There are a number of arguments as to why the legal drinking age in the United States, now set in most states at 21, should be lowered, remain the same, or be raised. It helps to have some historical background on the drinking age. The current federal limits, which prohibit buying anything but very low alcohol beers (about 3%) in some states, were set at 21 in 1984. Many states had temporarily lowered this age during the Vietnam War; many soldiers drafted into the war claimed that if they were old enough to fight or die for their country, they were certainly old enough to decide whether or not they wanted to drink alcohol.
The pushback on the legal drinking age in the United States came in 1984 largely due to groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and their leaders like Candy Lightner, who argued that raising the minimum age could result in far fewer cases of drunk driving and drunk driving related deaths. