. that doesn’t exist in Europe. After all, Europe is much more densely populated than the U.S. An eighteen-year-old adult in Europe would probably walk home from a bar after enjoying a couple beers with friends. However, an eighteen-year-old adult in the U.S. would likely have to drive home from the party they were attending. Anti-eighteen advocates say that eighteen- to twenty-year-olds cause many more car accidents than their twenty-one and over adult counterparts.

Anti-eighteen advocates have a flawed point. While statistics do show that automobile fatalities decreased after the MLDA was raised to twenty-one, there are a number of confounding variables. One such variable is significant increases in automobile safety features around the time of the MLDA changes. Another, large, part of the decrease in car accidents was the phenomenon of “blood borders.” Before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, states were free to make their drinking age whatever they wanted. As a result, eighteen to twenty-year-old adults who wanted nothing more than to share drinks with friends would drive to states with lower legal minimum drinking ages and then drive home. Naturally, this caused problems. However, this would cause problems with any age. The issue is not the age eighteen versus the age twenty-one, but consistency. Any adult who does not enjoy the liberty of other adults in their home state will travel to a place that will afford them such liberty. This is true, for instance, in states that have recently legalized recreational marijuana use: an entire marijuana tourism industry has arisen in Colorado to cater to adults from other states where the substance isn’t legal. If the legal age for drinking was the age of majority 18 in all states, “blood borders” would remain a non-issue.

The model of Europe demonstrates the major safety advantages of having a younger MLDA. When people drink, they are much less likely to get intoxicated in Europe than in the U.S. Anti-eighteen advocates say eighteen- to twenty-year-olds cause more car accidents. However, they misunderstand the problem, which is really consistency. If the U.S. wants drinking to be safer, it should set the drinking age to eighteen universally and better enforce drunk driving statutes.

A fourth argument that always comes up when discussing the drinking age in the United States is its rampant inconsistency with the minimum age for almost everything else. This argument has become almost cliched for good reason: it is very compelling. In America, the age of majority, the age in which a person is considered an adult before the law (and therefore able to make his or her own decisions) is eighteen, (with a few state and territory exceptions). At the age of majority, Americans are entrusted with the right to choose to do many things that are riskier than drinking a beer. At eighteen, a person is able to open a credit card, take out a loan, or enter into a binding contract (possible financial risks), consent to risky medical treatments, and get married without a parent’s consent.

At eighteen, a brave citizen can also join the military on his or her own volition, a choice that carries the possibility of making the ultimate sacrifice with it. In fact, at least 962 servicemen and women gave their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan before turning they reached the MLDA. As the National Youth Rights Association, which compiled that list, points out: “they serve us, but we won’t serve them.”

Even other regulated substances are legal at age eighteen, including cigarettes, cigars, and chewing tobacco. Though states that allow recreational marijuana only do so at twenty-one, it is because that is also the minimum legal drinking age and governments that have legalized marijuana have chosen to treat it the same as alcohol.

Perhaps most telling is the fact eighteen-year-olds are liable to be sued and tried as adults and not children (meaning they are eligible for more severe penalties). The reason for that is that at eighteen, the law considers a person to be responsible for his or her actions. If this is the case, what basis is there to prevent a person from opening a beer. Clearly, setting the minimum legal drinking age at twenty-one is hypocritical—it is inconsistent with any other parts of the law that govern the age of majority for different actions.

To conclude, there are many compelling reasons to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. From a physiological standpoint, age twenty-one does not denote brain development. Doing so makes eighteen- to twenty-year-olds safer by removing a legal barrier to emergency help for those adults who happen to fall under the MLDA. It would also more closely mirror successful policies in Europe. Lastly, it would settle a number of highly hypocritical inconsistencies in the law, which considers those between ages eighteen and twenty adults in all but one case. It is time to reopen the national conversation about drinking.