Everyone Agrees --
Let 19-Year-Olds Drink

by Alexander Conant

Virtually everybody in Madison [Wisconsin] agrees the drinking age should be 19. Chancellor Wiley [of the University of Wisconsin] points to the 2l-year-old drinking age as his biggest challenge to reducing campus binge-drinking. Mayor Sue Bauman and Alcohol License Czar Tim Truer agree the current drinking age is illogical, unfair and counterproductive in combating downtown alcohol problems. And University of Wisconsin students' disdain for the drinking age is palatable. But none of the aforementioned people are sufficiently speaking out against the national drinking age.

Scorn for the 21-year-old drinking age is not restricted to Madison.

On a national level, experts agree underage drinking laws are not effective. A comprehensive study showed 12- to 20-year-olds are responsible for 11 percent of the nation's annual alcohol consumption. The study by Columbia University's National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse, also found underagers tend to drink irresponsibility, possibly because drinking laws discourage adult supervision.

Here in Madison, the drinking age law helps sustain the far more dangerous house party scene. Regardless of age, students have easy access to alcohol, but only in unsupervised settings. If the drinking age is lowered to 19, UW administrators and city officials could regulate student drinking encourage responsible consumption and foster safe drinking environments.

Many oppose to the federally imposed drinking age on constitutional grounds. Congress cannot directly mandate a national drinking age, so it has tied federal transportation financing to states' drinking ages. For states' rights proponents, the issue is a clear case of Congress overstepping its constitutional role.

The argument for states' rights was effectively made after the Republicans gamed control of Congress in 1994. Among their early actions was to repeal the national speed limit, which statistically saved lives, but was ridiculous for the lonesome roads of Montana. Unfortunately, the Republicans' ideological calls for states' rights did not extend to the national drinking age.

If reason won in politics, either federalists or alcohol experts could overturn the 1984 Uniform Drinking Age Act.

But such reason fails with emotionally charged special-interest groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving. MADD has effectively tied l9- and 20-year old drinkers to drunk driving deaths. In truth, there is a high correlation between higher drinking ages and safer roads. But to presume there is a direct causal link is fallacious. While drunk-driving deaths have dropped significantly since states adopted higher drinking ages, other factors, including safer cars and changing social norms, have had a more important impact.

All this is obvious to state legislatures, federalists argue. While a 21-year-old drinking age may make very good sense in some parts of the country, it is inappropriate for other states, including Wisconsin, which was among the last states to raise the age.

But despite all the good reasons for a lower drinking age, nobody is pushing on a national level for a repeal of the Uniform Drinking Age Act. In fact, nobody is even talking about the issue. Aside from the occasional drinking scandal involving the president's daughters, the ridiculousness of the 21-year-old drinking age is not on the national radar screen.

For that, the choir of students, UW administrators and city officials are to be blamed. While well-funded special interests like MADD can quickly defeat occasional objections to the national drinking age -- as they did when Madison's former congressman, Scott Krug, proposed its repeal in 1995 -- the law would not survive the united and consistent voices of students, administrators and local officials.


Alexander Conant is Editor-in-Chief of The Bader Herald at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisconsin.

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