Drinking age of 21 merely an inadequacy?

Drinking 03I rejoiced to see the following article in CNN’s Health Care in America commentary: “Drinking age of 21 doesn’t work.” Finally a sensible statement about the issue. The 21-year-old drinking age has not been an effective solution to the problem of drunk driving, or alcohol-related deaths among young adults. Not only is it ineffective, it might actually pose more risks for young people.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed by the Congress in 1984 and signed by the president. This Act raised the drinking age to 21. This was government’s reaction to the threatening and growing problem with drunken driving accidents and fatalities. However, this is probably the only preventative measure that the government took and it wasn’t nearly enough. Simply raising, or lowering the drinking age does not deal with the real problem. Young people need to be educated on the effects of alcohol (on behavior and driving), the importance of personal decisions and potential risks. Psychologists attest the truth of the old saying that ‘the forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest’. This is especially true for young people, who often need to resist control and authority to declare their autonomy. The author of the article makes an excellent point: “The law does not say drink responsibly or drink in moderation. It says don’t drink. To those affected by it, those who in the eyes of the law are, in every other aspect legal adults, it is Prohibition. And it is incomprehensible”(John M. McCardell, Jr). This can further aggravate the rebellious spirits. In addition, young Americans are aware that almost all other countries (except Indonesia, Mongolia and Palau) either have no minimum drinking age, or have a lower age limit (usually 18, but sometimes even 16).

It is no longer 1984. “Now, 25 years later, we are in a much different, and better, place. Thanks to the effective public advocacy of organizations like Mothers Against Drunk Driving, we are far more aware of the risks of drinking and driving. Automobiles are much safer. Seatbelts and airbags are mandatory. The “designated driver” is now a part of our vocabulary” (John M. McCardell, Jr).

Binge drinking 01Alcohol-related fatalities have declined in the past 25 years, in all age groups. Yet, the greatest number still involves people at age 21, followed by 22 and 23. “The problem today is different. The problem today is reckless, goal-oriented alcohol consumption that all too often takes place in clandestine locations, where enforcement has proven frustratingly difficult. Alcohol consumption among young adults is not taking place in public places or public view or in the presence of other adults who might help model responsible behavior. But we know it is taking place.” It is taking place in dorm rooms, off-campus apartments or remote fields (that involve driving). Drinking in such remote and isolated places hides greater risks than ordering drinks in a bar, where the bartender can refuse to serve at any point the individual appears intoxicated. If drinking is taking place in a public setting, there are many mediators and people who can react in case of emergency and call 911. This is not the case in locked and secret places where all of the drinkers can be underage and therefore be hesitant to call the police, because they don’t want to get in trouble. The CNN article explains that “of the 5,000 lives lost to alcohol each year by those under 21, more than 60% are lost OFF the roadways, according to the National Institute of Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.”

Drinking 02The main problem today in not drunken driving. It is “clandestine binge drinking” “A study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry revealed that, among college-age males, binge drinking is unchanged from its levels of 1979; that among non-college women it has increased by 20%; and that among college women it has increased by 40%” (John M. McCardell).

The bottom line is that the drinking age of 21 does not eliminate the problems or change the fact that young adults and teenagers ARE drinking, even if it is considered illegal. Then, we need to be thinking how we can create the most safe environment possible, so that young people can explore drinking with minimal risks.

3 comments for “Drinking age of 21 merely an inadequacy?

  1. October 2, 2009 at 5:20 pm

    I was in the camp of “Let’s lower the legal drinking age”. Yet, now, I am not sure anymore. I think there is indeed double standard when it comes to the different age limits set by our society. One can fight in wars and die for their country well before they are 21, one is encouraged to vote after turning only 18, one can drive a car at 16 (in many states), which is a potentially dangerous proposition, one can serve drinks (again, in many states, as far as I know) as long as they are 18 or over, but NO ONE can drink unless they are 21.

    I thought this was unfair. It was hard to understand why the double standard.

    One big difference is that all of the above-mentioned responsibilities imply and require a clear mind that is not influenced by alcohol or any other substance.

