Youth Alcohol Policy

by National Youth Rights Association

The National Youth Rights Association believes American youth alcohol policy should recognize the inevitability of alcohol consumption among youth and seek to reduce the harm of that alcohol use, rather than unrealistically try to keep young people from drinking at all. Congress and state legislatures could enact any of many different policies, some already in effect in other countries, to promote safer consumption. The country should not dogmatically attach itself to any one policy or set of policies to the extent that it refuses to consider alternatives that might save lives.

The United States has the highest and most rigorously enforced drinking age in the world. Communities nationwide have spent millions of dollars on police patrols, sophisticated driver's licenses and propaganda campaigns to prevent people under 21 from drinking alcoholic beverages. Yet 51 percent of high school seniors and 26 percent of eighth-graders admitted drinking within the past 30 days in a 1996 government survey. 1 Drinking rates among youth have remained remarkably consistent over the past 40 years. 2 In a country where most of the population can legally buy alcohol, where alcohol advertising is ubiquitous and where drinking is considered an important part of everything from New Year's Eve to summer baseball, this is hardly surprising. As a group of Washington State University researchers put it, "In such an environment, any effort to teach youngsters abstinence from such substances is like trying to promote chastity in a brothel!" 3

At the very least, American youth alcohol policy is ineffective. More disturbing, the drinking age may be counterproductive. It is applied so rigidly in most of the country that it precludes any attempt to teach young people how to handle alcohol responsibly. In some jurisdictions, adults who supervise a party with alcohol to prevent drunk driving can be charged for allowing other people's children to drink in their homes; young people who try to serve as designated drivers can be charged merely for being at a party where alcohol is served; and taxi services that give free rides to prevent drunk driving during the holidays ban young people from using their services. "In short, drinking age laws discourage rather than encourage a transition period between youthful abstinence and adult use of alcoholic beverages," writes journalist and sociologist Mike A. Males. 4

Under such laws, many young people learn drinking in unsafe environments, like basement keg parties. They use alcohol with the intention of getting drunk rather than as an accompaniment to food. Researchers say American young people engage in dangerous "binge drinking" far too often and far more often than some of their European counterparts, who learn to drink in the open. The United States should take lessons from cultures like those of Jews, Italians and Greeks, who traditionally focus on misuse of alcohol, rather than simple use of alcohol, as the source of problems. "Educational efforts should encourage moderate use of alcohol among those who choose to drink," explains sociologist David J Hanson. 5

Unfortunately, the federal government maintains a "no-use" dogma in its alcohol education efforts. Agencies tell educators to reject any responsible-use message aimed at young people. 6 As a result, schools often offer "abstinence-only" alcohol curriculums that are far less effective in preventing alcohol abuse than programs that encourage responsibility. 7

Much of the debate about the drinking age has centered around the success or failure of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, which forced states to raise their drinking age to 21. Government agencies and anti-youth organizations claim that law has saved thousands of lives, a "fact" usually repeated without question in the media. But independent researchers have regularly challenged that assertion. "Minimum legal drinking age is not a significant - or even a perceptible - factor in the fatality experience of all drivers or of young drivers," wrote Rutgers University economists Peter Asch and David T. Levy after rigorously examining traffic fatality statistics. 8

One thing not in dispute is the segregatory effect of the drinking age, encouraging entertainment establishments to shut out people under 21. It limits where and with whom young people can spend their free time. Like other age restrictions, the drinking age makes clear that no matter how hard you work, no matter how successful you are, you are still a second-class citizen unfit for association with adults until you reach an arbitrary age. As Males says, "Alcohol policy in the United States is the classic example of the genesis, entrenchment, and perpetuation of modern anti-youth doctrine. It is the model of modern scapegoating of youth." 9


  • 1. United States, National Institutes of Health, National Institute on Drug Abuse, Monitoring the Future Study, 1975 - 1996, 24 Oct. 1997, (25 Apr. 1998).
  • 2. Mike A. Males, The Scapegoat Generation, Monroe, Maine: Common Courage Press, 1996, 204.
  • 3. Armand L. Mauss, et al., The Problematic Prospects for Prevention in the Classroom: Should Alcohol Education Programs be Expected to Reduce Drinking by Youth?, Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 49.1, 1987, 59.
  • 4. Males, The Minimum Purchase Age for Alcohol and Young-Driver Fatal Crashes: A Long-Term View, The Journal of Legal Studies,15, January 1987, 207.
  • 5. David J. Hanson, Alcohol Education: What We Must Do, Westport, Connecticut: Prager, 1996, 45.
  • 6. David J. Hanson, 106-7.
  • 7. David J. Hanson, 90.
  • 8. Peter Asch and David T. Levy, Does the Minimum Drinking Age Affect Traffic Fatalities?, Journal of Policy Analysis and Management, 6.2, 1987, 189.
  • 9. Mike A. Males, The Scapegoat Generation, 186.