21 Has Gone Bust: Rethinking the Drinking Age

On January 19, Brown announced a review of its alcohol and social event policies and put into place an interim policy “prohibiting parties with alcohol service in residential areas” in an email from January 19. Student groups could host events with alcohol “in approved campus spaces,” but parties were banned in program houses and fraternities. Less than 2 weeks later, on January 29, Dartmouth College announced its own changes to its alcohol policies, prohibiting all hard alcohol above 30 proof, or 15 percent alcohol by volume anywhere on campus. Both policies were met with a measure of consternation, and have been by compared by commentators to Prohibition. The irony is that for that the majority of students, these policies are no change at all, at least officially. For those under 21, alcohol consumption is already not just a violation of the university’s code of conduct, but also the law: Rhode Island and New Hampshire, like every other state in the United States, prohibit the purchase and consumption of alcohol by those under the age of 21.

It wasn’t always this way. Until the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, many states had a drinking age of 18 or 19. The Act was put into place to curtail drunk driving, and, if you look at the data just narrowly enough, it might seem to have succeeded in doing so. For a number of reasons, however, this is misleading. The benefits of a drinking age of 21 in relation to drunk driving are outweighed by other more negative consequences. The fact that a common behavior – underage drinking – is unequivocally against the law has profoundly dysfunctional effects on students’ drinking and colleges’ responses. It is past time to rethink the drinking age.

After three decades, the drinking age may seem natural to many Americans, but in fact it’s quite unique. The United States is the only developed country in the world with a national drinking age of 21, and one of only four with a drinking age above 18. How did we come to stand alone on this issue? In the 1970s, after the voting age was lowered to 18, many states followed suit with their drinking age. The 1970s and 1980s saw an epidemic of drunk driving deaths, especially among young people, and many attributed the increase in accidents to lowered drinking ages. In 1984, after intense lobbying from groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. The 21st Amendment left the regulation of alcohol policy to states, so the Act did not impose a drinking age outright: Instead, it threatened states which refused to raise their drinking age with the loss of 10 percent of their annual federal highway funding. By 1988, the drinking age was 21 nationwide.

If you ask MADD, or the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NTHSA), the drinking age has been a resounding success. “Minimum drinking age laws are among the most effective measures ever used to reduce drunken driving deaths among America’s young people,” NHTSA Administrator David Kelly said in 2008. MADD proclaims that the minimum drinking age has saved more the 25,000 lives. And indeed, there is some data to suggest that the drinking age has diminished the number of drunk driving accidents across the country. The number of teenagers killed in traffic accidents has declined substantially, from 6,952 in 1984 to 2,524 in 2013. The percentage of Americans under 21 driving drunk has declined 83 percent since 1973, and the percentage of fatally injured drivers aged 16-20 with a positive blood alcohol content (BAC) has fallen 46 percent since 1982 — more any other age group.

A closer look, however, reveals plenty of reasons for skepticism. The decrease in drunk driving has been greatest among those under 21, but it has been considerable among all age groups. Decades of awareness campaigns have successfully stigmatized drunk driving, and the concept of the designated driver, popularized by a campaign of the Harvard School of Public Health starting in 1988, has helped millions avoid getting behind the wheel while intoxicated. What’s more, driving has been getting safer for drivers of all ages for nearly a century. Traffic fatalities per vehicle mile driven have plummeted by 95 percent since 1923; more than 10,000 fewer people died on the roads in 2012 than in 1984. This broad trend has been relatively consistent between young drivers and the overall population. Strikingly, the trend in the number of fatally injured drivers with positive BAC since 1982, both overall, and as a percentage of all fatally injured drivers, has been virtually identical between Americans under 21 and Canadians aged 16-19, even though the Canadian drinking age has remained 18-19.

After three decades, the drinking age may seem natural to many Americans, but in fact it’s quite unique.

It seems clear that the National Minimum Drinking Age has not been the panacea for drunk driving that some have claimed it to be. What should concern Americans satisfied with our comparatively conservative drinking age, however, is evidence that it may actually contribute to harmful behavior, particularly among college students. The law has done little to curb drinking by those under 21. A 2002 study by the Harvard School of Public health found that more than 77 percent of college students under 21 had consumed alcohol in the past year. On it’s own, this isn’t a problem; what’s worrying is the rate of binge drinking, defined as the consumption of five or more alcoholic beverages in one sitting for men, and four or more for women.  The same study found that though underage students drink a bit less frequently than those over 21, they report getting drunk more often, and are more likely to binge drink when they drink at all. The drinking age has pushed college drinking into unsupervised and potentially unsafe gatherings. The difficulty of obtaining alcohol at large, organized events and the fear of parties being shut down contributes to dangerous pre-gaming and encourages students to rapidly consume alcohol. Prohibiting the majority of college students from drinking severely limits colleges’ abilities to address these issues by pushing drinking off-campus and underground. Since 2008, 136 college and university presidents have signed the Amethyst Initiative, which declares “twenty-one is not working,” and calls for a reconsideration of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

It is time for the drinking age to be lowered. It may have been somewhat successful in its stated goal of reducing drunk driving, and one could plausibly argue that it made sense at the time. But its benefits are vastly overstated and it is no longer reasonable. Ten million underage Americans openly flout the drinking age every month. Having laws in place that are so widely disregarded is concerning, and also raises the possibility of inequitable treatment. A Brown underclassman, caught drinking on campus, would deal with the University’s Department of Public Safety. If they received any repercussions at all (and Clery Act data indicates few do), they would face a dean’s hearing and an official internal reprimand. A 19-year-old caught by Providence Police faces a $250 fine, a 30-day drivers license suspension, and a misdemeanor on their criminal record for at least five years. Other states, however, have steeper penalties.

One area where it seems that America’s drinking age has been somewhat effective is in reducing high school drinking, which has declined substantially since 1984. Some have expressed concerns that the flow of alcohol that would result from lowering the drinking age back to 18 could reverse these gains. However, lowering the drinking age to 19 instead of 18 and keeping in place harsh restrictions on giving alcohol to those under 18 could prevent this outcome. The risk of DUI remains real, and younger, less experienced drivers remain more likely to crash, but this is also no reason not to act. More effective than just raising the drinking age alone has been the zero-tolerance laws that set the legal limit for a DUI to be a BAC of .02% for those under 21, instead of the normal limit of .08%. States could lower the drinking age while leaving the zero tolerance laws in place, establishing a clear expectation that while it might be acceptable for older adults to drive after drinking a beer or a glass of wine over dinner, young adults cannot drive after drinking any alcohol, period.

The drinking age is past due for reevaluation. Binge drinking on college campuses is a serious issue, and one that absolutely must be addressed. But prohibition has not worked. If we want people to be safer, we have to accept the reality that college students are going to drink and we must allow colleges to make sensible policies that encourage safe, responsible, and moderated behavior.