Recently, a group of 130 university presidents signed the Amethyst Initiative. This called for elected officials to review the need for a 21 minimum age drinking law.
Why Question Underage Drinking?
The college presidents wanted to invite new ideas on how best to prepare young adults to “make responsible decisions about alcohol use.” (Amethyst Initiative,10 E. Street SE., Washington, DC.) They voiced concern that making drinking illegal simply drives it underground. They believe that this does nothing to stop underage drinking. Others believe, however, that the real underlying motivation for this movement by colleges is that the colleges are frequently sued when underage drinking occurs and youth experience the negative consequences. From this perspective, then, reduction of the drinking age as posed by the colleges is merely a self-serving proposition.
Is Alcohol a Serious Issue for the Colleges?
It is true that alcohol is a primary problem on the college campus. Each year drinking by college students aged 18-24 contributes to an estimated 1,700 student deaths, 500,000 injuries, 696,000 alcohol-involved assaults, and 97,000 cases of sexual assault or date rape. It is a main source for both academic underachievement and dropping out of college. One study also found that binge drinking on campus causes some level of problem(s) for the majority of college students.
Underage drinking remains the most serious issue facing young adults today. But the answer is not to eliminate these laws. The answer is to better enforce them. The truth is that the 21 Minimum Drinking Age Law (MDAL) does work. In fact it works very well, and there are several reasons why the 21 MDAL needs to be further supported and enforced. From this perspective, then, the research shows that this rationale by the college presidents is flawed.
What the Research Says:
Studies indicate that youth who start drinking before they are 21 are likely to drink more and experience more alcohol related problems later in life, whereas youth who do not drink until they are 21 rarely develop such problems. Young people who begin to drink before age 15 are four times more likely to become alcohol dependent than those who began to drink after age 21. One study demonstrated that 85 percent of alcoholics began drinking as teenagers.
Raising the drinking age to 21 also resulted in a significantly lower rate of drinking and binge drinking by youth ages 12-17 although the legislation targeted ages 18-20. It also resulted in subsequent reductions in alcohol related health, criminal justice, family and social/relationship problems. In addition, alcohol is a “Gateway Drug” for youth, and research shows that teens who drink are more likely to move on to other drugs.
Scientific evidence now suggests that even modest alcohol consumption in adolescence can result in brain dysfunction and even in permanent brain damage due to the stage of brain development and immaturity of neuro-systems such as the amygdala (the part of the adolescent’s brain controlling emotions.)
Youth and young adults who drink are also more likely to experience other problems such as problems in school, fights, DWIs, other unintentional injury, become teenage parents, commit crimes, become victims of physical and sexual assault, or suffer addiction. Minimum-age drinking laws have been associated with fewer teen traffic fatalities, lower youth suicide rates, and reductions in crime including homicide and vandalism, as well as reductions in alcohol consumption.
In contrast, a European study found that 31 of the 32 countries in Europe have both significantly higher rates of drinking by youth, and higher rates of binge drinking than the United States (European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs – ESPAD). Given the European idea that a more liberal policy fosters responsible drinking, one would expect to see much lower rates of binge drinking there than in the United States. However, the opposite is true.
Finally, in 1999 New Zealand lowered the drinking age and again found a dramatic increase in traffic crashes with rates increasing as high as 51%. It also found a high correlation with unprotected sex and sexual activity before the age of 16 (American Journal of Public Health.)
The Final Proof:
Overall, the national MLDA has worked very well. Among 12th graders, binge drinking reached its peak in 1979 and dropped from 41% to about 26% in 2007 (the reduction is even more significant for 8th and 10th graders.) Like smoking which has fallen to the lowest levels for youth in 30 years, with alcohol one finds that strong, enforced prohibitions do work.
The drinking age law is not a legal issue but a health issue, and perhaps no alcohol safety measure has shown more consistent evidence for its effectiveness than the MLDA 21 law. Continue to support it – for the health, safety and welfare of all youth.