We live in a community where fermented fruit juice poses a greater threat to our youth than a semi-automatic rifle—or so says the law. When an American youth turns 18, they are awarded many privileges, including the ability to venture into the realm of political parties and positions through voting, to possess a weapon designed to fatally or seriously injure other living beings (a gun), and to enter into the lifelong commitment of marriage. Notably absent from the list of legal rights awarded at the generally agreed-upon age of adulthood is drinking. However, lowering the drinking age has been gaining support amongst many, and for good reason.
Before 1984, the drinking age was determined by individual states, with the minimum age varying from 18 to 21 years. The high numbers of drunk-driving deaths at the time gave rise to lobbies like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and pressure from such groups and other members of the public led Congress to pass the National Minimum Drinking Act, which provided states with an ultimatum: raise the minimum drinking age to 21 or lose federal funding for highways. Since then, fatalities from drunk driving have dropped more than 50%, according to the New York Post. While many would like to attribute the positive change to the minimum drinking age laws, many other factors have led to a decrease in alcohol-based deaths. Laws regarding drunk driving have become more strict and overall, car safety and regulations have improved a great deal. Additionally, there are now alternatives to driving home like Uber or Lyft, where, with the push of a button, individuals can find an easy way home.
Laws, in theory, function to improve our communities, and leave the overall system better than it was before by the use of government intervention. It seems that, at least from a modern perspective, the law has not done this in terms of underage drinking legislation. A clear and negative distinction in drinking culture can be seen through college campuses of the past and present. Huge, campus-wide events have been tossed away in favor of clique dominated drinking, where students hide away from the watchful eyes of resident assistants (RAs) and other school-determined mandators. Drinking is a significant part of campus life, and when it can only be done behind the scenes in small groups, an unhealthy amount of closed-off social circles develop as a byproduct. Add on the fact that social circles tend to be divided by demographic lines, and we see that not only has the illegality of drinking created a more isolated college campus but a campus where we see less diverse interaction.
On a more dangerous note, increasing the minimum drinking age has also led to an increased prevalence of hard liquor on campus. Clear and mixable drinks like vodka that fly under the radar have reached an all-time high in marketability compared to other alcoholic beverages. This spike in popularity has led to a resulting spike in hospital visits—alcohol poisoning and binge drinking have made their homes at institutes of higher education. Efforts to turn the tide on the current situation and offer students the ability to drink in safe spots on campus have been taken by those who bear first-hand witness to the dangerous repercussions of an increased drinking age. According to The New York Post, over 100 college presidents have signed a petition to lower the minimum drinking age to 18, in hopes that such an action would make college campuses safer.
The very concept of underage intoxication is, well, intoxicating in itself. There’s a certain allure to partaking in the illegal, and the forbidden fruit of alcohol has caught the eye of many underaged youths. While it would be unreasonable to suggest sudden decriminalization of all illegal practices, from murder to theft, there is no denying that American drinking culture has been shaped by the prohibition of alcohol for teens. In countries where the drinking age is lower, particularly in Europe, the culture surrounding alcohol is much more transparent and responsible. Youth are much more responsible when it comes to drinking, taking moderated sips instead of downing large bottles to the cheers of “Chug, chug, chug!” The open culture revolving drinking in Europe could serve as a model for America on how to reduce binge drinking and other dangerous practices.
To criminalize something perfectly normal will only serve to increase its allure. People are naturally attracted to what they can’t have, and a drinking age of 21 only leads to an unsafe college environment with binge drinking and alcohol poisoning running rampant. It’s time to prioritize youth safety, even if that means making some tough decisions.
Illustration by Nicole Iwamasa.