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Should the Drinking Age Be Lowered in the United States?

KJ enjoys investigating the complex issues American society faces.

Should Americans be allowed to drink at age 18 instead of 21?

Should Americans be allowed to drink at age 18 instead of 21?

Blacksheep feminist Camille Paglia ignited a firestorm when her article “The Drinking Age Is Past Its Prime” appeared on on April 23, 2014.

In her missive, she argues that set against legal adulthood, which typically begins at age 18, the legal drinking age at 21 “is a gross violation of civil liberties.” She asserts that the current drinking laws (in regards to the legal age) were a result of Congress being heavily lobbied by the well-intentioned but misguided MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving), who were seeking to stem the overwhelming tide of teen drunk driving deaths.

In this regard, Ms. Paglia has a point: It doesn’t quite make sense that one can legally be considered an adult in the United States at age 18—with the exception of this one thing.

Prohibition in Any Form Has Unintended Effects

If there’s one thing we’ve learned from Prohibition (1920–1933) and the War on Drugs (ongoing), it’s that prohibiting anything usually results in unintended consequences. For its part, prohibition resulted in a number of unsavory ramifications: a mob-related black market for alcohol, smuggling operations to bring alcohol into the United States from other countries, and the rising popularity of medicines containing alcohol.1

The War on Drugs (WoD) appears not to have had its intended effect, either. According to a May 2010 AP article2, the WoD has “failed to meet any of its goals.” In fact, former U.S. drug czar Gil Kerlikowske is quoted as saying, “In the grand scheme, it has not been successful. Forty years later, the concern about drugs and drug problems is, if anything, magnified, intensified.” The article also indicates that reported, illegal drug use by high schoolers has, in fact, gradually increased “since the early 1970s.”

Even looking at anecdotal evidence, it’s fair to say that prohibition in any form doesn’t work, but does that mean the United States doesn’t need to set rules regarding the consumption of alcohol? Of course not, but setting something (in this case, alcohol) out of reach and giving it a taboo status will only increase the desire for it. When asked, most parents will relate that telling a child they can’t have something will generally result in a greater intent to have it, regardless of what it is. Remove the taboo status, the mystery, if you will, and the need to surpass the established boundaries will typically lessen.

The percentage of adolescents who consumed alcohol over a 30-day period was greater in European countries than in the United States.

The percentage of adolescents who consumed alcohol over a 30-day period was greater in European countries than in the United States.

European Countries Vs. The United States Regarding Drinking

Another argument Ms. Paglia makes involves the comparison between how alcohol is viewed in European countries like “wine-drinking” France and Germany, “with its family-oriented beer gardens and festivals,” and the United States, commenting that “Learning how to drink responsibly is a basic lesson is growing up.”

Of course, children need to be taught responsibility, regardless of whether it involves drinking alcohol. That’s not in question, although one could argue about whether parents, in general, do a good job doing so. What is in question are the statistics regarding alcohol consumption in the United States and European countries.

Based on a May 2001 study conducted by the Department of Justice (DOJ) concerning the alcohol habits between youths in European countries and the United States,3 the DOJ made three very important determinations:

  1. The percentage of adolescents who consumed alcohol over a 30-day period was greater in European countries than in the United States.
  2. The number of drinks imbibed by European youths in one sitting was higher than their American counterparts.
  3. Rates of intoxication were greater in nearly half of the European countries with reported data than they were in the United States.

Flawed Conclusions

At first glance, this information appears to discredit the argument made by Ms. Paglia: that even teaching children to drink responsibly has no effect. But if the intended purpose for raising the legal drinking age in the United States to 21 in 19844 was, in part, to curtail the rising number of youth alcohol-related traffic fatalities, the conclusions are flawed.

The rate of alcohol consumption might be higher in European countries, but to use solely that as a basis for an argument about a higher legal drinking age in order to lower the number of DUI/DWI-related accidents among youths is misleading and short-sighted. One might compare the number of adolescent-related, drunk-driving accidents across countries, but even that is akin to comparing apples and oranges based on one simple factor that gets always seems to get overlooked: the availability of public transportation and higher legal driving age.

Furthermore, instead of comparing the United States to European countries where they have a very different lifestyle in many ways (the aforementioned public transportation and higher legal driving age but two of many), it might make more sense to look only at the statistical data from within the United States, and compare the pre-1984 numbers with the numbers spanning the 30 years since, to help determine if raising the drinking age has had a good or ill effect or any kind of effect at all.

So, What Can We Do?

The ultimate point is that the debate about the legal drinking age in the United States is multi-faceted and complicated. Pros and cons can be argued for either side of the divide, and given the contentious nature of the argument in general, it’s doubtful a consensus will ever be reached as to the optimal drinking age or the most effective way to limit underage drinking.

So, what can we do on a personal level to help our children make wise choices when it comes to alcohol (or drugs, for that matter)? Here are some things to consider:

How to Discuss Alcohol With Your Kids

  1. Talk to your kids. A healthy relationship between parent and child will give them a safe space to ask questions and discuss sensitive topics.
  2. Take the mystique out of alcohol and drug use. This doesn’t mean giving them access to them, just removing the perceived obstacles that might make them more appealing.
  3. Be honest and frank when discussing these issues with children, but forget the “instill fear” approach. A 2013 study released by the International Journal of Public Health5 indicates that scare tactics aren’t as effective as once thought.
  4. Be available when children screw up. It’s inevitable—children will make mistakes as they grow and work to expand their boundaries. Hold them accountable for their actions, but recognize mistakes are part of the learning process.







What Do You Think?

Is the drinking age set too high in the United States? Is it too low? Do you have suggestions to help curb underage drinking? Leave a comment, and let’s toss around ideas.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.