Will the “21” Years Soon Be History?

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.


7 Responses to Will the “21” Years Soon Be History?

  1. […] Is Underage Drinking Legal? At the end of my last post I pondered the predicament of having to choose whether or not to illegally serve my own children […]

  2. satjiwan says:

    When I was visiting Norway recently, two astounding traffic safety policies surprised and impressed me.

    1. it takes a significant investment over about 2 years of driving lessons to obtain a driver’s license. (including tire and spark plug changing, if i remember right…)
    2. if you get caught drunk driving (even the tiniest amount) it’s an automatic loss of license for 5 years.

    The legal alcohol purchase age is 18 for =22% ABV (no minimum for consuming) and there are tons of late night taxi services to get you home when you can’t drive.

    ps. the wikipedia page on this is interesting, with links to info about state by state purchase/consumption exceptions. eg “Notes: Maryland’s exception allows possession or consumption of alcohol by minors if an adult member of their immediate family allows it.”

  3. beeractivist says:

    satjiwan – very interesting stuff. Thanks for this. Europeans seem to have a more sophisticated approach to alcohol in general, more of an appreciation and respect for both the good and bad potential in drinking. They also have a lower rate of drunk driving accidents which I understand to be mainly due to the fact that they drive less.


  4. […] prohibit drinking under the age of 21, except for those that prohibit alcohol altogether. However, I recently learned that underage drinking is legal in 30 states under certain circumstances. But I couldn’t find […]

  5. satjiwan says:

    well, if the drunk driving “rate” is calculated logically, it should be something about fewer drunk driving accidents per mile/km. (or maybe something else) i wouldn’t be surprised if there is a lower number of accidents per capita with less driving/drivers. however, given a lower total distance driven AND a lower rate, are they doubly safe drivers? if they had the same number of trips and accidents, but driving shorter distances, they’d have skewed higher accidents per mile, but maybe they overcome that with super safe driving. (also they don’t have as much “experience” driving less than we do, yet still drive safer??)

    it’s too late for me to be fully understanding my own logic… so many variables i wonder what the “science” about this issue really shows???

    maybe a comparison of insurance rates (based on professional actuarial logic) would reveal something (but then we might be measuring litigiousness of different societies or health care systems…)

    oh, time for bed…

  6. beeractivist says:

    satjiwan – I meant rate per capita not per mile. I think that answers your question but I’ve also had a couple beers and I’m watching Colbert as I type so maybe I’m missing your logic.

    Thought about you a lot today and yesterday – we had an office clean up day and I knew if you’d been around you would have made a herculean effort to eliminate stuff from getting chucked out. We did a pretty good job of it and I personally reclaimed a number of things that were headed for landfill but I’m no Sat Jiwan when it comes to reusing and recycling.


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