Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Speaking of the Drinking Age ...

In my previous post, I noted that the Moffatt triplets of Canada are now able to drink alcoholic beverages in the United States, because today is their 21st birthday.

Over the years, I have had numerous occasions to comment on the absurdity of the uniform drinking age in the United States. Earlier today, while moving some furniture, I came across a photocopy of an article I wrote, which appeared in the Roanoke Times and World News on August 16, 1991, under the unwieldy headline: "'Forbidden Fruit' / Teen Drinking: Why the problem? Age limit gives booze its allure." (Another article, by Baltimore Evening Sun columnist Dan Rodricks, was coupled with mine, with its own subhead, "Adults send mixed messages.")

While running for the House of Delegates in the 49th District (Arlington County) in 1993, my campaign manager, the late David Morris, came up with the idea of sending a targeted mailing to voters aged 18, 19, and 20, emphasizing my interest in returning to a rational drinking age that corresponds to the age of majority.

I remember clearly that there were precisely 777 voters in that age category. We sent each of them a letter above my signature, urging them to vote for me, and a copy of that Roanoke Times article was enclosed. Whether this tactic gained me any votes, I don't know; at least one prominent Democratic operative told me that her college-age daughter had received my mailing -- so perhaps it had some, minor, psychological effect on our political adversaries.

In searching for a copy of this article on line, I discovered a later version, from June 2001. I am not sure where it was published but someone (not myself) posted it to a Usenet newsgroup, which allows me to crib it for reproduction here:

It's Time for a Rational Drinking Age
Richard E. Sincere, Jr.

The recent misadventures of First Twins Jenna and Barbara Bush with regard to underage drinking have provided much fodder for late-night comics. They also have reopened a debate we thought was closed some 15 years ago: That is, should 18-year-old adults be permitted to drink alcoholic beverages? Or, put another way, should individual states, rather than the federal government, decide what the drinking age should be?

Until the mid-1980s, the drinking age varied from state to state. In New York and California, it was 21; in New Jersey and Arizona, it was 19. In about half the states, it was 18, and in some places, like Washington, D.C., hard liquor was limited to those 21 and over, while those 18 and over could drink beer and wine.

During the Reagan administration, Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole decided to use the heavy hand of the federal government to coerce states to raise their drinking ages, uniformly, to 21. Since the Constitution forbids a simple federal fiat to impose a national drinking age, Dole came upon a precedent-setting idea: Deny federal highway funds to states that refused to go along with the federal government's wishes. Dangling that carrot worked, and Wyoming became the last state to buckle under in 1988. Subsequent administrations have used the same approach on other issues, but that is a subject for another column and another day.

Attempts to control behavior in this manner are futile. Studies have shown that raising the drinking age has done little to curb alcohol consumption among the under-21 crowd. A survey of Virginia college students at eight different campuses reported that 93 percent of students over 21 said they drank alcoholic beverages; of those under 21, 92 percent said they drank.

Besides being an unwarranted governmental intrusion into the private lives and behavior of adult citizens, these laws run the risk of encouraging furtive, irresponsible behavior. As one student leader said, "If anything, [the higher drinking age has] caused these 18- and 19-year-olds to go out and drink more."

This law was motivated primarily by the belief that a higher drinking age will help reduce drunken-driving accidents and deaths. How valid is this reason? According to two economists who have examined the evidence, not very.

Peter Asch of Rutgers University and David Levy of the Federal Trade Commission noted that though there is reason to believe that raising the drinking age does reduce accidents among the affected group, this does not "constitute persuasive evidence that higher drinking ages make the roads safer." In reality, they reported, "higher drinking ages may simply be moving the problem around, rather than solving it."

The researchers pointed out that it is not young drinkers who tend to cause road accidents; it is inexperienced drinkers, however old. By examining statistics from states that have had different drinking ages -- 18, 19, 20, or 21 -- Asch and Levy concluded that accidents occur at a higher rate during the first year of legal drinking than during subsequent years.

This may affect statistics that show a disproportionate number of injuries and fatalities among teenagers, but no genuine improvement will occur: Only the ages of those involved in traffic accidents will change.

The arguments for returning the drinking age to 18 are well-known. In every state, 18-year-olds have reached the age of majority. They are permitted to vote, to marry, to negotiate contracts, and to do all things responsible adults are permitted to do without the consent of a parent or guardian. They work and pay taxes.

The higher drinking age has placed many colleges in the absurd position of baby-sitting for adults. These institutions must devise ways of enforcing laws that are widely perceived as both unfair and unenforceable. It also makes the job of teaching young people how to drink more responsibly more difficult. A perplexed college official asked: "How does a parent, how does a friend, teach a young person responsible drinking when any drinking at all is illegal?"

A good argument can be made even for lowering the drinking age to precede the driving age (14 and 16, or 15 and 17, or 16 and 18). Permission to drink would then be decided by the family, not the state. Young people should learn to drink responsibly under their parents' supervision without substantial danger of drinking and driving. The "learning curve" for people to find their appropriate level of moderate drinking should begin as early as possible to prevent risky behavior.

There is little point in raising the drinking age if it simply postpones highway accidents and undermines society's ability to teach responsible drinking behavior. These types of restrictions undercut efforts to impart traditional values like responsibility and prudence to young people in all aspects of their lives.

Regardless of whether my arguments here are immediately persuasive, we deserve to have a serious debate about the drinking age. We should not consider it to be a settled question, since it involves issues of federalism, personal autonomy, and basing law on reason rather than emotion. Let the discussion begin.


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PWConservative said...

I have to agree. But do we just turn a 16 yr old out to drive? No, there is some education involved, I think that that approach may be worth considering, although it involves more paternalism than I am normally comfortable with.