Drinking Age Debate Gets Sloppy
> 8/17/2007 1:45:17 PM

A simple, easily demonstrable fact: despite some statistical vacillation from year to year, Americans under the age of 21 drink regularly. They often drink to excess. And their habits constitute a serious public health issue. Traffic fatality numbers illustrate the point: motor vehicle crashes remain the number one cause of death for Americans aged 15-20, and alcohol plays a part in at least 40% of these incidents.

The debate on how to effectively contain such appalling behavior began long before the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed by Congress in 1984, raising the magic number from 18 to 21, and it continues today as advocacy groups and politicians in several states aim to reverse that legislation. The argument that citizens who are old enough to vote, fight and die for their country "should also be able to enjoy a beer or two" is a fair and, in some ways, compelling one; some Americans seem to agree, contending that a higher minimum age requirement does little or nothing to prevent 17-year olds from drinking, but in a clear case of leave well enough alone, a large majority do not support lowering the drinking age. Statistics do not truly vindicate either side: an analysis of the 1984 Act's effects on American teenage behavioral patterns leads toward the tepid conclusion that it seems to work, if on a very limited scale. A 2004 report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration also estimated that more than 22,000 lives had been saved by the legislation, but the methods by which researchers arrived at that number are unclear and hardly convincing.

Despite the slight decline in overall drinking rates among teenagers in recent years, those opposed to a revised legal age point toward a noted increase in binge drinking and a tendency for underage individuals to favor liquor over lower-content beverages like beer and wine, implying that a legal drinking age of 18 would only encourage such consumption. Of course, one of the main reasons for this trend is the fact that liquor is usually easier to access and conceal, and one may get intoxicated far faster per volume by drinking vodka than by drinking lager. Perhaps the fact that we are not more heavily emphasizing the importance of drinking responsibly is one of the reasons for our pervasive underage "problem". By constantly reinforcing how dangerous alcohol can be or shunning the subject altogether, are we in fact increasing the likelihood that teens will not know how to regulate their consumption once they begin to drink (as the vast majority inevitably will)? Some argue that drinking at age 18 should require a drinking "license" and that, in order to earn such a license, young people should have to go through an alcohol education program much like driver's-ed. Certainly a colorful idea. So can we bring the numbers down by reducing the enticing allure of "forbidden" alcohol for underage drinkers? Will lowering the age have any serious ramifications?

In an ironic transcontinental parallel, a British chief constable recently suggested raising the national drinking age from 18 to 21, stating that teenagers simply cannot handle the responsibilities that drinking entails. And a sizable portion of the population agrees with him. While the majority of those polled in both countries believe 21 to be a more appropriate drinking age than 18, none will (successfully) argue that the number, whatever it might be, will erase or even substantially negate the problem. As long as alcohol is available and desirable, kids will continue to use it. Teaching them to rationally understand its inherent risks and make informed decisions about whether, when and how much to drink is probably the most effective strategy. Good luck translating that one into law.

No comments yet.

Post Your Comments

Post a comment
Email Address:
Verification Code:
Input the 8 characters you see above:


Drug Abuse
Sexual Addiction
Eating Disorders
Alzheimer's Disease

About TOL | Contact Us | Defining Behavioral Fitness | For Healthcare Professionals | Links | Privacy Policy