Should We Lower The Drinking Age In The U.S.?

Image of Dartmouth College from
Image of Dartmouth College from

Here is a debate topic that just won’t go away: Should the drinking age be lowered from 21 in the United States? Connected to this question are issues touching upon education, health, crime, road safety, business, job productivity, the entertainment world, and much more. Colleges are particularly invested in this subject because administrators know that many of their students would like to drink, but the consequences can be negative. And with the recent spate of sexual violence cases reported on campuses, many of which involved drinking by victims and perpetrators, the age restriction has been in the news.

Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Brown University in Rhode Island have recently changed their alcohol policies?in the wake of binge-drinking incidents. Hard liquor will be banned from Dartmouth starting on March 30. But the feeling on campus is that students who want to drink will be more surreptitious about it.

An opinion piece published by the?Uniersity. of Virginia’s?Cavalier Daily?makes an interesting point that underage students who drink may avoid seeking help in dangerous situations, wary of legal consequences. The managing board feels that if drinking is out in the open, it is better regulated and monitored. Students may also be at less risk for adulterated drinks (with date rape drugs, for example) because they can purchase it themselves from stores, instead of on the sly.

The New York Times recently published a “Room For Debate” panel which presented three opinions for lowering the drinking age, with three opinions against doing so. One writer, Prof. Laurence Steinberg, suggests lowering the drinking age to 19 so as to keep the substance out of the hands of high school students. He sees the problem of drinking among teens because the substance is more damaging to the adolescent brain. Prof.?Tara Watson sides with keeping the age at 21, because her research showed that younger drinking was associated with a higher risk of unintended pregnancy and worse infant health.

In Minnesota, the push to lower the drinking age comes from a state Rep.?Phyllis Kahn, who asserts that restricting access to 21 leads to high-risk drinking by younger folks. However, a Grand Forks Herald editorial supports keeping the drinking age at 21.

If some states were to lower the age, the feeling is this creates an uneven national playing field, and some older teens might travel to the states that allow younger drinking and then drive home drunk to states that have higher drinking ages.

I asked my friends to weigh in on this topic. The opinions were almost split down the middle, although a few people admitted that they could see both sides. Craig wrote, “Anyone who can serve in the armed forces…should have the legal right to have a drink.” Ed pointedly asked, “You have the right to vote at 18…but can’t be trusted to consume alcohol?” Richard suggested that kids “be introduced to alcohol at an earlier age with their parents or responsible adult.” Julian wrapped together “18 for marriage, alcohol, and military. Why not just make it all simple?”

Some who were ambivalent about a change or who opposed it argued other factors. Michael stated frankly, “Young people do stupid stuff. Reckless driving with alcohol is extra dangerous.” Joe wrote, “As a parent, no!” Renee mentioned that her sister was a college resident assistant, and in that line of work, the higher age limit “was the only control they had” as a buffer. Jennifer’s unusual comment was that “maybe there should be training and licensing programs for drinking, like the one for driving.”

Lowering the drinking age is contentious. Alcohol abuse at any age can be perilous, but especially amongst teenagers. There are many studies that support keeping the drinking age at 21, and others that disagree.

Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013), all published by Avotaynu. She is a lifelong New Yorker, a veteran public school teacher, writer and photographer. Bird lover as well.