In Defense of the Drinking Age

Prohibition is not the answer. But neither is lowering the minimum legal drinking age.
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Viewpoints like John M. McCardell Jr.'s in "Let Them Drink at 18, With a Learner's Permit," published this week on the New York Times site, are exactly what gets in the way of progress in substance abuse prevention and education today. McCardell's inflammatory comments (equating binge drinking with a non-existent "binge driving" trend and calling alcohol abuse prevention programs "hysterical pronouncements") are not based on fact, but rather on the author's own opinions and self-serving propaganda. He makes unconnected leaps between issues and includes no data to back up his claims. The national drinking age was set at 21 for a reason -- and unfortunately, McCardell simply hasn't done his research.

McCardell supports the creation of a sort of "drinking learner's permit" for teens, much like a driver's permit. He applauds the efficacy of driver's education and graduated learner's permits, and insists that this type of program/permit would also help make teen drinking safer. But has the learner's permit really helped with teen driving, when motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in U.S. teens? With car crashes causing one in three teen deaths today, we can hardly sit back and celebrate the success of learner's permits.

But sure, for argument's sake, let's say the driving learner's permit were a tremendous success. That still doesn't mean it would be remotely applicable to teen drinking. Why? Because driving, unlike drinking, does not alter the chemistry of the brain, nor does it affect one's ability to respond to a situation with accuracy. Driving doesn't affect the frontal lobe -- the part of the brain responsible for decision making. I understand that McCardell is trying to be witty by comparing binge drinking and "binge driving," but the argument simply doesn't hold water.

I also have to question McCardell's motivations. Perhaps he realizes that if drinking were legal at 18, he would have fewer litigious issues to deal with at the University of the South, where he is vice chancellor and president. If drinking were legal even for college freshmen, McCardell and other administrators would be off the hook as enforcers. They would certainly get fewer complaints from parents, and they'd also avoid getting sued. Perhaps McCardell's judgment on this particular issue is clouded by self-interest.

And then there's his simple misrepresentation of the facts. While he concedes that underage alcohol use is lower than it was before the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act was issued in 1984, he insists that the binge drinking rates haven't changed. In reality, binge drinking among 12th graders peaked in the early 1980s at 41 percent and fell sharply throughout the '80s and '90s. The rate hit 32 percent in 1998 and continued to decline during the following decade, reaching an historic low of 21.6 percent in 2011 -- all signs point to success of the age-21 minimum. Plus, research shows that when the minimum legal drinking age is 21, kids under 21 drink less overall and continue to do so even after they reach and surpass the legal drinking age. This is particularly important since we know that people who reach age 21 without developing a drinking problem are unlikely to develop one later on in life.

"What do we do to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol?" McCardell asks, and then answers his own question: "Beyond sometimes hysterical pronouncements about the evils of drink, not much." Well, speak for yourself -- maybe the folks at the University of the South aren't doing much, but there are plenty of prevention and education resources and programs for young people and parents across the country, offered by universities and community organizations alike. Here at Phoenix House, we pride ourselves on offering this exact type of programming in order to educate kids and families before substance abuse starts.

I do agree with one of McCardell's points: Prohibition is not the answer. But neither is lowering the minimum legal drinking age. The government makes decisions and sets national guidelines based on findings that research and data have shown are of significant importance to public health. This is true in regard to the drinking age. Sure, it used to be 18, but look at those statistics I mentioned; the age was changed for a reason, and it has helped. The same goes for the legal limit to qualify as intoxicated; it used to be .1 and is now .08 -- that's the equivalent of one less drink over an hour. These are small changes, but they were made for a reason and have proven to be effective. We're all on the same learning curve here; let's not take an unnecessary step backward.

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