Why the Drinking Age Should Be Lowered to 18 in the United States

Danny Santulli’s new home is a rehabilitation hospital in Colorado. He cannot walk, speak, or respond to any commands.

Santulli was a pledge to Phi Gamma Delta fraternity, also known as Fiji, at the University of Missouri. On October 9th, 2021, he took part in a hazing activity that expected him to consume a whole bottle of vodka in a short amount of time. He was driven to the hospital after he stopped breathing and went into cardiac arrest. He was admitted for alcohol poisoning and now has permanent brain damage (McKinney). This incident is the result of college students being forced off campus into unsafe situations where there is a culture of binge drinking and drinking to get drunk. College students are going to drink no matter what, so we need to focus on making drinking responsible. To do this, the drinking age needs to be lowered to 18 in the United States.  

The history of the legal drinking age is long and complicated. All states enacted a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA), after the end of the prohibition in the United States in 1933 (Toomey et al. 1958). Most set the age at 21. This did not change until the 1970s when the legal voting age was reduced to 18, which led to over half the states lowering the MLDA to 18,19 or 20. However, after research came out showing a rise in drink driving crashes among 18-20-year-olds, most of these states moved it back up to 21. This is where Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) came in. They petitioned and lobbied for all states to have the MLDA at 21. The government backed them up and enacted the National Legal Drinking Act which required all states to set the MLDA at 21 or face the loss of highway funds. No state was willing to lose these funds and by 1988 all states had some sort of rule that meant the Minimum Legal Drinking Age was 21 (Toomey et al. 1958). The debate has continued since then, and some states have considered lowering the MLDA several times.  

Drinking and driving is a huge problem and is the sole reason the MLDA was raised in the first place. In the 18–24-year-old age group, 5,500 people die due to alcohol-related injuries every year, and one out of every two people who die in a drunk-driving accident is someone other than the drinking driver (Stovell et al. 3). These are statistics that cannot be ignored, and there are also high numbers of sexual assaults that happen when alcohol is introduced. Just under 700,000 people are assaulted per year, and 100,000 are assaulted by a college student who has been drinking (Stovell et al. 3). But no matter what the drinking age is, these numbers will still be high, and there has not been a significant decrease in these statistics since the MLDA was raised. According to company Sand Law “In 2018, 10,511 people died in alcohol related accidents in the United States. The FBI also estimates that around 1 million drivers were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol drugs in the same year.” (par.1) The United States are ranked the third worst country when it comes to drunk driving, at 31% of road accident deaths involving alcohol in 2015. This is compared to Germany with 9%, who has an MLDA of 16 years old. Russia has an MLDA of 18 and is also at (9%). India and China both have an MLDA of 18 and come in at 5% and 4% respectively (Richter). So, as we can see from these statistics, other countries with a lower MLDA have fewer deaths and DUI car accidents than the US. We know that teenagers under the age of 21 in the United States will still drink and drive, and assaults will sadly still happen. 18-20-year-olds are permitted to do other risky things, and the government cannot protect us from our own bad decisions.  

At 18 years old we are considered adults and are capable of making responsible decisions. We are permitted to do many things that involve risk, such as smoking, driving, sex, and owning a firearm. We are also expected to vote, we are allowed to be married, and we can enlist in the military. We are also considered adults in the eyes of the law and are responsible for any infraction we cause. If 18–20-year-olds have the right to do all these things, why do they not have the right to drink? It is inconsistent and hypocritical to forbid youth from drinking under the age of 21. Teenagers will drink anyway, so we need to focus on making sure they drink responsibly. 

Unfortunately, Danny Santulli is not the only case that has resulted from irresponsible off-campus drinking in college. All over the US, many college students die or put themselves in dangerous situations because they consumed excessive amounts of alcohol in a brief period of time; this is called binge drinking. Binge drinking has been defined by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) as “five or more/four or more drinks for males/females within a timeframe that produces blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) of approximately 0.08 g/dL.” (Creswell et al. 1472). Excessive drinking in college can be due to having a limited time to consume the alcohol they managed to get (a.k.a., a party). Alcohol is also not allowed in dorms, so everything must be consumed at the party. The higher drinking age does not stop teenagers and college students from drinking, but instead forces them off campus and into unsafe drinking environments, because they do not want to be caught drinking illegally. Just like most things that are illegal, giving alcohol the status of being contraband makes it cool and rebellious, which teenagers seek. In 1992, after the MLDA was raised to 21, researchers found that more college students were drinking to get drunk compared to college students a decade before (M. Smith and M. D. Smith 1999). Richard Berman, president of Manhattanville College in Purchase, N.Y, is one of 129 college presidents who have created a group to lobby for the MLDA to be lowered to 18. “We know that alcohol can be wonderful, and can be dangerous or lethal,” he said. “The real question is, how do you help promote responsible drinking, for those students who are going to drink?” (Stovell et al. 3).  

