18 or 21?
February 26, 2014

18 Or 21?

Every semester one or more of my students brings up the topic of underage drinking in conjunction with lowering the drinking age. Every semester these students identify the following as reasons to lower the drinking age to 18:

  1. Teenagers drink because it is taboo.
  2. At 18, people…
  • are considered legal adults.
  • can buy cigarettes and pornography.
  • can join the military, fight for their country, and die for their country, but they can’t have a beer.

Though sometimes students give other examples, these are the most common reasons that they give to support the idea of lowering the drinking age. And, you know, these really are convincing, and they are easy to support. For instance, with number 1, students have contrasted American teen drinking to other countries with looser laws. Many of these countries do not have the same amounts of binge drinking as US teens engage in. It is easy to make the logical correlation. In fact, some studies even academically support this as cause and effect.

However, one study shows that the age-21 drinking laws in the US really are working. As redOrbit recently reported, “Researchers found that studies done since 2006—when a new debate over age-21 laws flared up—have continued to demonstrate that the mandates work. The laws, studies show, are associated with lower rates of drunk driving crashes among young people. And it seems they also curb other hazards of heavy drinking—including suicide, dating violence and unprotected sex.”

Those who challenge the law come in many forms. One form is from a non-profit group called Choose Responsibility. Another, perhaps more convincing group, was university presidents and chancellors who are part of the Amethyst Initiative. These wanted the age-21 laws to at least be re-evaluated, as the presidents and chancellors expressed concern over heavy drinking episodes amongst college students. These heavy drinking episodes consist of college students drinking more than five drinks in a sitting, multiple times a week. This is also known as binge drinking.

Despite the concern from Choose Responsibility and Amethyst Initiative, studies show that drinking is down. For instance, one study claimed that in 2011, 36 percent of college students binge drank, whereas 43 percent admitted to doing so in 1988. The decline in high school students was 35 percent in 1988 versus 22 percent in 2011.

In answer to the college presidents’ concerns, the study author Dr. William DeJong insists, “Tougher enforcement of the age-21 law, rather than a repeal, is what’s needed. “Just because a law is commonly disobeyed doesn’t mean we should eliminate it,” DeJong noted. Clinical trials have found that when college towns put more effort into enforcing the law—and advertise that fact to students—student drinking declines.”

I have to say that I did not drink alcohol until I was 21. This is not just because of the law; however, the law definitely dissuaded me. I have never been a lawbreaker, and I did not care to start with booze. Even as a woman in her 30s, I am still not much of a drinker, so it is likely that I just would not have drank even if the age was lowered. However, I knew plenty of individuals who drank before turning 21. I still suspect with a strong degree of certainty that plenty of my students drink despite the law. I really see both sides of this argument.

On the one hand, many countries have looser drinking laws and do not face the same kinds of alcohol-related issues that we do in the US. But studies like DeJong’s show that the age-21 alcohol laws of the US might be doing some positive. This complicated topic seems like it will not go away any time soon. Both sides will continue to fight for their position. Studies like those redOrbit identified definitely play their role in the drinking age discussion.

Image Credit: Thinkstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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