In a 1983 landmark study conducted by Harvard psychiatrist Dr. George Valliant, it was found that young men who grew up in homes where alcohol was forbidden at the dinner table were seven times more likely to become alcoholics. The following year, the United States Congress voted to raise the legal drinking age to 21.
Responsibility is a lesson that all parents want to impart to their children. But because of this federal law forbidding alcohol consumption until the age of 21, most parents fail to teach their children responsible drinking habits. The question becomes, why is drinking different than any other life lesson?
In a New York Times article entitled, Can Sips at Home Prevent Binges? Eric Asimov confronts this very question. With two young boys who are fast approaching adolescence, Asimov discusses how difficult a decision he and his wife face. Should they slowly and responsibly introduce alcohol at the dinner table? Or should they, as the government mandates, forbid alcohol consumption altogether? The answer isn’t a simple one.
After the collapse of Prohibition, nearly all states instituted a minimum legal drinking age of 21. However, by the early 1970’s, twenty-nine states lowered the minimum legal drinking age to 18,19, or 20, while also extending other privileges, like the right to vote, to younger citizens.
In the late 1970s the national mood about teenage drinking underwent a drastic change because of several highly publicized studies that examined the correlation between the younger drinking age and motor vehicle crashes. Teenage alcohol abuse was deemed a devastating problem that corresponded to more traffic injuries and fatalities among America’s youth. The advent of these studies coupled with the nationwide campaign effort by Candy Lightner and her organization, MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) primed the American people for major change in legislation.
By the early 1980’s sixteen out of the twenty-nine states had reinstated the original 21 year old minimum. Finally, in 1984 the federal government passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required all states to legislate and enforce the age of 21 as the minimum age for purchasing and publicly possessing alcoholic beverages. States which failed to enforce the act suffered from a ten percent annual decrease in federal highway apportionment.
Two decades later, the argument still hasn’t been settled. On one side sit those who are in favor of reducing the minimum age. In particular, Professor David P. Hanson at the State University of New York, contends that the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act is both largely ineffective and unevenly enforced. Hanson and his colleagues offer a wealth of studies that demonstrate how ineffective the law is in curbing underage consumption.
As Hanson discusses, a recent national survey shows 90% of US high school students have consumed alcoholic beverages, half of them categorizing themselves as regular drinkers. For young people, it seems that the law is not only unsuccessful in reducing underage access to alcohol, but it also fails as a deterrent to underage consumption.
Given these percentages, perhaps we should acknowledge that for most teens, drinking is largely an inevitable fact. Between fake I.D.s, older siblings, and their parent’s liquor cabinet, high school students are more likely than not to gain access to alcohol. And the existence of a seemingly unfair law is not going to stop them from drinking it.
Indeed the law might help promote the ‘forbidden fruit’ phenomenon. For many young adults, the appeal of drinking is derived from the fact that underage consumption is illicit behavior and warrants a badge of rebellion. Ultimately, the desire to engage in an activity that is viewed as a rite of passage and symbol of adulthood contributes to the pervasive misuse of alcohol by this age-group.
Those who enacted the law in 1984 certainly had good intentions. However, it is important to recognize that there is nothing intrinsically special about reaching 21 years of age. Selecting 21 as the cut off can seem incredibly arbitrary. Can we really say that a 21 year old is significantly more mature than a 19 year old? Probably not. There is no reason to assume that on a person’s 21st birthday they suddenly become wise, thoughtful, and responsible. This is partly due to the fact that there are no required education programs to inform drinkers about the facts and liabilities associated with drinking.
Even more salient is the fact that, for the most part, people are considered adults when they reach age 18. Among many other things, laws dictate that 18 year olds can marry, vote, sign legally binding contracts, adopt children, serve on a jury, be executed, go to prison, and die for our country in war. But they can’t legally enjoy a beer. For many, this seems both unjust and illogical.
On the other side of the argument, there are many who believe that the 21 year old minimum has had positive repercussions. Most often, proponents of this belief cite the significant decline in alcohol-related automobile fatalities that has occurred since the enactment of the 21 year old limit. However, as Hanson explains in one of his discussions, it is hard to tell whether this decrease is due to the increase in the drinking age or stricter DUI enforcement and harsher penalties.
It is important to note that while the frequency of these fatal crashes has diminished in the under 21 bracket, it has increased significantly in the 21 to 24 age bracket. It seems that the only thing that’s changed is the age of those being killed. Perhaps we don’t need to worry about what age limit we set but rather, focus on how to properly educate those who are new to drinking.
One possibility would be looking to the European model of the development of teenage drinking. As Asimov explains in the article discussed above alcohol education occurs in the family setting at a much younger age.
In European wine regions, a new parent might dip a finger in the local pride and wipe it lovingly across an infant’s lips — “just to give the taste.” A child at the family table might have a spoonful of wine added to the water, because it says, “You are one of us.” A teenager might have a small glass of wine, introducing an adult pleasure in a safe and supervised manner.
Conveniently, Hanson’s site provides a chart of drinking ages around the globe and not surprisingly, the U.S. is the only country occupying the 21 year old column— and there’s a reason for that. With national drinking ages no greater than 18, European parents are able to instill responsible drinking habits within a family setting. Instead of forbidding the consumption of alcohol, they embrace it, teaching their children to respect alcohol in the same way they would a good meal. This allows young adults to view alcohol as a privilege that must not be abused, instead of a badge of rebellion that is meant to be abused.
Others who favor a reduced drinking age, including Hanson, propose the concept of formal, required education classes for new drinkers or even provisional drinking licenses. It might sound silly, but given that the annual social cost of underage drinking amounts to at least $53 billion, clearly something must be done.
If you think the idea of a drinking permit sounds strange, consider the success of driver’s permits. Teens who want to drink could take classes that would inform them about safe drinking habits and the personal and social consequences of alcohol use and abuse. After passing an examination of some kind, the student would be granted access to alcohol under certain, monitored conditions and be held accountable for his or her actions. Just as a parent introduces a teen to the rules of the road, so too could parents and teachers inculcate a respect for alcohol and an intolerance of abuse.
One thing to point out is how vital a role the parent-child relationship plays in a program like this. Parents wouldn’t be able to just talk the talk; they’d have to walk the walk too. As a teen learns about safe and responsible drinking, a parent must also demonstrate the advantages of moderation. Clearly, in a household where alcohol is abused or is the root of a larger problem, this concept may not be as effective. However, we should not discount the possibility of a successful transformation in adolescent attitudes about alcohol that could result from a program like this.
The most important thing we can gather from this discussion is that the most pertinent issue is not that adolescents are engaging in underage drinking, but rather that they misuse it, which results in undesirable and dangerous outcomes like drunk driving. According to Asimov:
If you are taught to drink in a ceremonial way with food, then the purpose of alcohol is taste and celebration, not inebriation, [but] if you are forbidden to use it until college then you drink to get drunk.
Similarly, if children are instilled with the proper respect for alcohol at a young age, they may be less likely to find themselves in situations that would lead to driving while intoxicated. With this in mind, if our country lowered its minimum legal drinking age, we could focus our efforts on preventing the more dangerous outcomes like drunk driving and binge drinking instead of wasting resources on persecuting underage drinkers.
It is evident that not only a change in law, but a change in philosophy is necessary to address the pervasive problem of underage drinking in our country. Specifically, we feel that the U.S. should lower its drinking age, but also place a priority on social controls. Perhaps, with appropriate education and monitoring, parents can teach responsibility by giving responsibility and young adults can learn to appreciate alcohol and not misuse it.