Friday, March 21, 2008

Lowering the drinking age?

I can honestly say that I wasn't aware of this movement:
Debate over lowering the drinking age is heating up in several states, fueled in part by legislators who contend that men and women who are old enough to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan are responsible enough to buy alcohol legally.

Legislation introduced in Kentucky, Wisconsin and South Carolina would lower the drinking age for military personnel only. A planned ballot initiative in Missouri would apply to everyone 18 and older. An initiative in the works in South Dakota would allow all 19- and 20-year-olds to buy low-alcohol beer.

Vermont's legislature is considering a task force to study the issue. A Minnesota bill would allow anyone 18 and older to buy alcohol in bars or restaurants, but not in liquor stores until they're 21.

There's a public interest in reopening this debate … and the idea is picking up steam" says John McCardell, a former president of Vermont's Middlebury College who founded Choose Responsibility. The non-profit group supports allowing 18- to 20-year-olds to drink legally after they complete an alcohol education program.
I can certainly understand the rationale behind this effort: if you're considered to be old enough to fight for your country, shouldn't you be old enough to enjoy a cold beer as well? But it seems like this idea has been tried before, without success.

In 1971 this nation decided that, if 18-year-olds were considered to be mature enough to fight and die for their country, they should also be considered mature enough to participate in the electoral process. After the 26th Amendment was ratified, some states followed by lowering the minimum age for exercising other adult rights to 18 years of age, including alcohol consumption. But this created problems, not the least of which was the ability of 18-to-20-year-olds who lived in a state where the minimum drinking age was 21 (for example, New Jersey) to drive to a state where the minimum drinking age was 18 (for example, New York) to purchase alcohol or, worse yet, consume alcohol and then drive drunk back home.

In response to this problem, in 1984 Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which withheld 10% of federal highway funds from states that did not raise their minimum drinking age to 21. In some cases it took a while - I remember very clearly that as late as 1994 the legal drinking age in Lafayette, Louisiana was 18 - but eventually every state in the union complied with this law.

The rationale behind mandating a minimum legal drinking age of 21 was twofold. First, there was the obvious theory that 21-year-olds, being three years more mature than 18-year-olds, would be more responsible in their consumption of intoxicating beverages. Second, raising the drinking age was (theoretically, at least) supposed to reduce access to alcohol among those younger than 18. High school seniors who turned 18 before they graduated, for example, were legally able to purchase alcohol, creating the distinct possibility that they would in turn bring it to parties and illicitly distribute it to schoolmates who were younger than 18. By raising the minimum drinking age to 21, it supposedly became harder for the 13-to-17-year-old crowd to gain access to alcohol.

Of course, whether it actually worked with respect to this goal is debatable; even today, rare is the high school student who cannot, in some form or another, illicitly access alcohol. And I don't think anybody is naive enough to believe that any young person who wants an alcoholic beverage is going to patiently wait until their 21st birthday, triumphantly walk into a bar and order their very first Budweiser. Underage drinking is widespread in spite of its illegality, and that's not ever likely to change.

But it seems like lowering the minimum drinking age would reopen the problems I've mentioned above. It also might increase the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths; the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration believes that the raising of the drinking age has reduced these fatalities involving 18-to-20-year-old drivers by 13%.

There are also the considerable political obstacles that states would face in any attempt to lower the drinking age. States who lower their minimum drinking age would run afoul of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act and forfeit 10% of their allocated federal highway dollars. In an era when transportation funding is scarce, that's a significant chunk of change. Organizations, most notably Mothers Against Drunk Driving, would also fight any attempt by any state to lower the drinking age. Whatever MADD's original purpose was, it has morphed into an organization that is clearly neo-prohibitionist and it will vigorously oppose any effort to expand alcohol availability. It is well-funded and it wields tremendous lobbying power. Finally, right now there simply isn't enough popular support for lowering the drinking age; in 2007, Gallup found that a considerable majority - 77% - of Americans oppose lowering the drinking age to 18.

I respect the "if you can legally take a shot on the battlefield, you should legally be able to take a shot of whiskey" argument. And perhaps efforts to lower the drinking age exclusively for military personnel - for example, by limiting the practice to bars on-base where the alcohol consumption of all troops can be monitored - has merit. But I'm not certain that efforts to lower the drinking age for the population as a whole are warranted, and they face stiff opposition in any case.

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