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How To Reduce High-Risk College Drinking: Use Proven Strategies, Fill Research Gaps

Appendix 3
Responses To Arguments Against The Minimum Legal Drinking Age

Despite an abundance of research demonstrating the effectiveness of the age 21 MLDA in reducing youth drinking and alcohol-related problems, a few States are again considering lowering their legal age limits for drinking. Many issues and arguments heard decades ago are resurfacing, and many are similar to arguments college administrators hear against campus policies to discourage high-risk alcohol use. Following is a summary of possible responses to these arguments, suggested in the research review on MLDA commissioned by the Panel (Wagenaar and Toomey, 2002).

Issue: “Establishing a legal drinking age of 21 is unconstitutional age discrimination.”
This question has been treated in detail in two court cases, one in Michigan, the other in Louisiana. In both instances, the courts upheld the constitutionality of the laws, based in part on the demonstrated value of age 21 laws in preventing traffic crashes.

Issue: “If I’m old enough to go to war, I should be old enough to drink.”
Response: Many rights have different ages of initiation. A person can obtain a hunting license at age 12, driver’s license at age 16, vote and serve in the military at 18, serve in the U.S. House of Representatives at age 25 and in the U.S. Senate at age 30, and run for President at age 35. Other rights that are regulated include the sale and use of tobacco and legal consent for sexual intercourse and marriage. The minimum age for initiation is based on the specific behaviors involved and must take into account the dangers and benefits of that behavior at a given age. The age 21 policy for alcohol takes into account the fact that underage drinking is related to numerous serious health problems, including injuries and death resulting from car crashes, suicide, homicide, assault, drowning, and recreational injuries. In fact, the leading cause of death among teens is car crashes, and alcohol is involved in approximately a third of these deaths.

Issue: “Europeans let their teens drink from an early age, yet they don’t have the alcohol-related problems we do. What we need are fewer restrictions, not more.”
Response: The idea that Europeans do not have alcohol-related problems is a myth. European youth may be at less risk of traffic crashes since youth drive less frequently in Europe than in the United States. However, European countries have similar or higher rates of other alcohol-related problems compared to those in the United States.

Issue: “Lower rates of alcohol-related crashes among 19- to 20-year-olds aren’t related to the age 21 policy, but rather they’re related to increased drinking-driving education efforts, tougher enforcement, and tougher drunk-driving penalties.”
Response: When the age 21 restriction was initiated, alcohol-involved highway crashes declined immediately (i.e., starting the next month) among the 18- to 20-year-old population. Careful research has shown the decline was not due to DUI enforcement and tougher DUI penalties, but is a direct result of the legal drinking age. Studies have also shown that education alone is not effective in reducing youth drinking. Achieving long-term reductions in youth drinking problems requires an environmental change so that alcohol is less accessible to teens.

Issue: “Making it illegal to drink until 21 just increases the desire for the ‘forbidden fruit.’ Then, when students turn 21, they’ll drink even more.”
Response: Actually, the opposite is true. Early legal access to alcohol is associated with higher rates of drinking as an adult.

Issue: “Who will pay for enforcement of these laws? The age 21 law is too expensive.”
Response: We already pay large portions of our tax dollars for problems resulting from alcohol. For example, in Minnesota, cities use approximately one-third of their police budgets to deal with alcohol-related problems; the U.S. pays more than $10 billion annually just for the costs associated with drunk driving. The higher drinking age saves money by resulting in fewer alcohol-related health problems, fewer alcohol-related injuries, and less vandalism.

Issue: “We drank when we were young and we grew out of it. It’s just a phase that all students go through.”
Response: Unfortunately, many teens will not “grow out of it.” Studies indicate that youth who start drinking before they are 21 are more likely to drink heavily later in life. Those who do not drink until age 21 tend to drink less as adults. Teens who drink are also more likely to try other illegal drugs and to become victims of crime. If teen drinking is accepted as normal behavior, youth will continue to experience car crashes, other injuries, early unprotected sex, and other problems commonly associated with drinking.

Issue: “If students can’t get alcohol, they’ll just switch to other, perhaps even more dangerous, drugs.”
Response: Research shows that the opposite is true; teens who drink and/or smoke are more likely to move on to use other drugs. Preventing youth from using alcohol and tobacco reduces the chance that they will try other illegal drugs. Moreover, when the drinking age was raised to 21, and teen drinking declined, there was no evidence of a compensatory increase in other drug use.


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Historical document
Last reviewed: 9/23/2005

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