I began my usual Sunday morning newspaper ritual, separating the wheat from the chaff. The inserts all go right into the recycling, all the advertisements, the sports section, classifieds, and that rag called “Parade.”
But wait, on the front cover of Parade is the caption: “What to do about underage drinking.” I took a quick look, expecting some alternate-reality baloney along the lines of “teach our children why their lives will end in terror and destruction if they drink, blah, blah, blah.”
To my surprise, journalist Sean Flynn actually advocates for lowering the drinking age. And even more surprising to read was that a few states, Vermont, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire, have already attempted legislation that would do just that, although for the latter two it would only apply to military personnel.
The classic argument in defense of the 21 year drinking age, from people like MADD, is that it has caused a dramatic decline in car accidents. The numbers on this are often distorted but overall it is true that the legal drinking age of 21 is correlated with lower teen traffic deaths. But many other factors might account for this, including education about drinking and driving, increased seatbelt usage and mandatory airbags. One striking fact is that from 1969-1975, prior to the 21-age law, teen driving fatalities decreased by 19%.
If we were to carry the “prohibit teen drinking to reduce car accidents” logic one step further, and completely prohibit alcohol, we’d probably see an even greater reduction in car accidents. And I bet if we chopped off everyone’s hands we’d have a tremendous reduction in fistfights too.
The main goal of the drinking age is to prohibit drinking, not to prevent traffic deaths. If the goal were to prevent teens from dying in car accidents then why not prohibit them from driving? Or how about just enforcing a prohibition on drinking and driving? Better yet, design walkable communities where people can drink and walk home safely.
According to the article, 80% of Americans claim to have drunk alcohol by the time they were twenty years old. I thought a law had to be reasonably enforceable for it to be constitutional.
More importantly, people who drink in moderation are healthier than people who abstain or drink too much. So if teen health and welfare is really the concern then the 21-age supporters should actually be advocating for moderate drinking, not prohibition.
Sadly, all three of the state-level age-change legislation attemps failed. So it looks like the 21 years are still here for a while. I hope that if/when I have kids, this law has been changed. Otherwise, I’ll face the horrible choice of either prohibiting my kid from drinking beer or risking serious legal consequences for allowing her to drink.
Meanwhile, we need to work to change the law. One good place to start is the organization Choose Responsibility, started by John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont.