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As an accidet attorney in Gainesville, a resident of a university and college town, and as a parent, the debate over the legal drinking age in the U.S. is of importance and interest to me.

The History:

The debate over the legal drinking age in the U.S. has continued for decades. Prior to 1970s, for almost forty years, the majority of States voluntarily set the minimum drinking age at 21. However, in the early 1970s, in the middle of the Vietnam War, twenty nine (29) States lowered the drinking age to reflect the age laws required to enlist with the military or the right to vote. Therefore making the drinking age limit varied among the States from 18 to 21 years of age. Also, in some States, the age limit was different depending on the type of alcohol a person consumed; one had to be 18 years old to drink beer, and 20 years old to drink liquor. Because the alcohol traffic fatalities increased simultaneously with the decrease in drinking age limit, some States raised their age limit back to 21. The rest of the States kept it at 18, which caused some teens to go across their States’ borders to a neighboring State, which had a lower drinking age limit, drink there and drive back home intoxicated. Concerned with the alcohol traffic fatalities and injuries, Congress passed the National Minimum Purchase Age Act in 1984, which provided reduced federal highway funds to those states which did not have a drinking age limit of 21. Therefore, by 1988, all 50 states set the minimum drinking age at 21.

The Debate:

The proponents of a lower drinking age limit argue that the drinking age should be lowered, since at age 18 one is an adult in the eyes of the law. They assert that persons at 18 can marry, pay taxes, vote, enlist in the military, adopt, enter into legally binding contracts, be executed, sue etc. Also, relying on the fact that those under 21 were crossing borders to get alcohol in neighboring States which had lower drinking age limit during the 1970s, the proponents argue that prohibition to drink destroys moderation and promotes excessive consumption of alcohol among young people. The presidents of more than 100 colleges and universities in the U.S. state that the drinking age limit of 21 actually encourages dangerous binge drinking on campuses. Because those under 21 abuse alcohol on those occasions when they can actually get it, introducing a lower drinking age will prompt them to drink less, since they will not view alcohol as something prohibited. The proponents also say that the main goal of setting a minimum drinking age was to reduce drunk driving, and that most of those who are under 21 drink in their dorms or parties to which they walk and do not drive. They also assert that federal government should not regulate the area that has been reserves to the states by the U.S. Constitution. Another argument is that the U.S. should follow the example of the European countries, most of which have a drinking age limit of 18, where alcohol is seen as a neutral substance and people learn about drinking alcohol in moderation from the early age, thus not abusing it in the proportions it is abused in the U.S.

On the other side, those who support the drinking age limit of 21 say that there is enough evidence to show that the minimum drinking age limit of 21 saves lives every year. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that the drinking age limit of 21 has saved 18,220 lives since 1975. According to the U.S. Surgeon General, underage drinking is a leading contributor to deaths from injuries – the main cause of death for people under age 21, and drinking age limit of 21 has had positive effect on smaller number of traffic fatalities, suicide, assaults, and alcohol poisoning. Gallup Poll shows that most Americans oppose lowering the drinking age limit to 18 and support harsher penalties for underage drinkers. The supporters of the 21minimum drinking age law state that making alcohol available to those under 21 would actually increase binge-drinking and allow high school seniors to consume alcohol. They assert that while many of those under 21 still consume alcohol, they drink less and suffer less alcohol-related injuries when the drinking age limit is 21. Deferred alcohol drinking reduces the risk of abusing alcohol later in life. The supporters of the drinking age limit of 21 also argue that there is a “trickle-down” effect when young people get access to alcohol: many times, they give it to those even younger than them, thus if the drinking age is 18, 16 and 17-year-olds would also have access to alcohol.

Summary: The debate over determining the optimum drinking age to reduce alcohol traffic fatalities, injuries, alcohol dependency, and alcohol abuse is likely to continue. Regardless of whether you support the legal drinking age limit of 21 or not, you need to make sure that your children not only obey the current law, but also that they understand the dangers of drinking and the dangers of drinking and driving. Remember too, a young person’s frontal lobes are not yet fully developed; this combined with alcohol can lead to risky, dangerous and deadly behavior.

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