    And while the beginning of the drinking process does indeed suggest a previously clear mind, one glass later this is no longer the case (albeit the level of impairment is indeed different). So, a glass, two or three later, I highly doubt the cognitive ability of an individual to make decisions, based largely on lessons taught in school and at home vs. real life experiences.

    Additionally, the peer pressure, so important and so prevalent around many vices, is arguably a lot bigger at 18 than at any other age.

    People act stupidly when they are drunk at any age. I don’t think that anyone can argue the opposite. Yet, this extra few years of experience, I think, come in very handy (at least in most people) when it’s time to make decisions.

    By the way, according to a recent commentary on CNN.com “In the 1970s when many states reduced their drinking ages, drinking-related deaths among young people increased. When the drinking age of 21 was restored, deaths declined. This effect is not simply a historical artifact explained by advances in safety technology and other policies.” (http://www.edition.cnn.com/2009/US/09/29/nelson.retain.drinking.age/index.html)

  2. Dima
    October 3, 2009 at 11:07 am

    Thanks for the feedback, Naiden. It is actually refreshing to have someone on the other side of the fence. Everyone so far was “FOR” reducing the age limit.
    You’re raising some very important questions.

    Correct! There is a double standard and it is very bizarre to be trusted so many responsibilities by the fragile age of 18, but denied the responsibility to make decisions for yourself when it comes to alcohol. By 18, as you said, you are encouraged to vote and work. You can move out of your parents’ place and, of course, drive a car. You can go to Iraq, kill or be killed. Yet, ‘no alcohol for you, young man.’

    You are right in saying peer pressure is stronger in the age group of late teens (much stronger than among young adults). I also agree with the following: “a glass, two or three later, I highly doubt the cognitive ability of an individual to make decisions, based largely on lessons taught in school and at home vs. real life experiences.” Still, I feel that the real life experiences will help you make a good decision before you’ve consumed a glass, or two or three. No age and experience can guarantee a smart move when intoxication is a fact.

    I would support the current age limit of 21, if it meant that younger people ARE NOT drinking. But everything shows that THEY ARE. The question then becomes another – how do we help these young violators of the law? If getting drunk would be the bad decision you’ve made today, it would be a worse decision if you did so while also perpetrating a crime. And we know this usually happens in secrecy and hiding, where no help is readily available.

    If we try to educate young people we have to be very very careful of the methods we are going to use. There are many examples where well-intentioned education programs have backfired.

    Project D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) was a very popular and costly drug education program. Police officers visited classrooms (from kindergarden through highschool) discussing the harmfulness of drugs. In addition they showed videos of the “frightening consequences of illegal drug abuse” (Berger, 2007). However, years later we found the program did not promote abstinence from drug use. “In fact, 10 years later, drug use was similar between one group of highschool students who had experienced D.A.R.E. and another group who did not. The only difference was that the D.A.R.E. group had lower self-esteem than the non-D.A.R.E. group. Drug use was similar, but the D.A.R.E. group felt worse about themselves, perhaps because they were more fearful or guilty (Berger, 2007; Lynam et al., 1999).

    Another example of message warning backfiring is antimarijuana advertisements. Research found that some of these anti- advertisements actually make smoking marijuana seem more attractive (Fishbein et al., 2002).

    We are understanding that our attempts to educate or prohibit are not as effective as planned.

    So far, researchers have found that the key factors to drug education are: active problem-solving style of coping (Wills et al., 2001) and sense of competence and well-being (Griffin et al., 2001). These might prove more important than the legal age limit. One thing is clear, this is a tough call: How old is ‘too young’?

  3. Miriam
    November 14, 2009 at 1:35 am


    I am glad someone realized that maturity and self-control as pertained to drinking has little to do with age. I am sadden by the increased in binge drinking among college students yet I am not surprised. Last week I was watching Gossip Girl, they are in college now, and I don’t think there has been one single episode in which they haven’t been drinking. Obviously they are underage! and the media is endorsing such behavior as reckless as it is. I think part of the solution lies on educating the youth on the effects of alcohol consumption.

    Thank you for exploring this topic on your blog.

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