Lowering the MLDA to 18, and encouraging responsible drinking habits, will reduce the risk of underage teenagers’ binge drinking. Introducing alcohol at a younger age will also normalize responsible drinking habits. Choose Responsibility (CR) is a nonprofit group that advocates for lowering the drinking age to 18 and encourages states to adopt exceptions that would allow minors to drink at home and in private clubs. It also favors social changes that shift the focus on alcohol use among youth to the home, family and individual (Main 33-34). They argue that states should:  

“(i) educate 18–20-year-olds on how to drink alcohol responsibly, using a program similar to driver’s education programs, that will be implemented on a state-by-state basis; and (ii) issue a drinking license to individuals who pass a final examination successfully at the end of the 40-hour education program, with the license allowing those individuals to drink alcohol legally in the state in which the license is issued.” (Toomey et al. 1962).  

This idea is intense but could be the answer to introducing responsible drinking habits at an early age. As the chairperson of the brewing company Anheuser-Busch, August A.Busch III, said, “Instead of pretending that prohibition on college campuses is realistic, we should be investing in helping those young people learn to make healthy and responsible choices” (Toomey et al. 1963). Obviously, we should acknowledge that a brewing company like Anheuser-Busch has financial interest in young people having legal access to beer. However, this does not mean their arguments are not valid. 

An opposing point is that letting 18-20-year-olds drink will let them into unsafe drinking environments such as bars and clubs. However, this happens anyway, as a large majority of underage drinkers have fake IDs. Dr. Berman, the president of Manhattanville college, who is part of a group wanting the MLDA lowered, said his college does “use good judgement and reasonableness in enforcing the law.” But students easily use fake identification cards to get served at bars off-campus (Stovell et al. 3).  

Lowering the MLDA to 18 in the United States will normalize responsible drinking habits at a younger age, which will reduce the risk of binge drinking in teenagers and college students. They will also be able to drink in safer environments without being forced off campus because of the threat of being caught drinking. 18-year-olds have the right to do many things that involve risk, but not drink. To help change this, you can email your senator or state representative urging them to lower the MLDA. You can also sign petitions or join many groups that lobby for change. 

 

Works Cited 

Creswell, Kasey G., et al. “Drinking Beyond the Binge Threshold in a Clinical Sample of Adolescents.” Addiction, vol. 115, 2020, pp. 1472–1481, doi: 10.1111/add.14979. Accessed 4 April 2022. 

“Comparing DUI Statistics Of The U.S. Vs. Other Countries.” Sand Law. 10 July 2020. www.sandlawnd.com/dui-statistics-of-us-vs-other-countries/. 27 April 2022.  

Richter, Felix. “The Worst Countries In The World For Drunk Driving.” Statista, 16 Aug 2016. www.statista.com/chart/5504/the-worst-countries-in-the-world-for-drunk-driving/. Accessed 27 April 2022.  

Main, Carla T. “Underage Drinking and the Drinking Age.” Policy Review, 2009, pp. 33-46, https://eds-p-ebscohost-com.ezproxy.stephens.edu/eds/pdfviewer/pdfviewer? vid=1&sid=7b5a4e0c-948e-4c7a-b013-432d325791fd%40redis. Accessed 4 April 2022. 

McKinney, Roger. “Former Missouri Student in Colorado Rehab Hospital after Alcohol Poisoning: ‘Life as He Knew It Is Gone’.” Columbia Daily Tribune, 9 Feb 2022, www.columbiatribune.com/story/news/education/campus/2022/02/09/former-university- missouri-student-danny-santulli-fiji-fraternity-phi-gamma-delta-alcohol- poisoning/6703098001/. Accessed 14 April 2022.  

Smith, Michael Clay, and Margaret D. Smith. “Treat Students as Adults: Set the Drinking Age at 18, Not 21.” The Chronicle of Higher Education, vol. 45, no. 27, 1999, eds-s-ebscohost- com.ezproxy.stephens.edu/eds/detail/detail?vid=1&sid=826266f0-b026-4631-b215-17d50917a6f%40redis&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWRzLWxpdmUmc2NvcGU9c2l0ZQ%3d%3d#AN =edsgcl.54260059&db=edsgus. Accessed 11 April 2022. 

Stovell, Karienne, et al. “Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly.” Wiley Periodicals, Inc, vol. 20, no. 34, September 8, 2008, pp. 1-3, doi: 10.1002/adaw.20152. Accessed 11 April 2022. 

Toomey, Traci L., et al. “The Age-21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age: A Case Study Linking Past and Current Debates.” Addiction, vol. 104, 2009, pp. 1958–1965, doi: 10.1111/j.1360- 0443.2009.02742. Accessed 4 April 2022.  

 

Nea Blackham

Hey I'm Nea! I'm from New Zealand and play soccer here at Stephens. I love writing but hate sharing it. I'm hoping that this blog will help with that!

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