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Is 18 too young to drink a beer?

Is 18 too young to drink a beer?

A group of college and university presidents and administrators have called for a public debate to rethink the legal drinking age in the United States. Some of them openly support lowering the age to 18 from 21; others are truly looking for help in dealing with a pernicious and difficult issue — underage and binge drinking on their campuses.

This group, which calls itself the Amethyst Initiative, offers some compelling arguments in favor of lowering the legal drinking age. But these college presidents appear to be an island among opponents; almost immediately, a plethora of groups released statements in response to the Amethyst Initiative, decrying any effort to lower the drinking age and citing statistics covering everything from highway fatalities to decreasing alcohol consumption by 18- to 20-year-olds.

In the early 1970s, many states lowered the legal drinking age to 18 in response to arguments about soldiers dying in service to their country without having the legal right to drink a beer. While each state retains the right to change its legal drinking age, the federal government in 1984 passed a law that withholds 10 percent of federal highway funding to states with legal ages lower than 21. This was enough to convince all 50 states to make the legal drinking age 21, where it remains to this day.

In favor of lowering the drinking age:

  • Young people will drink anyway. The law simply drives them off campus and underground, creating a dangerous binge-drinking trend.
  • 18-year-olds can smoke, serve (and die) in the military services, marry and start families, vote for president, serve on a jury and sign legally binding contracts. But they can’t have a beer or glass of wine with dinner?
  • We can’t teach them to drink responsibly because it’s against the law; we are thus prevented from having that much-needed discussion for fear of appearing to condone an illegal activity.
  • The Age 21 restriction is like Prohibition, and we all know how that worked out.

In favor of maintaining the status quo:

  • Traffic fatalities have been reduced since 1984. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration estimates the 21-year-old drinking age has reduced traffic fatalities among 18- to 21-year-olds by 13 percent and saves as many as 900 lives each year.
  • Young brains, not yet fully developed, can be permanently damaged by alcohol abuse.
  • Campuses with strict alcohol bans report fewer binge-drinking episodes.
  • The earlier young adults develop heavy drinking habits or even alcoholism, the harder it is to change. We’re doing them a favor by restricting their access.

In Europe, drinking generally involves a different mindset. Young people learn to drink at home, as part of a social interaction or family mealtime practice, rather than for the purpose of becoming intoxicated.

This is ideal, but it is important to note that young Europeans also see parents, adult family members and friends drinking beer or wine in moderation. Here in the United States, adults are too often seen abusing alcohol — in the home or at bars — and creating many problems for their families and for society. In such cases, learning to drink in the context of family will not be a healthy lesson.

Lowering the drinking age would, however, solve one problem by also legitimizing a discussion about moderation and responsible drinking habits, in addition to guidance on avoiding some of the pitfalls.

American society must change its collective mindset about drinking if it wishes to teach young people to drink responsibly and in moderation. The way Europeans have for generations handled drinking — in a matter-of-fact, moderate way — is a good model. Without that change, however, lowering the legal age to 18 is unlikely to reduce consumption or encourage healthier drinking habits among 18- to 21-year-olds.
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source: The Daily Times, Salisbury, Md.

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