“Should the Drinking Age be Lowered?” Our response

We are pleased by the coverage the drinking age received in this week’s issue of Time (“Should the Drinking Age be Lowered?,” June 16, 2008), but feel that there is more to be said about the several points John Cloud makes to defend his conclusion that challenging the 21 year-old drinking age is a misguided endeavor

• “First of all, while binge drinking is a serious problem, the data do not show that it has gotten worse since states raised their drinking ages” Well, frankly, that depends on where you’re looking. According to the CDC, 18-20 year-olds experienced the steepest increase in binge drinking rates—56%–between 1993 and 2001. Amongst the entire population of underage drinkers (12-20 year-olds, as according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health), overall rates of binge drinking increased from 15.2% to 18.9% between 1991 and 2003. During the same time period, there was a steady decline in the prevalence of alcohol consumption among 12-20 year-olds. While fewer young people are drinking, those who choose to drink are drinking more, and drinking more recklessly. Neither by these indications, nor those Mr. Cloud presents in his essay has the 21 year-old drinking age and the current approach to educating young people about responsible alcohol use had the intended effect of reducing both the use and misuse of alcohol among adolescents and young adults.
• “No researchers have documented an increase in the percentage of alcohol-poisoning deaths among college students, although the raw number has probably increased with the growing college population.” In fact, several well-regarded, widely cited studies have looked at the rate of non-traffic, alcohol related injury deaths among young adults. Their findings? Between 1998 and 2001, these deaths increased from 991 to 1151—a rise of 16%, with the indication of a continued upward trend at a rate outpacing the size of the population. An increasing number of lives are being lost to alcohol off the highways, and surely these lives deserve as much consideration in this argument as those lost on the highways.
• “Choose Responsibility supporters have also claimed that other countries that haven’t raised their drinking ages — including Canada and the United Kingdom — saw their drunk-driving fatalities drop even faster than in the U.S. But that’s simply not true.” Canada, which is for many reasons the most comparable nation to the United States in terms of driving habits and cultural tendencies, experienced a 28% decline in alcohol related traffic fatalities between 1982 and 1992. In this same time period, which represents the most substantive decline in traffic fatalities since data was first gathered, the United States experienced a 26% decline. Though it varies by province, the drinking age across Canada is either 18 or 19 and remained as such throughout the time period in question. Furthermore, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has noted that where youth drinking and driving is concerned, Canadian reductions followed a virtually identical pattern to the United States. Their conclusion? “This means that the changes [in youth drinking and driving rates in the US and Canada] must have resulted from some combination of the difficult-to-assess educational and motivational programs and from other factors outside of traffic safety. This conclusion suggests that a substantial portion of the reduction in the United States also resulted from these same causes”

To clarify in a more general sense, Choose Responsibility believes foremost that the 21 year-old drinking age is a policy whose intended and unintended consequences must be considered side by side, and that cause and effect relationships drawn between it and measurements of a its success—namely the decline in alcohol related traffic fatalities seen throughout the 1980s and early 1990s—must be extended to the many other areas of our society that this law has affected. To ignore the reality that excessive, reckless alcohol use among young people has either remained impervious to change or increased in the past decade is to minimize the very real threat that such behaviors pose to all Americans, regardless of their age.

We do not believe, as Mr. Cloud suggests, that lowering the drinking age would immediately address the pervasive binge drinking culture endemic to young people in America. We do believe that alcohol education is sorely lacking in its ability to prepare young people for the realities they will face in adult life, which for all will involve decisions about the role of alcohol. We do believe that there are better ways to ensure young people have the ability to make responsible decisions about alcohol use than our current prohibitionist tack. Given this, we ultimately believe that the time has come for new voices and fresh ideas in the debate over the legal drinking age—that much, Mr. Cloud has correct.

3 Responses to ““Should the Drinking Age be Lowered?” Our response”

  1. Marshall Guthrie Says:

    Hopefully, you also sent this Time’s way?

    Good to see the type of coverage this issue is getting. If America as a whole spent as much time thinking about, and acting on, this issue as we college an university educators do, I think the drop to 18 would be a forgone conclusion.

    On top of that, if they could see what we see, the bill would be drafted tomorrow.

    Keep up the good work.

  2. Peter Mastracci Says:

    Why does everyone forget about (or altogether ignore) the part of this debate about youth rights? Cloud himself mentions in his article that “After all, in almost every other legal and cultural respect, you’re an adult at 18. You can vote, adopt children, sign up for Iraq or become a commercial pilot at 18,” but then drops that part of the argument in favor of the debatable binge drinking and drunk driving statistics.

    One thing that’s not debatable is this country’s mistreatment and infantalization of its young adults. At least he had the guts to mention MADD’s stronghold (or former stronghold) on the drinking debate.

  3. Corey Says:

    This is not just about binge drinking! It’s about liberty and justice and making this country the land of the free. Tis country is too auto depended to raise the driving age or enforce meaningless laws that only hurt more than save lives!