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The United States has the oldest drinking age in the world, but it hasn't eradicated underage consumption.
The United States has the oldest drinking age in the world, but it hasn't eradicated underage consumption.

Why lowering the drinking age may make us all safer

"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun articles on bars and clubs -- including guides, the latest trends, rapid bar reviews and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!

Depending on your perspective, the photo that accompanies this blog is either disturbing, disgusting, hilarious, inappropriate or a combination of all four.

But it got your attention, didn't it?

That's the idea.

While our elected leaders plan to spend another year arguing about toughening Wisconsin's relatively lax drunk driving laws, I'd like to offer a radical solution that I firmly believe would improve the alcohol culture in this state and eventually help make everyone safer:

Lower the legal drinking age.

Plenty of smart people will counter my argument with plenty of statistics showing that raising the drinking age to 21 reduced the number of accidents and deaths on our highways. I will grant that, but counter that safer vehicles, increased emphasis on curtailing speeding and mandatory seat belt laws have played a role in that reduction.

Still, we have considerably more alcohol-related accidents and deaths among young adults in the United States than they do in Europe, where the drinking age in some countries is 16.

The crux of my argument is simple and it's based primarily on mixed message we send with the drinking age at 21.

Turning 18 in the United States allows a personal almost all the advantages and responsibilities of adulthood. You can vote, serve on juries, get married, enter into legal contracts, join the military and be prosecuted as adults (some earn the last one even sooner than 18).

The only thing missing from that list is the legal right to enjoy a glass of beer or wine.

If we are going to empower 18-year-olds to make all those other important decisions, some of which carry life and death consequences, why can't they be trusted to make decisions about consuming alcohol?

The United States has the highest drinking age in the world. Has that done anything to curtail underage drinking? In many nations where the drinking age is 17, 16 or non-existent, high school students outperform their U.S. counterparts in standardized tests. They are also less likely to be injured in alcohol-related accidents.

I became an adult before Wisconsin, facing pressure from federal officials threatening to withhold highway funds, rolled back the drinking age, first to 19 and then to 21.

I don't own a bar, nor do I have much desire to pound drinks with the beer-pong crowd. But, I think that banning drinking among those between 18 and 21 has created as many problems as solutions.

Prohibition didn't work in the 1920s and it isn't going to work today. Ask any college administrator and they will tell you that curtailing underage drinking is about as easy as stopping the tide with a toy shovel and pail.

With no legal options, the 18-to-21 crowd is forced to take their drinking "underground" at unsupervised locations like basements, attics parking lots, farm fields and just about anywhere else you can imagine. For some, the "taboo" associated with the illegal activity adds to the thrill. It also adds to the danger.

Without supervision or role models, young drinkers often consume alcohol in binge fashion. When they get hurt, they often bypass medical attention for fear of legal repercussions.

The legal aspect is somewhat fascinating. Walk around any college campus and what you'll find is a version of the military's woefully ineffective "don't ask, don't tell" policy. Inebriated students try to compose themselves as they stumble past law enforcement officers and administrators, many of whom act like they don't notice the transgression.

How is this a positive environment? Aren't we, in effect, sending a message that some laws can be ignored?

The folks at chooseresponsibility.org have proposed a graduated licensing system. In essence, a license to drink. Individuals could pay a fee and enroll in alcohol education courses before getting their "drinking license."

In an era when cries of "socialism" ring out at virtually every town hall meeting, that may sound an alarm for people nervous about government expansion. Ask yourself this, though: how much money and how many police man-hours are spent trying to "bust" underage drinking parties on and around college campuses?

The 21 drinking age has created an atmosphere when young people compromise their ethics and violate the law, often in unsafe, unsupervised environments.

Lowering the age to 19 or even 18 would remove the taboo and possibly make us all safer.

What do you think?

Talkbacks

ericpaine | March 21, 2010 at 1:34 p.m. (report)

Most states in the nation adopted a minimum drinking age of 21 soon after federal passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which required states to maintain a minimum drinking age of 21. Under the Federal Aid Highway Act, States were required to enforce the minimum drinking age of 18 in order to avoid a 10% reduction in federal highway funds. The original intention of the law was to reduce the incidents of alcohol-related accidents among people under 21. But since passage of this legislation, and the raising of the drinking age in many states, the percentage of people who drink between the ages of 18 to 20 has skyrocketed. Many say the prohibitions have actually encouraged secretive binge drinking, more dangerous behavior, and less educational programming targeting this age group. Respected law enforcement officials and university presidents have recently called for changes in the federal law to permit states to lower the drinking age.

At age 18, people are legal adults. As much as their parents may think otherwise, they are no longer children. They have the right to vote and help choose the President of the United States. They can go to war to defend our country, and they can legally purchase guns and cigarettes. It is absolutely absurd that they cannot have a beer or glass of wine without fear of possible arrest and prosecution.

It's time for the nation to repeal these Prohibition-era laws and adopt a more intelligent, progressive, and educational approach to drinking among younger adults. These laws simply don't work, they aren't enforceable any longer, and if anything they are counterproductive. Literally millions of responsible young adults are already consuming alcohol and that's not going to change. What we need to do is stop wasting the taxpayers money chasing, charging and prosecuting responsible young adults who want to have a beer, and start putting the money where it ought to be, in promoting smart education about responsible drinking, and in pursuing far more serious criminals, including those at all ages who drive under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

--
Eric Paine
President & Founder
Drink At 18
http://drinkat18.com

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bhack33 | Feb. 9, 2010 at 8:52 p.m. (report)

The drinking age dilemma will always be a problem no matter what the decision. I feel it should remain at 21. Drew made some nice points on why leaving the age at 21 really doesn't do much more than having it at 18 would do. Possibly it even is worse. But what i feel many people neglect to think about are the negative effects on physical development. Adolescence (ends around 19) is a time of transition and development and to allow drinking to drop to 18 may compromise cognitive and emotional development.

So sure, why not lower the drinking age to 18 if everyone is drinking by then anyway? But then why stop there? What if kids start thinking that since they're 15 and that they'll be legally able to drink in 3 years anyway, there won't be any harm starting now (similar to how kids feel when they're 18, currently). In the end, kids need to be taught how to consume alcohol responsibly, and i don't believe lowering the drinking age will assist in doing that.

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ndf2 | Feb. 9, 2010 at 6:12 p.m. (report)

34437 I agree with Drew's points. One of my fondest memories of Germany was being at a beer garden in Munich and seeing a father and son drinking beer together. And the kid was 12.

One problem you run into with items like this (lower drinking age, legalize drugs, remove speed limits like the Autobahn etc etc) is the potential loss of revenue for local governments. There is a lot of revenue to be had writing tickets.

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gc67 | Feb. 9, 2010 at 4:39 p.m. (report)

Drew, i'd advocate the '19'-limit...for all of the reasons already mentioned plus, as a parent of 22 and 20 year old boys, it would actually make it easier for me to teach responsible drinking than have to worry about the cops busting them on their first or second time and then dealing with all of the legal crap that goes with it...as i always say, "LET ME BE THE PARENT AND GOV'T GET THE HELL OUT OF MY BUSINESS!"

Bill in LG

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tombetz | Feb. 9, 2010 at 4:17 p.m. (report)

35458 Ideally there should be no minimum drinking age to consume alcohol. Impairment is the point and should be the focus for alcohol or drugs. You don't go to work or school messed up. Nor do you drive a vehicle. There should be negative consequences if you do.

Alternatively, bars and clubs should not have a minimum age for on premise consumption. These venues are controlled settings.

Minimum age requirements would thus cease being the "forbidden fruit" young people push against. Parents must instill values in their spawn.

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