Do Stringent Underage Drinking Prohibitions Exacerbate The Problem?

After New London, NH police arrested 91 Colby Sawyer College students following a raid at an off-campus party, I couldn’t help but wonder if our nation’s drinking age and related policies weren’t contributing to the problem of underage drinking. Does barring our nation’s youth from an activity that is widely accepted, even encouraged, for those of legal age create a situation that compels minors to drink? After all, alcohol advertisements and sponsorships are widespread, be it at sporting events (including those at the college level), on roadside billboards, and in print and online publications. When underage individuals are continually confronted with alcohol, does it not make resisting the temptation to break the law that much more difficult?

Reflecting these concerns, numerous college presidents earlier this year proposed lowering the drinking age to 18 as part of an initiative to promote responsible drinking behavior. As the Amethyst Initiative’s founder, former Middlebury College president John McCardell, noted in his interview with National Public Radio, the United States is one of only four countries with a drinking age as high as 21. Given the role that alcohol plays in 18-20 year-old’s lives, Mr. McCardell’s organization contends, imparting responsibility should be the nation’s focus. After all, the demographic his group targets represents 51% of binge drinkers, and 90% of all underage individuals who consume alcohol engage in binge drinking. By legalizing the purchase and consumption of alcohol for those individuals aged 18-20, this group would no longer be forced into unsafe situations to consume alcohol. Because establishments are prohibited from serving visibly-intoxicated individuals, excessive drinking and other destructive alcohol-related tendencies among the targeted group can be curtailed. At the same time, telling a new drinker that he or she has had enough helps that individual identify his or her limits, which encourages responsibility. Numerous barriers to a lower drinking age exist, however, not the least of which is the federal government.

While it is true that states are free to establish their own regulations regarding the sale and consumption of alcohol, the US government provides a powerful incentive to maintain the current drinking age. At stake is 10% of a state’s allocation of the Federal Highway Trust Fund’s Highway Account. As states such as Wisconsin and South Carolina consider lowering their drinking age, millions of dollars are at risk. For the fiscal year ended September 30, 2008, the most recent period for which the Federal Highway Administration has released figures, Wisconsin and South Carolina would have forfeited $76.53 million and $65.03 million in highway funds, respectively. If all 50 states reduced their age limits, a total of $4.15 billion would have been held back by the federal government. Clearly, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act’s provision tying federal highway aid to states’ legal drinking age is a powerful inducement to maintain the status quo. Before a majority of states are likely to lower their drinking age, an amendment to the 1984 law is necessary. There is, however, strong opposition to such a change.

In opposing a reduction in the legal drinking age, organizations such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and Coalition21 cite decreases in traffic fatalities in support of the current policy. By focusing on just one impact of alcohol consumption, however, these groups misrepresent the effectiveness of the current legal drinking age. To this point, a 2004 study produced by the Institute of Medicine (part of the National Academy of Sciences) found that, relatively speaking, alcohol consumption by minors decreased negligibly in the nine years following the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act and has remained steady since. The same study concluded that changing social behaviors and attitudes towards underage drinking can more-effectively influence underage and binge drinking than do age-based policies. In the face of such information, perhaps it is time to reassess once again our nation’s approach to alcohol.

In the face of ineffective policies intended to prevent underage and binge drinking, a growing number of college administrators and lawmakers are calling for a reduction in the legal drinking age from 21 to 18 along with a shift in focus from prohibition to imparting responsible behavior. Considering the billions of dollars at stake with such a move, Congress must first amend the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act before states can begin to address this important issue.