The Drinking Age: A “Spirited” Debate

Nearly 100 college presidents from around the nation (including Oregon) recently sent a letter to lawmakers asking them to consider lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18. They say that current laws encourage binge drinking on campus. Mothers Against Drunk Driving quickly countered that lowering the drinking age would increase fatal car crashes. This hot-button issue has reared its head before, and this time it is getting a good amount of national publicity.

Many advocates feel that if at 18 you are able to be in the active military, smoke, vote and get married, you should be able to drink. Many countries have a drinking age of 18, including Canada and Mexico. New Zealand took a different approach: The drinking age is 18 when an adult is present and 21 when one is not.

As of 2006 the U.S. Government spent $71 million dollars on educational underage drinking programs and enforcement. Many arguments relating to underage drinking can be found in House Bill 864 (the STOP Underage Drinking Act), signed into law in December 2006. The act added millions of dollars in federal appropriations for enforcement and media campaigns. It cites research indicating that:

“¢ Two of five college students are binge drinkers
“¢ 1,400 college students die each year from alcohol related injuries
“¢ 70,000 students are victims of alcohol-related sexual assaults each year

In Oregon, between 17 and 20 percent of all alcohol sold is to underage drinkers. The state spends $33 million dollars in federal and state funds on underage enforcement.

Many people equate alcohol use with violence, especially in the youth. Interestingly, in France, where wine is a staple at the family dinner table, the mortality rate from homicides among youth (10-29 years of age) is only 1 in 100,000, compared with other countries which rate as high as 84 in 100,000 (study by the World Health Organization).

Twenty-nine states were compelled to pass legislation raising the drinking age to 21 in the 1980s when the federal government threatened to take away federal highway funds. What would happen if the drinking age were nationally lowered to 18? According to a published paper by Dr. David Hanson, subsequent “data from 3,375 students at 56 colleges across the country revealed that, after the legislation, significantly more under-age students drank compared to those of legal age. Thus, the increase in purchase age appears to have been not only ineffective but actually counter-productive, at least in the short run.”

Some of the positives in relation to lowering the drinking age might be:

“¢ The market for fake IDs would diminish
“¢ College students could drink in their dorms instead of their cars
“¢ Law enforcement money could be redirected to other programs
“¢ Students would not be asking others to buy large amounts of liquor for them

A scientific way to find out what might happen with a lower drinking age would be a pilot program: One state might approve one college town or campus to have a lower drinking age for one year. The program would be closely monitored and data would be collected.

There are always those who abuse alcohol, and there will always be violence. There also will always be responsible people who know right from wrong and when to quit. America is a land built on freedom. That includes the freedom to make responsible decisions. The arguments on both sides of this issue are persuasive. So is it time to take a hard look at the drinking age? The college presidents think so. A good national debate is always a healthy thing.

Jeff Alan is Chief Investigator at Cascade Policy Institute, Oregon’s free market research center.