Why We Should Lower the Drinking Age to 19
by Gene Ford
Age 21 minimum drinking laws are counter-productive. There is much evidence that reducing the drinking age to 19 would reduce the abuse of alcohol among young people.
The U.S. has the strictest youth drinking laws in western civilization and yet has the most drinking-related problems among its young. And there seems to be a connection between these two facts.
When I was a teen in the 1930s my peers drank to physical and mental oblivion on weekends to demonstrate their "manhood," and, to a lesser degree, their "womanhood." Alcohol abuse had received new energy as a result of Prohibition. The harvest of forbidden fruit was bitter and disastrous.
Today, irrefutable scientific evidence supports the fact that the early introduction of drinking is the safest way to reduce juvenile alcohol abuse. Young people in France, Spain, and Argentina rarely abuse alcohol. They learn how to drink within the family, which sees drinking in moderation as natural and normal. Youth in these societies rarely embarrass themselves or their families by abusing alcohol. In Portugal and New Zealand there are no minimum drinking age requirements. In Belgium, most of Canada, Italy, and Spain, young people of sixteen years may consume in restaurants when with parents or another adult. Australia and South Africa have an 18-year minimum.
Researchers have pointed out that minimum drinking age laws in the U.S. are a post-Prohibition phenomenon. Prior to the repeal of the Eighteenth amendment (Prohibition), state laws prohibiting minors from possession or use of alcohol were unusual. Adolescent alcohol consumption was regulated by the informal controls of family, community, peers, and self-restraint. The only drinking controls that have enjoyed any success over the centuries are social and cultural constraints.
I continue to witness the fundamental goodness of our young people and their capacity to be truly adult in their behavior, when given the chance. Despite the dissolution of the nuclear family, the vast majority of young people in America are well-intentioned and upright citizens. The twisted logic of youthful minimum drinking age laws denies them that basic respect. Research has found that restricting access to alcohol doesn¹t lower its consumption among young people. It just drives it "underground" into undesirable locations that aren't subject to the moderating influence of adults. In short, such efforts are counterproductive.
No one seriously contends that alcohol beverages should be free of societal controls. The question isn't whether there should be controls, but which controls work best. What has proven around the world to work best is a combination of reasonable laws backed by strong social sanctions. But in the U.S. we treat our emerging adults as infants and get infantile behavior as a result.
If adults would learn to temper their patronizing attitudes toward young men and women, more maturity, self-restraint, and social responsibility could be expected of them. Lowering the drinking age to 19 would do much to reduce the youthful abuse of alcohol.
Gene Ford is the founder and publisher, emeritus, of Healthy Drinking magazine and the author of five books about drinking, including The French Paradox and Drinking For Health, which is an extensively documented analysis of drinking in terms of health and control issues. He is currently completing another book on the health benefits of moderate consumption of alcohol beverages.