Editor's Blog: Questioning the Legal Drinking Age

Is the 21-year-old legal drinking age effective in curbing alcohol use and abuse among young people today? That was the question debated by James Fell, senior program director at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE), and Dr. John McCardell, founder and president of Choose Responsibility and former president of Middlebury College during the Alcohol Responsibility Conference held in Orlando last week.

Both presented strong arguments and an impressive amount of data, but an important aspect of McCardell’s position may have been overshadowed by the statistical back-and-forth. McCardell recently spearheaded the Amethyst Statement, a document signed by 135 college and university presidents in 2008 that calls into question the effectiveness of the 21-year-old legal drinking age (LDA) in today’s world. While the Amethyst Statement and McCardell have been condemned by groups such as PIRE and MADD as calling for a return to the 18-year-old drinking age, what McCardell is really asking is whether the current climate of binge drinking by young people demands a re-evaluation of the 21 LDA. Further, he suggests that states be free to experiment with variations on the 21 LDA by releasing them from the 10 percent highway funds penalty put in place when the federal LDA was signed into law in 1984.

Fell’s position that the 21 LDA is effective in reducing drunk driving is well-supported; no one can argue with the tremendous strides made on that front in the past 25 years, and while not the only element at work on the problem, the 21 LDA did play an important role. But McCardell shed light on an emerging problem – binge drinking – an issue as equally frightening as the high rate of drunk driving that prompted the call for a higher, nationalized minimum drinking age in the early 1980s.

Different times may call for a different approach to addressing such a multi-faceted problem as alcohol abuse. We live in a nation where we can and should question the relevance of existing laws and regulations, under a government designed to enable such debate and discussion. We also live in a nation that vilifies alcohol through legislation, regulation and taxation, while at the same time we glorify drinking as a rite of passage into adulthood – for which we do not prepare our young people -- or celebrate it as an element of sophisticated culinary enjoyment. As a professional involved in the alcohol industry and as a parent of a teenager, I often find the dichotomy unnerving.

It’s time to talk about our nation’s “issues” with alcohol. They are many, and they are complex. Let’s begin the discussion by taking a hard look at this reality: people under age 21 are drinking – research confirms it and any informal survey of 18- to 20-year-olds will verify it – and they are doing so in tremendously unsafe ways. What’s the best way to significantly reduce that abuse? How do we create a nation of adults who responsibly enjoy alcohol should they choose to drink it? How do we ensure that our laws effectively address the problems of the day? We do so by discussing the issue and our options. Let’s get the conversation started now.

Note: As you ponder the issue of the effectiveness of LDA 21 today, consider reading Garrett Peck’s new book, The Prohibition Hangover (Rutgers University Press, September 2009), and also a commentary by McCardell and a rebuttal from a group of authors, including Fell.

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