Writing@CSU Home Page | Writing Gallery | Talking Back | Volume 2, Issue 1

logoUnderage Drinking

Jeff Karg

College life is filled with changes. It is filled with many new experiences. As college students, we are on our own, adults. As adults we are responsible for keeping up to date on information that affects us. One issue that effects college students nation wide is drinking. The current legal drinking age in the United States is twenty-one years of age. The Federal government raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21 in 1984. Even with the current drinking age at twenty-one, many people under that age choose to drink anyway. In fact, a government survey from 1996 showed that 56% of high school seniors reported drinking in the last 30 days (Hanson). With so many underage drinkers, many people believe that the drinking age should be lowered, stating that people are going to drink, regardless of the legal age. Still others see the high number of underage drinkers as a sign that the legal age needs to stay where it is and stricter laws need to be implemented. With the extremely high number of underage drinking, we can assume that the current drinking age is relatively ineffective, and therefor we must ask ourselves: should the drinking age be lowered, or should we revise policies to make th current age more effective? It is important to view all sides of the issue before deciding which side to be on. We must look responsibly at the issue instead of saying that the drinking age should be lowered, simply because we are under 21. The current drinking age has many debatable sides, or approaches which need to be examined. Those approaches include lowering the drinking age because the current policies donít work, lowering the drinking age because it would lead to more responsible drinking, keeping the drinking age where it is because of alcohol related driving accidents, and keeping the age where it is due to the immaturity of people under the age of twenty-one.

One approach that many people who are concerned with the issue take is to lowering the drinking age because current policies donít work. Most people taking this approach believe that the laws in place today do little or nothing to help or stop underage drinking, and in some ways even make it worse. "At the very least, American youth alcohol policy is ineffective. More disturbing, the drinking age may be counterproductive. It is applied so rigidly in most of the country that it precludes any attempt to teach young people how to handle alcohol responsibly." (Hanson).

Many people feel that the lack of effective policies and the high rate of underage drinking could have been predicted. In the 1920's and 30's, the United States attempted a prohibition of all alcohol beverages. This was met with such hostility that it was very short lived. During the prohibition, organized crime rose dramatically, as did the sales of illegal or "bootlegged liquor". Is it any surprise then, that the same thing has happened since the rise of the drinking age, but on a smaller scale? (Pickerington)

Many under the age of 21 are getting in trouble with the law in alcohol related incidents, which wouldnít take place if the drinking age was lowered. Many underage drinkers drink in more dangerous places in order to avoid law enforcement. "... when these young adults Ďdrink on the sly in unsupervised settings, they are more likely to drink excessively, more likely to drive while intoxicated, and less likely to seek help when someone needs it." (Banister) This view is shared by Pickerington who stated, "Those who are younger than 21 have no legal right to drink alcoholic beverages and, thus must do so illegally is private homes and apartments."

Those who feel that the drinking age should be lowered because of inefficient policies, simply want legislators and politicians to realize that underage drinking is going to happen regardless of what the laws are. "The National Youth Rights Association believes American youth alcohol policy should recognize the inevitability of alcohol consumption among youth and seek to reduce the harm of that alcohol use, rather than unrealistically try to keep young people from drinking at all." (Hanson)

Another approach on the issue of the drinking age is the view that lowering the drinking age would lead to more responsible drinking. This approach basically states that a large part of the appeal of drinking alcohol underage is because it is illegal. If the age was lowered, alcohol would loose its "rebellious" qualities, and would lead to more responsible use. (Engs) It has been shown that those who drink under the age of 21 have more to drink at one time than those of legal age, resulting in irresponsible behavior. "Those under the age of 21 are more likely to be heavy - sometimes called "binge"- drinkers (consuming over 5 drinks at least once a week). For example, 22% of all students under 21 compared to 18% over 21 years of age are heavy drinkers. Among drinkers only, 32% of under age compared to 24% of legal age are heavy drinkers." (Engs) If the drinking age was lowered, fewer people might be heavy drinkers.

Greg Wilson, staff writer for the New York Daily News, agrees that with a lower drinking age would come more responsible drinking. Wilson cites Brooklyn Assemblyman, Felix Ortiz as saying that the drinking age should be dropped and alcohol education be increased. "Look, Iíve been to Europe, and Iíve seen kids there drinking wine with their parents," Ortiz said. "Yet, they donít seem to have the same problems with overindulgence. Why? Because theyíre getting an education about alcohol from their parents and from their culture." (Wilson) In a similar point, Dr. Ruth Engs of Indiana University, looks at other cultures such as Italians, Greeks, Chinese, and Jews who all had very few problems related to alcohol because proper use is taught at an early age from the parents.

