Lowering the legal drinking age

American eighteen-year-olds can drive, smoke, vote, get married, and go to war, but there is one thing they cannot do.  The forbidden fruit of American youths is alcohol.  They may have reached legal adulthood in many ways, yet they are not allowed to have a beer at a football game or wine on a dinner date.

One of the main reasons for the oddly high legal drinking age in such a liberal, developed country is to reduce traffic accidents.  The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimated that the current legal drinking age reduced deaths of 18- to 20-year-olds by 13%.  What proponents of the current drinking age often do not mention is that fatalities caused by drunk driving dropped among all age groups during the same period, meaning that the cause of reduction may not be the law at all.  Furthermore, drunk driving fatalities also fell a similar amount in Canada, where the drinking age is 18 or 19 (depending on the province).

Chances are, the legal drinking age has nothing to do with drunk driving.  It is an open secret, one shared by many Americans, that the legal drinking age does not stop minors from drinking.  Most people start drinking way before the legal drinking age.  In 2003, the average age of first alcohol consumption was 14, far lower than what is legal.  Walk into a college party, whether it is at a frat or a dorm, and it will be harder to find someone sober than drunk, although most college students are not over 21.  Drinking alcohol has long been a huge part of college culture.  According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2015, 58% of full-time college students had drunk alcohol in the past month.  In suburbs, in inner cities, and on college campuses, minors have found and will find ways to obtain alcohol.

The law is an utter failure, considering that underage drinking is not only common, but a social norm.  And it is a dangerous one.  A culture has grown around underage drinking, a culture harming more people than the current drinking age is saving.  Since underage drinking is illegal, minors now drink behind closed doors, in unsafe settings.  Ordering a cocktail at a restaurant is much more difficult than chugging vodka at a party, so many choose the latter.  Instead of having the opportunity to transition into alcohol use under parental supervision and learning to be responsible drinkers, many people first consume alcohol without their parents' acknowledgment, surrounded by their friends.  Part of the underage drinking culture is binge drinking.  Because many do not have consistent access to alcohol, they drink as much as their bodies can take when they do have access.  They drink in a reckless and goal-oriented attitude in order to get drunk while they can.  Many minors with alcohol poisoning refuse to seek medical help, or help their intoxicated peers seek medical help, in fear of getting charged with underage drinking.  Because the law treats them like children, they drink like children.  Behind closed doors, with drunk teenagers, physical and sexual assault, date rape, and property damage occur.

With a lower drinking age, there will be less incentive to binge drink, since supply becomes more reliable, and if overindulging occurs, seeking medical help will be less risky.  European 18- to 20-year-olds are able to foster a more responsible and civil culture of drinking, and they tend to drink more in settings that are easier to control if anything happens.

Lowering the legal drinking age will not eliminate binge drinking entirely and suddenly create an ideal drinking culture among American youths.  It will bring problems that are different from the problems today.  However, these problems will be solved in the light, unlike problems today that are difficult to manage, as they occur in dark, hidden corners away from the public eye.

What the current law lacks is logic.  We cannot expect 18-year-olds to have the civil responsibilities of adults yet violate their liberty.  A law that does not reflect a nation's cultural reality cannot be effective.  If 18 is the age for legal adulthood in every other way, it should be for drinking, too.

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