After nearly four decades of exacting research on how to save
lives and reduce injuries by preventing drinking and driving, there
is a revanchist attempt afoot to roll back one of the most
successful laws in generations: the minimum legal drinking age of
This is extremely frustrating. While public health researchers
must produce painstaking evidence that's subjected to critical
scholarly review, lower-drinking-age advocates seem to dash off
remarks based on glib conjecture and self-selected facts.
It's startling that anybody - given the enormous bodies of
research and data - would consider lowering the drinking age. And
yet, legislation is currently pending in New Hampshire and Wisconsin
to lower the drinking age for military personnel and for all
residents in Vermont. Just as bad are the arguments from think-tank
writers, various advocates, and even academics (including at least
one former college president) that ignore or manipulate the real
evidence and instead rely on slogans.
I keep hearing the same refrains: "If you're old enough to go to
war, you should be old enough to drink," or "the drinking-age law
just increases the desire for the forbidden fruit," or "lower crash
rates are due to tougher enforcement, not the 21 law," or "Europeans
let their kids drink, so they learn how to be more responsible," or
finally, "I did it when I was a kid, and I'm OK."
First, I'm not sure what going to war and being allowed to drink
have in common. The military takes in youngsters particularly
because they are not yet fully developed and can be molded into
soldiers. The 21 law is predicated on the fact that drinking is more
dangerous for youth because they're still developing mentally and
physically, and they lack experience and are more likely to take
risks. Ask platoon leaders and unit commanders, and they'll tell you
that the last thing they want is young soldiers drinking.
As for the forbidden fruit argument, the opposite is true.
Research shows that back when some states still had a minimum
drinking age of 18, youths in those states who were under 21 drank
more and continued to drink more as adults in their early 20s. In
states where the drinking age was 21, teenagers drank less and
continue to drink less through their early 20s.
And the minimum 21 law, by itself, has most certainly resulted in
fewer accidents, because the decline occurred even when there was
little enforcement and tougher penalties had not yet been enacted. …