by Watson Scott Swail, Ed.D., President, Educational Policy Institute
On July 17, 1984, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed by Congress and signed by President Reagan. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) was a major proponent of the law, and, due in large part to their involvement, the Act was passed with the caveat that if states did not follow the law they would lose 10 percent of their federal highway funds. This forced all states, including some of the holdouts like Florida, to acquiesce and accept the law.
Of the 190 countries with data on this issue, 157 (83 percent) have a minimum drinking age of 18 years old and only 13 have a drinking minimum of 21 years. Joining the US in this policy are the Central African Republic, Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Kiribati, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Samoa, and Sri Lanka.
There are plenty of statistics that showcase the prevalence and use of alcohol and drugs in the United States and other countries. Proponents of changing the age back to 18 or 19 have a plethora of statistics that illustrate the 21 age limit has not had a dramatic impact on drinking underage, and opponents have their statistics that show the law has had a serious impact on underage drinking and the deleterious harm of alcohol. Both are right; and both are wrong. We can cherry pick our data.
In 2008, 100 college presidents signed a petition to lower the age from the current 21 years of age to 18, citing the problems associated with “under-aged” drinking and other issues on campus. Brit Kirwan, then chancellor of the University of Maryland system and a signer of the petition, noted: “It’s a very serious problem on college campuses, and it just seems to get worse and worse.” The current age, according to the signers, does not decrease drinking on campus. Rather, it breeds the practice of binge drinking.
Four years prior to the petition, the lead signer and President Emeritus of Middlebury College, John McCardell, Jr., wrote an Tin the New York times:
To lawmakers: the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. Campuses have become, depending on the enthusiasm of local law enforcement, either arms of the law or havens from the law.
He added about drunk driving and the issue of under-aged drinking:
And please — hold your fire about drunken driving. I am a charter member of Presidents Against Drunk Driving. This has nothing to do with drunken driving. If it did, we’d raise the driving age to 21. That would surely solve the problem.
So, why does this matter now?
One could argue it doesn’t. This has been a sealed deal for over 30 years. And while I have respect for MADD, they used poorly constructed statistics to make their case and leveraged a heavy weight with the President of the United States to enact a law that didn’t truly have a problem. This is not to say that drunk driving and other factors related to youthful alcohol imbibing are not serious. They are. But Mr. McCardell, Jr. was right: if you want to take care of the drunk driving issue, we can. And, if that were the case, we should then consider banning drinking altogether because there are drunk drivers of all ages and people die from alcohol daily at all age categories. We tried a ban back via the 18th Amendment back in 1919, only to have it repealed 14 years later.
I’ll restate the old argument of why have a 21-year old age limit when everything else in the nation is set at either 16 or 18. You drive at 16; you go to war at 18. You can be married at 18. You are tried as an adult at 18, because, by definition, you are an adult. But we don’t let them drink. We force them to do it behind closed doors and arguably force them to easier-access drugs of choice. While I do not have numbers to substantiate this claim, I have heard it through my college-aged kids.
The answer to the alcohol problem was never to raise the drinking age. The answer was in creating a responsible environment for responsible drinking. Some states instituted laws that only allowed beer and wine consumption at 18 and spirits at 21. This provided a ramp to learn to engage in responsible drinking. I think that makes perfect sense.
But to suggest that, for some reason and some very poorly used statistics, our 18-, 19-, and 20-year-old students shouldn’t be allowed to drink on campus and elsewhere in society seems arcane.
Let’s reduce the burden on college campuses and other areas of society and choose to promote responsible drinking.