Get Rid of the Minimum Drinking Age

by Ed Quillen

One place where America must lead the world is in bizarre litigation. A case in point was filed recently in Reno, Nev., where about two years ago, Ryan Pisco died after drinking a lot of beer and driving his girlfriend's car into a lamppost at 90 mph. He was only 19, and the legal drinking age in Nevada, as in the rest of the United States, is 21.

Naturally, this death had to be the fault of someone other than Ryan; 19-year-olds may know enough to vote or deploy lethal weapons in Iraq, but apparently they can be controlled by pictures on television or in magazines.

That's the argument being advanced by the Jodie Pisco, Ryan's mother. She is suing Coors Brewing Co. for the loss of her son, on the grounds that "Coors sponsors and supports events that are attractive to minors and youthful persons, glorifying a culture of youth, sex and glamor while hiding the dangers of alcohol abuse and addiction."

Further, "Coors targets the youth of America with false images of conquest, achievement and success that are reckless, willful and exhibit a deliberate disregard for the impact of illegal alcohol consumption by underage youths."

Much of that is just legal boilerplate, and as for the rest, consider that most beer is consumed by young men in their 20s, and that breweries try to gain market share, rather than create new drinkers from teetotalers. If they are trying to increase consumption, they're doing a bad job of it: Annual per-capita beer consumption in this country declined from 24.3 gallons in 1980 to 21.7 gallons in 2000.

In case you're curious, per-capita consumption of wine and distilled spirits also fell in those two decades; Americans just don't drink as much as we used to.

And if they didn't market beer to 20-something guys, the ads would be even worse than they are now. How long would you watch a commercial that featured a bunch of half-bald gray-haired guys my age, all nursing beers while they grumbled about the Bush dynasty, the government in general, the war in Iraq, taxes, the economy and the like?

If we follow the logic of the Pisco argument, the brewery is somehow responsible for Ryan's death because it advertised to the people most likely to consume its product, and this made the product irresistible to people who weren't quite old enough to consume it legally.

That's a hard case to prove, so I suspect this litigation will fail. But it probably won't be the last such effort.

Fortunately, the solution is simple: get rid of the minimum drinking age. Under the federal constitution, this is a state matter, as Congress has no authority. Congress got around this a few years ago by tying highway funds to drinking age - unless a state raised it to 21, then it would lose a percentage of the federal gasoline taxes its citizens had paid.

Colorado went along with it; before that, 18-year-olds could drink 3.2 beer. Puerto Rico didn't; to replace the lost tax revenue, the commonwealth installed toll booths along its major highways.

Yet the death rate from accidents in Puerto Rico in 1999 (the last year for which statistics are at hand) was 33.7 per 100,000 residents. That's lower than the U.S. average of 35.9 and the Colorado rate of 37.4.

So a lower drinking age doesn't mean more highway deaths. Many productive, civilized countries manage with a lower drinking age: no minimum in China or Portugal, 14 in Switzerland, 16 in most of Europe.

The idea here is to reduce the number of teenagers who drink and drive. If the drinking age were lowered to 16 or 18, it wouldn't help. Many kids start drinking at 16 because that's when they get their driving licenses, and that's when they can escape parental supervision.

Eliminate the minimum drinking age, and kids could learn all about alcohol long before they turned 16 and got their driver's license. Booze wouldn't seem like some glamorous adult activity.

Colorado could take the lead here, and eliminate the minimum drinking age. Statistics show that our highways would be just as safe, if not safer. And it would eliminate the possibility of lawsuits like the Pisco case; no company could be accused of targeting underage customers if there was no such thing.


Ed Quillen is a columnist at the Denver Post and a former newspaper editor. Reproduced by permission of the author.

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