Responses to Arguments against the Minimum Legal Drinking Age

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D.

The federal government is spending taxpayer money in a questionable political campaign to defend the minimum drinking age against attempts in some states to lower it. In “Responses to Arguments against the Minimum Drinking Age,” the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) identifies arguments against the minimum legal drinking age and then suggests counter arguments. But in doing so, it plays fast and loose with the facts, a common tactic in politics.

Argument: “If I’m old enough to go to war, I should be old enough to drink”

Actually the argument is much stronger than the NIAAA acknowledges. The fact is that citizens are legally adults at the age of 18. They can marry, vote, adopt children, own and drive automobiles, have abortions, enter into legally binding contracts, operate businesses, purchase or even perform in pornography, give legal consent for sexual intercourse, fly airplanes, hold public office, serve on juries that convict others of murder, hunt wildlife with deadly weapons, be imprisoned, be executed, be an employer, sue and be sued in court, and otherwise conduct themselves as the adults they are. And, of course, they can serve in the United States armed services and give their lives defending their country. One of the very few things they can’t legally do is consume an alcohol beverage. They can’t even have a celebratory sip of champagne at their own weddings.

Counter-Argument: Federal agents suggest pointing out that people can obtain a hunting license at age 12 and a driver’s license at age 16. Ironically, this actually strengthens the argument against treating legal adults as children with regard to alcohol beverages. People can hunt wildlife with a deadly weapon at age 12 but can be trusted with a beer at age 20?

The government also suggests pointing out that people must be 25 to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, 30 to serve in the Senate, and 35 to serve as President. But these unusual restrictions were imposed well over two hundred years ago in a new country that was still largely reluctant to grant rights and in which neither women nor African Americans were trusted to vote. We’re now in the 21st century enjoying widespread rights and also a time when young people are infinitely more sophisticated.

Clearly, the agency’s arguments are extremely weak and unconvincing.

Argument: “Europeans let their teens drink from an early age, yet they don’t have the alcohol-related problems we do.”

Counter-Argument: The NIAAA responds that “the idea that Europeans do not have alcohol-related problems is a myth.” But no one suggests that Europeans have no drinking-related problems. Here the agency is guilty of using the straw person tactic.... create a very weak argument and then shoot it down.

In reality, research for decades has demonstrated that those countries and groups in Europe and elsewhere in which most people regularly drink but have few drinking-related problems all share three common characteristics:

  1. Alcohol is seen as a rather neutral substance in and of itself. It’s neither a poison nor a magic elixir. Its how its used thats important.
  2. People have two equally acceptable choices:
    -Abstain or
    -Drink in moderation.
    What’s never acceptable is the abuse of alcohol by anyone of any age. Period.
  3. People learn about drinking alcohol in moderation from an early age in the safe and supportive environment of the home, and they do so by good parental example. All of these groups would agree that it’s better to learn about drinking in the parents’ house than in the fraternity house.

Age 21 is actually the highest minimum legal drinking age in the entire world and is a radical social experiment both internationally and in terms of our own national history. Those who call for all adults to be able to drink are traditionalists; whereas those who insist on age 21 are radicals.

Argument: Lower rates of alcohol-related crashes among 19-to 20-year-olds aren’t related to the age 21 policy, but rather they’re related to increased drinking-driver educational efforts, tougher enforcement, and tougher drunk-driving penalties.”

Counter-Argument: The agency wants us to argue that “Careful research has shown the decline was not due to DUI enforcement and tougher penalties, but is a direct result of the legal drinking age” and that “Achieving long-term reductions in youth drinking problems requires an environmental change so that alcohol is less accessible to teens.”

However, there are a number of weaknesses in what the bureaucrats want us to say. It’s true that lower rates of alcohol-related traffic accidents now occur among drivers under the age of 21. But they’ve also been declining among those age 21 and older, with one notable exception.

Raising the minimum legal drinking age has resulted in an apparent displacement of large numbers of alcohol-related traffic fatalities from those under the age of 21 to those age 21 to 24. In short, raising the drinking age simply changed the ages of those killed.

The argument that we need to make alcohol less accessible to adults under the age of 21 fails to recognize the fact, well established by governmental surveys, that it's easier for young people to obtain marijuana than alcohol.

It’s also foolish to think that effective prohibition can be imposed on young adults. The U.S. already tried that with the entire population during National Prohibition (1920-1933). The result was less frequent drinking but more heavy, episodic drinking. The effort to impose prohibition on young adults has driven drinking underground and promoted so-called binge drinking. This is a natural and totally predictable consequence of prohibition.

Argument: “We drank when we were young and we grew out of it. It’s just a phase that all students go through.”

Counter-Argument: Interestingly, NIAAA wants us to argue that “Unfortunately, many teens will not ‘grow out of it’.” Implicit is the belief that adults should not consume alcohol even when legally able to do so. The agency apparently envisions a society in which abstention from alcohol is the norm, a vision that it shares with temperance and prohibition advocates.

While not all students will try alcohol, virtually all normal young people will do so and they will do so without ill effects. But NIAAA wants us to promote the discredited and simplistic “steppingstone” hypothesis that suggests that drinking leads to smoking which leads to marijuana, which leads to crack, which leads to cocaine, which leads to degradation and illness, which leads to death.

Argument: “Making it illegal to drink until 21 increases the desire for the ‘forbidden fruit.’ Then, when students turn 21, they’ll drink even more.”

Counter-Argument: NIAAA wants us to assert incorrectly that “Actually the opposite is true. Early legal access to alcohol is associated with higher rates of drinking as an adult.’

In reality, research has clearly demonstrated the “forbidden fruit” phenomenon among adults under the age of 21. On the other hand, there is no evidence that the increased desire to drink continues after students turn 21. In fact, upon turning age 21, many adults find that it’s no longer so much fun to get into bars and drink precisely because it is legal for them to do so.

Observation

While the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism may be guilty of presenting deceptive and misleading arguments in promoting the current minimum legal drinking age, a larger question is the legitimacy of the agency to intrude itself into public and political debates. Perhaps greater congressional oversight of the agencies activities is in order.

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