The Drinking Age Should Be Lowered
Interview with Dr. Ruth Engs
The minimum drinking age continues to stir controversy, with recent proposals being made to reduce or qualify the minimum legal age at which drinking may occur. One of the more influential proponents of lowering the drinking age is Dr. Ruth Engs, Professor of Applied Health Sciences at Indiana University in Bloomington.
Dr. Engs, could you explain your proposal to lower the drinking age?
I'd be glad to. I propose that the drinking age be lowered to about 18 or 19 and permit those of legal age to consume in socially controlled environment such as restaurants and official school and university functions. Currently, we prohibit 20-year-olds from sipping champagne at their own weddings! I also propose that individuals of any age be permitted to consume alcohol under the direct supervision of their parents in their own homes.
How would this be more effective than the 21 age laws?
Although the legal purchase age is 21, a majority of young people under this age consume alcohol, and too many of them do so in an irresponsible manner. This is largely because drinking is seen by these youth as an enticing "forbidden fruit," a "badge of rebellion against authority," and a symbol of adulthood. Our nation has twice tried prohibition, first at the state level in the 1850's and at the national level beginning in 1920. These efforts to prevent drinking were unenforceable and created serious social problems such as widespread disrespect for law, the growth of organized crime, and the development of immoderate consumption patterns.
The flaunting of the current age-specific prohibition is readily apparent among young people who, since the increase in the minimum legal drinking age, have tended to drink in a more abuse manner than do those of legal age. This, of course, is exactly what happened in the general public during national Prohibition.
So raising the legal drinking age has made things worse?
Yes. Like national Prohibition , it has been counter-productive. Raising the drinking age was much worse than doing nothing.
But hasn't drinking been going down among young people?
Yes, the proportion of the American population who drink (including young people) has been going down since about 1980. That was long before the states were required to raise the drinking age in 1987. And of course legislation wouldn't have limited consumption among those aged 21 or older.
On the other hand, while fewer young people are drinking and their average consumption levels have been dropping (along with that of the general population), more younger people tend to drink abusively when they do consume. This change occurred after the increase in the drinking age.
So, it's a little like what happened during national Prohibition?
Exactly. Prohibition tended to destroy moderation and instead promoted great excess and abusive drinking. People tended to gulp alcohol in large quantities on those occasions when they could obtain it. The notorious speakeasies didn't exist before prohibition, when people could drink legally and leisurely. What we currently have is age-specific prohibition and young people are forced to create their own "speakeasies" in dorm rooms and other secret locations where they, too, must gulp their alcohol in the absence of moderating social control.
You're saying that simply lowering the drinking age would solve the problem of drinking abuse among young people?
Unfortunately, it wouldn't solve the problem. However, it would be an important step in the right direction.
The experience of many societies and groups demonstrates that drinking problems are reduced when young people learn at home from their parents how to drink in a moderate and responsible manner. As parents we need to be good role models in what we say and do.
And lowering the drinking age would help send the important message that drinking is, in itself, not evidence of maturity...... that responsible consumption for those who choose to drink is evidence of maturity.
We need to reinforce the norm of moderation by making it clear that the abuse of alcohol is completely unacceptable by anyone. This would help stress that it is not drinking that is the problem but rather drinking abusively that is the problem.
These ideas may sound great, but would they really work?
These proposals are not based on speculation but on the proven example set by many societies and groups around the world that have long used alcohol extensively with very few problems.
On the other hand, our current prohibition directed against the consumption of alcohol by young people (who can marry, serve in the military, vote, enter into legal contracts, and shoulder adult responsibilities) is clearly not working. We need to abandon this failed and demeaning folly and replace it with a proven, realistic, and successful approach to reducing drinking problems.
Thank you, Dr. Engs, for sharing your expertise.
Dr. Ruth Engs is the author of seven books, dozens of chapters and articles, and scores of scientific papers on alcohol. She is a leading, internationally-recognized authority on drinking patterns and problems of college students, whose opinions are sought by diverse groups and organizations. (www.indiana.edu/~engs)
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