Dr. Elizabeth M. Whelan explains why we should lower the drinking age to 18. That’s the age at which young people become adults.
My colleagues at the Harvard School of Public Health, where I studied preventive medicine, deserve praise for their study on teenage drinking. What they found in their survey of college students was that they drink “early and…often.” And frequently to the point of getting ill.
I am a public-health scientist with a daughter heading to college this fall. Thus I have both professional and personal concerns about teen alcohol abuse. It is imperative that we explore why so many young people abuse alcohol.
From my own study of the effects of alcohol restrictions, I believe that today’s laws are unrealistic. Prohibiting the sale of liquor to responsible young adults creates issues. One is an atmosphere where binge drinking and alcohol abuse have become a problem. American teens, unlike their European peers, don’t learn how to drink gradually, safely and in moderation.
Alcohol Widely Enjoyed
Alcohol is widely accepted and enjoyed in our culture. Studies show that moderate drinking can be good for you. But we legally proscribe alcohol until the age of 21 (why not 30 or 45?). My duughter and her classmates can drive cars, fly planes, marry, vote, pay taxes, and take out loans. They can even risk their lives as members of the U.S. armed forces. But laws in all 50 states say that no alcohol may be sold to anyone until that magic “21” birthday.
In parts of the Western world, moderate drinking by teenagers and even children under their parents’ supervision is a given. The per capita consumption of alcohol in France, Spain and Portugal is higher than in the U.S. However, the rate of alcoholism and alcohol abuse is lower.
A glass of wine at dinner is normal practice. Youths learn to regard moderate drinking as an enjoyable family activity. Not as something they have to sneak away to do. Banning drinking by young people makes it a badge of adulthood-a tantalizing forbidden fruit.
My daughter and her teenage friends like to go as a group to a club, comedy show or sports bar to watch the game. But teens today have to go on the sly with fake IDs and the fear of getting caught. Otherwise, they’re denied admittance to most places and left to hang out on the street. That’s hardly a safer alternative. My daughter and her classmates now find themselves in a legal no man’s land. At 18, they’re considered adults. Yet when they want to enjoy a drink like other adults, they are, as they put it, “disenfranchised.”
Comparing Then and Now
Comparing my daughter’s dilemma with my own as an “underage” college student, I see a difference. One that I think has exacerbated the current dilemma. Today’s teens are far more sophisticated than we were. They’re treated less like children and have more responsibilities than we did. This makes the 21 restriction seem anachronistic.
We should make access to alcohol legal at 18. At the same time, we should come down much harder on alcohol abusers and drunk drivers of all ages. We should intensify our efforts at alcohol education for adolescents. We want them to know that it is perfectly OK not to drink. But if they do, alcohol should be consumed in moderation.
After all, we choose to teach our children about safe sex, including the benefits of teen abstinence. Why, then, can’t we–schools and parents alike–teach them about safe drinking?
The late Dr. Whelan was President of the American Council on Science and Health. It’s an independent, non-profit consumer-education consortium.
Resources: We Should Lower the Drinking Age
Edvin, D. and Harald, S. Underage Drinking. NY: Nova, 2010.
Marquis, N. Preventing and Reducing Underage Drinking. NY: Nova, 2009.
Marcovitz, H. Should the Drinking Age be Lowered? San Diego: ReferencePoint, 2011.
Scherer, L. Underage Drinking. NY: Rosen, 2016.
Adapted from “Perils of Prohibition: Why We Should Lower the Drinking Age to 18” (Newsweek) by permission of author. All rights reserved.