How To Reduce High-Risk College Drinking: Use Proven Strategies, Fill Research Gaps
Responses To Arguments Against The Minimum Legal Drinking Age
Despite an abundance of research demonstrating the effectiveness of the age 21 MLDA in
reducing youth drinking and alcohol-related problems, a few States are again considering
lowering their legal age limits for drinking. Many issues and arguments heard decades ago are
resurfacing, and many are similar to arguments college administrators hear against campus
policies to discourage high-risk alcohol use. Following is a summary of possible responses to
these arguments, suggested in the research review on MLDA commissioned by the Panel (Wagenaar
and Toomey, 2002).
Issue: “Establishing a legal drinking age of 21 is unconstitutional age
Response: This question has been treated in detail in two court cases, one in
Michigan, the other in Louisiana. In both instances, the courts upheld the constitutionality
of the laws, based in part on the demonstrated value of age 21 laws in preventing traffic
Issue: “If I’m old enough to go to war, I should be old enough to drink.”
Response: Many rights have different ages of initiation. A person can obtain a hunting
license at age 12, driver’s license at age 16, vote and serve in the military at 18, serve in
the U.S. House of Representatives at age 25 and in the U.S. Senate at age 30, and run for
President at age 35. Other rights that are regulated include the sale and use of tobacco and
legal consent for sexual intercourse and marriage. The minimum age for initiation is based on
the specific behaviors involved and must take into account the dangers and benefits of that
behavior at a given age. The age 21 policy for alcohol takes into account the fact that
underage drinking is related to numerous serious health problems, including injuries and
death resulting from car crashes, suicide, homicide, assault, drowning, and recreational
injuries. In fact, the leading cause of death among teens is car crashes, and alcohol is
involved in approximately a third of these deaths.
Issue: “Europeans let their teens drink from an early age, yet they don’t have the
alcohol-related problems we do. What we need are fewer restrictions, not more.”
Response: The idea that Europeans do not have alcohol-related problems is a myth.
European youth may be at less risk of traffic crashes since youth drive less frequently in
Europe than in the United States. However, European countries have similar or higher rates of
other alcohol-related problems compared to those in the United States.
Issue: “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-driving
education efforts, tougher enforcement, and tougher drunk-driving penalties.”
Response: When the age 21 restriction was initiated, alcohol-involved highway crashes
declined immediately (i.e., starting the next month) among the 18- to 20-year-old population.
Careful research has shown the decline was not due to DUI enforcement and tougher DUI
penalties, but is a direct result of the legal drinking age. Studies have also shown that
education alone is not effective in reducing youth drinking. Achieving long-term reductions
in youth drinking problems requires an environmental change so that alcohol is less
accessible to teens.
Issue: “Making it illegal to drink until 21 just increases the desire for the
‘forbidden fruit.’ Then, when students turn 21, they’ll drink even more.”
Response: Actually, the opposite is true. Early legal access to alcohol is associated
with higher rates of drinking as an adult.
Issue: “Who will pay for enforcement of these laws? The age 21 law is too expensive.”
Response: We already pay large portions of our tax dollars for problems resulting from
alcohol. For example, in Minnesota, cities use approximately one-third of their police
budgets to deal with alcohol-related problems; the U.S. pays more than $10 billion annually
just for the costs associated with drunk driving. The higher drinking age saves money by
resulting in fewer alcohol-related health problems, fewer alcohol-related injuries, and less
Issue: “We drank when we were young and we grew out of it. It’s just a phase that all
students go through.”
Response: Unfortunately, many teens will not “grow out of it.” Studies indicate that
youth who start drinking before they are 21 are more likely to drink heavily later in life.
Those who do not drink until age 21 tend to drink less as adults. Teens who drink are also
more likely to try other illegal drugs and to become victims of crime. If teen drinking is
accepted as normal behavior, youth will continue to experience car crashes, other injuries,
early unprotected sex, and other problems commonly associated with drinking.
Issue: “If students can’t get alcohol, they’ll just switch to other, perhaps even
more dangerous, drugs.”
Response: Research shows that the opposite is true; teens who drink and/or smoke are
more likely to move on to use other drugs. Preventing youth from using alcohol and tobacco
reduces the chance that they will try other illegal drugs. Moreover, when the drinking age
was raised to 21, and teen drinking declined, there was no evidence of a compensatory
increase in other drug use.
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Last reviewed: 9/23/2005