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The Pros and Cons Of Drinking At 18

Lowering the drinking age to 18. Smart or foolish?

Recently, there has been much hype about an online petition to lower the drinking age to 18. 

According to Dictionary.com, the definition of an adult is: A person who has attained the age of maturity as specified by law. In the USA, that age is 18, and with every American's 18th birthday comes all the rights, privileges and responsibilities of becoming an adult. It includes everything -— the good, the bad and the ugly. Everything, that is, except for one small thing: Alcohol consumption. 

Alcohol has always been a concern for many countries, while being an afterthought for others. For example, in Jamaica, Morocco and Viet Nam you can legally give a newborn alcohol. In Barbados, Germany and Greece, the drinking age is 16. The majority of countries, including Australia, the Bahamas, Canada, China, Egypt, Ireland, Russia, Sweden and the UK, allow 18 year olds to legally purchase alcohol. There are only four countries, including the USA, that mandate 21 as the legal age of consumption. Here's the full list: Minimum Legal Drinking Ages Around the World

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As for the US, here’s a brief history with regard to alcohol: 

Prior to 1920, each state had their own regulations regarding age and alcohol consumption. The 18th Amendment of the United States Constitution, which instituted prohibition, became law on January 17, 1920. Of course, a simple Amendment to the Constitution did not curtail the desire for liquor, and where there's a will, there's a way. It became a criminal act to produce, transport, have or consume alcohol, and as a result the police, courts and prisons were saturated by offenders. Bootlegging became widespread and organized crime became heavily involved. The federal government was woefully understaffed and overwhelmed trying to enforce the law. 

During the Great Depression, prohibition became increasingly unpopular, and the movement to repeal the law was led by Pauline Sabin, a wealthy, Republican woman who was disgusted by the hypocrisy of lawmakers who gladly drank at her parties while prohibiting ‘common’ citizens the same right. (Hypocrisy by the federal government — what a novel concept!) Because of Sabin, in 1933 prohibition was repealed. This is the only time in the history of the United States that an Amendment repealed a previous Amendment

Fast forward to July 17, 1984 when the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was signed into law. All states were required to set a minimum drinking age of 21, or lose federal highway dollars. Most states changed their laws right away. Some states held out, with my own home state of Louisiana being one of the last to reluctantly and begrudgingly consent. (Even today at many Louisiana bars, clubs and events you can still enter if you are 18, but must have ID check at some point proving you’re 21 if you wish to purchase/drink alcohol — not exactly easy to enforce). 

Look at some of the legal rights and responsibilities of an 18 year old in America. Within all 50 states, 18-year-olds can apply for a credit card, legally marry without parental consent, divorce, rent, purchase, sign a binding contract, vote, serve on a jury and serve in the military. If charged with a crime, the 18-year-old is no longer tried in juvenile court; he's tried as an adult. In essence, an 18, 19 and 20-year-old can do everything a 21-year-old can do, except drink alcohol. 

Of course, no one can ignore that one benefit of the 21-year-old age limit is less drunk driving fatalities. The numbers speak for themselves. Research indicates about 1,000 lives a year are saved because of the raised drinking age. However, consider this: According to Choose Responsibility, "... twice as many 21-year-olds died in alcohol-related auto accidents as 18 year-olds. Such a staggering statistic speaks volumes: a policy that claims to be saving thousands each year may simply be re-distributing deaths over the life cycle to the point at which it becomes legal to drink alcohol — age 21." If that's the case, what's the solution? Raise the drinking age to 25? 30? 40? Retirement age? 

David J. Hanson, Ph.D., who has studied alcohol and drinking for over 40 years, states in his report, The Legal Drinking Age: Science vs. Ideology, that while it's true that less teens are drinking, when they do drink they actually drink more, and in fact, drink to excess. Yes, it's true. Fewer 18 to 20-year-olds might be drinking, but those that do are drinking more in “secret” as well as binge drinking. Look at college parties if you want to get an understanding. But, hey, binge drinking just doesn't get the publicity that drunk driving gets, though there is strong evidence that it is a risk factor for alcoholism.

As for the psychology of the situation, a report from Indiana University found that when people are told not to do something, it can often bring an opposite reaction. How true for an 18 year old who is told they are now an adult in every sense of the word except for drinking alcohol. The research indicates when a young adult feels unjustly targeted, they will resist the implied injustice and act to regain control, meaning they will not comply. In other words, they're going to drink anyway, because they don’t feel it’s fair. 

Unfortunately, this is yet another means of devaluing personal responsibility. The answer is not to have more and more laws taking away adults' rights. Rather, the pressure should fall squarely on parents, schools and society in general to teach children how to act responsibly — including how to drink responsibly. Let's incorporate a ‘responsible drinking’ course into school programs that would be comparable to sex education. This would focus, not only on drunk driving, but also binge drinking, brain damage, the deleterious health effects of alcohol abuse AND how to drink in a responsible manner. Also, there should be an ‘alcohol license’, much like a driver’s license. You have to pass a test dealing with alcohol facts and stats when you are 18 in order to drink. If you get arrested for ANY alcohol related offense you lose this right until you turn 21.

An 18-year old may-overextend their credit, they may go into foreclosure, they may be evicted, they may pick the wrong mate, they may be killed in action, they may get a DWI or worse. They may, they may, they may a whole bunch of things, but at the age of majority, they should be treated as an adult in every respect, including being able to consume alcohol. They should also be held accountable. If we as a society do not feel 18 is old enough to be considered an adult, fine, change the age of adulthood.

The raised age limit to consume alcohol is simply another example of hypocrisy. Too many parents allow their teens to drink at home or special events or turn a blind eye to the college parties their kids surely attend. The 21-year-old drinking age is a denial of the legal age of adulthood, which actually promotes a lack of respect for the law, just as prohibition did in the past. It's time to make the 18-year-old an adult, with all the rights, privileges and yes, responsibilities that go along with it. No exceptions.

Dale Archer, M.D., is a clinical psychiatrist and author of The New York Times bestseller, Better Than Normal: How What Makes You Different Can Make You Exceptional.

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