Lowering Drinking Age Would Save Lives

George Will writes that we must consider the “counterintuitive” prospect that lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 would actually lead to fewer alcohol-related deaths.

McCardell, 57, president emeritus of Middlebury College in Vermont and professor of history there, says alcohol is and always will be “a reality in the lives of 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds.” Studies indicate that the number of college students who drink is slightly smaller than it was 10 years ago, largely because of increased interest in healthy living. But in the majority who choose to drink, there have been increases of “binge drinking” and other excesses. Hospitalizations of 18- to 20-year-olds for alcohol poisoning have risen in those 10 years.

Not only isn’t this counterintuitive, it’s patently obvious to anyone who has ever been on a college campus or, indeed, been 18.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Billy says:

    Yeah, this totally falls into the “no sh*t” category.

  2. Anthony C says:

    Ironcially enough, there has recently been a move in the United Kingdom (where the over-21 drinking age in the US has always been seen as a touch eccentric) to raise the drinking age to 21.

    Personally it seems ridiculous to me to say that someone can vote, get married, have children, drive and go to war and kill or be killed, yet not be fit to make the decision to have a pint. I think Mark Steyn got it right several years ago when he noted that 21 is when you should be thinking about stopping drinking, not when you should get started.

  3. Bithead says:

    The questions… and the answers… raised here would seem to translate to gun control.

  4. Tlaloc says:

    Uh the part you quoted isn’t the “counterintuitive” part.

    Yeah, no kidding that alcohol is used by minors, the question is “why would just making them suddenly legal actually reduce use?”

    I’m not saying it wouldn’t. It very well might but that’s the part that isn’t obvious.

  5. just me says:

    I think the over 21 law is pretty dumb. It doesn’t make sense, and I do think it would probably cut back on binge and especially secretive drinking (which I think may lead to more risk taking drinking behavior).

    But you can’t convince me that having a over 21 limit saves any lives, and it doesn’t make sense that 18 year olds can vote, serve in the military, enter contracts, and various other adult things, but they can’t handle drinking?

  6. James Joyner says:

    “why would just making them suddenly legal actually reduce use?”

    Because it would allow them to drink responsibly. If one can legally drink in the dorm room–or at the bar on the strip within walking distance of the dorm–then you’re more likely to do that than to drive someplace where you can do it in secret. And being able to do it openly makes it more normal, reducing the incentive to binge drink.

  7. uh_clem says:

    Right now 18 year old freshman learn to drink from 19 year old sophomores.

    It would be far far better for them to learn from a 50 something professor in a social setting more conducive to moderation. The 21 rule drives underage drinking underground where professors, staff can’t have much effect on it.

  8. John Burgess says:

    I think we can agree on two statements:

    1. Excessive alcohol consumption helps people do stupid things
    2. Teenagers, by virtue of their lack of experience, do stupid things

    Putting the two together, we can adequately conclude that alcohol helps already dumb teenagers do dumber things.

    The issue that led to the increase in the drinking age was the carnage (at least so perceived by society) that resulted when drunk teenagers got behind the wheel. According to this 2002 report from the National Center for Statistics and Analyis, ‘24% of young drivers 15-20 years old who were killed in crashes were intoxicated.’

    That is what scares people.

    I’d suggest that instead of a total ban on teenage drinking, the teenager be given a choice:

    Do you want a drinking license or a driving license?

    You can be permitted to one or the other, but not both. Let the maturing young adult make the decision.

    The UK and other European states can get away with lower drinking ages because far fewer of those teenagers drive. In the UK, for instance, only 40% of all people have driving licenses. A drunk 17-y/o isn’t going to get behind the wheel of a car. Instead, s/he is going to be an obnoxious drunk on a bus, train, or underground car. Those aren’t totally safe environments, of course, but they’re a lot safer than trying to drive while incapacitated.

  9. John Burgess says:

    Let me add something: My son went to a British boarding school. The school, with students ranging from 11-18, had its own pub on campus. That was the only place drinking was permitted.

    Students >16 could enter the pub. They were permitted to buy one pint of beer/night. On weekends, they could leave the school and do whatever they wanted, but coming back drunk was cause for expulsion (drugs resulted in immediate and automatic expulsion). Kids were given sherry by masters, wine was served at some meals. Basically, they were given the opportunity to learn to drink in moderation. Not all took that lesson, of course, and binge drinking remains a serious problem. But none of those kids was driving around. They walked around the nearest town or took a train into London.

    When my son went to US university, he already knew how to drink. That didn’t stop him from occasionally getting shitfaced, of course, because that’s part of college life. But he absolutely won’t get in a car if the driver has been drinking, nor will he drive.

  10. Michael says:

    Not only isn’t this counterintuitive, it’s patently obvious to anyone who has ever been on a college campus or, indeed, been 18.