A third approach to this issue is that the drinking age should remain where it is because of the high amount of traffic accidents that result from alcohol. It is common knowledge that driving while under the influence of alcohol can greatly impair ability, which can cause harm to those under the influence and also to others on the road. According to the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, 21.2 % of the 8,000 drivers ages 15-20 involved in motor vehicle crashes in 1998 were drinking and 13.8% were legally intoxicated. (Stoner) So if that many people were legally intoxicated and involved in car accidents, lowering the drinking age would only increase that number. With the higher drinking age since 1984, it is estimated that 17,000 lives were saved from 1985-1996 and a 63% decline in alcohol-related crash fatalities among young drivers. (AAT) Stoner admits that the laws concerning the drinking age cannot stop all people under 21 from drinking, however, he points out that many people do refrain from drinking until they are 21 and that amount of people, however small, can help decrease the driving accidents.

A fourth approach to the issue of the drinking age is to keep the drinking age where it is because people arenít mature enough to drink alcohol until they are 21 years old. This approach consists of people who think that a person doesnít fully mature either physically or mentally until around the age of 20 or 21, and for that reason, alcohol shouldnít be legal until then. Legislators and lawmakers have made age restrictions for many things, including alcohol. No one can drive legally until they are 16, no one can vote until they are 18, and no one can drink legally until they are 21. If the drinking age is lowered, should the driving and voting ages also be lowered? At what point would it stop? (McArdle) Those who are elected to make decisions for the general population has decided that 21 is an appropriate age to drink alcohol, and everyone should accept their decision of the matter. (McArdle)

Another aspect of the maturity approach is that of brain development. Robert Kirby, writer for the Salt Lake Tribune, states that scientists once thought that the brain was fully developed when a person reached puberty, but it has now been discovered that the brain doesnít actually develop fully until around 20-something. It has been learned that the prefrontal lobe of the brain is the last to develop and that doesnít happen until around 20 years of age. The prefrontal lobe is the part of the brain responsible for self-control, judgments, and emotional regulation. It has also been found that alcohol does little or nothing to enhance brain activity and therefor is not beneficial and possibly harmful to drink alcohol before that time. For this reason, the drinking age should remain at 21. (Kirby)

The drinking age of twenty-one has been debated since it was instituted in 1984. Many people view it as ineffective and worthless, while others hold fast to the law and fight to keep the drinking age where it is. As college students, we are in the heart of the age group that is affected by this issue. Any change in legislation, means a change for us. It is important as college students to understand the different point of this issue, to make a fully informed decision regarding the issue. Whether we choose to drink or not, whether we are 18 or 22, the drinking issue is one that surrounds us.

Works Cited

Action on Alcohol And Teens. Lowering the Minimum Drinking Age is a Bad Idea. 1998. Oct 13, 2002. <www.winternet.com/~martinez/AATdrinkingage.html>

Banister, G. Huntington. "Rethinking the Drinking Age" Letter. The Washington Times 225 words, 5 March 2002: A20.

Engs, Ruth C. Why the drinking age should be lowered: An opinion based upon research. 1998. Oct 13 2002. <www.indiana.edu/engs/articles/cqoped.html>.

Hanson, D. J. .. Youth Alcohol Policy. 1997. Oct 13, 2002. <http://www.2potsdam.edu/alcohol-info/InMyOpinion/YouthPolicy.html>.

 Kirby, Robert. "Study Confirms Parents' Suspicions: Teens Have as Much Sense as a Rock." The Salt Lake Tribune 1 August 2002: E1.

McArdle, Paul J.. "A Lower Drinking Age Wouldn't Lead to Responsible Alcohol Use" Letter. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 893 words, 9 June 2002: A6.

Pickerington, Matthew G.. "A Lower Drinking age Would Quiet the Riots" Letter. The Columbus Dispatch 296 words, 14 May 2002: 10A.

Stoner, Noah. "Dangers Abound with a Lower Drinking Age." Intelligencer Journal 19 January 2002: A-4 .

Wilson, Greg . "Pol Says Drop Age, Educate Kids." Daily News (New York) 15 July 2002: 1.