    It’s even more obvious to anyone who has ever been 21. Alcohol is far less attractive when you’re 21 than it is when you’re 20.

  11. Triumph says:

    McCardell suggested, facetiously, in a 2005 Op-Ed in the NY Times that we could just raise the driving age to 21 and that would surely solve the underage drinking/driving problem.

    Im surprised that a dinosaur like George Will is bringing this up, given the fact that his hero, Ronald Reagan signed the law that restricted adult rights in 1984.

  12. djneylon says:

    I had the unique experience of being on a large state university campus as a student when the drinking age was 18 and when it was 21. (I spent four years there between 20 and 25 as a grad student and undergrad with a year off to work full-time). I saw regular drinking in the dorm when it was legal, and when I went out in town there was partying but drunkenness was no more common there than at home; there was, of course, a lot more drinking at school. When I went back after the laws changed. I found that heavy drinking at off-campus parties was nearly a way of life. So was serious drunkenness. Keggers had a certain level of supervision the first go around (whether Resident Assistants in the dorms, or just slightly older/more mature students); on the second go around, most of them were illegal (I worked on the student newspaper with a lot of undergrads, most of whom were underage) and there was no supervision, because almost no one was a mature drinker (i.e. someone who had matured past getting smashed), including myself.
    When I went into the service, there was also a dichotomy — drinking was legal on base, although, for the most part, not outside the gate. There was a certain maturity because older guys where less interested in getting drunk (hangovers are less fun as you age and have to go to work in the morning). Then the services followed the same rule as outside and guess what — the same problems. Drunks in barracks were just as, if not more, annoying than drunks in dorms. Having gone down the road twice, I think a lower drinking age removes the “bending the rules” secret “fun” of drinking and teaches an earlier responsibility.
    There is also an injustice in that 18 year olds are regarded as mature enough to get married, sign contracts, join the military and vote for president — but not mature enough to have a beer?

  13. Tlaloc says:

    Because it would allow them to drink responsibly. If one can legally drink in the dorm room–or at the bar on the strip within walking distance of the dorm–then you’re more likely to do that than to drive someplace where you can do it in secret. And being able to do it openly makes it more normal, reducing the incentive to binge drink.

    That’s fine, it’s a resonable and cogent argument. But do you see my point how it was kind of missing from the original post and instead you misinterpreted the quoted section (claiming that it was what the author had considered counterintuitive)?

  14. James Joyner says:

    you misinterpreted the quoted section (claiming that it was what the author had considered counterintuitive)?

    Actually, I said that Will thought “the prospect that lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 would actually lead to fewer alcohol-related deaths” was “counterintuitive.” The quoted portion was a rationale for why that was so.

  15. Tlaloc says:

    Actually, I said that Will thought “the prospect that lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 would actually lead to fewer alcohol-related deaths” was “counterintuitive.” The quoted portion was a rationale for why that was so

    The quoted section wasn’t a rationale for that at all. The quoted section identified the problem, the counterintuitive part is the proposed solution (i.e. making the problem more widely available actually reducing it’s misuse).

    Here:

    Problem: binge drinking (quoted part)
    Solution: lower minimum wage (counterintuitive part)

    You then say that the problem isn’t counterintuitive, but rather obvious. Well yeah but nobody said otherwise.

  16. floyd says:

    Just like smoking; almost NOBODY starts drinking at the age of twenty-one! This is why alcohol is marketed to adolescents instead of adults. If you don’t start these habits early, the odds increase that you never will. The purveyors would like to see alcohol sold as a “sleep aid” for infants.

  17. spencer says:

    In the US the drinking age has been reduced from 21 to 18 and raised back to 21.

    Since we have historic experience to guide us it should be a simple matter of fact whether it impacts the accident and/or death rate for the 18 to 21 year olds.

    A quick Google of the issue finds that there are solid statistics showing that lowering the drinking age did lead to higher deaths and accidents for 18-21 year olds and raising it did lead to fewer deaths and accidents.

    So Will’s “counterintuitive” speculation is just plain factually incorrect.

    So what we have here is just another example of some pundit making something up out of thin air than can be easily disproved. The question is why should anyone take this type of rank speculation seriously?

    Of course, we know drinking causes death and injury to adults as well, and as we do with adults we could decide to allow 18-21 year olds to drink despite the cost.

    But that does not change the point that Will is just factually incorrect.

  18. If 21 leads to fewer deaths than 18, maybe we should raise the drinking age to 30. Or 50. Or ban alcohol altogether.

  19. Tyler A. says:

    They should teach you how to handle alcohol in high school, they teach how to have sex “maturely”, why not alcohol? I know how to properly drink and I am 19 and enlisted in the Army. I drink in my house by myself, or out in the middle of my pasture and i do not leave.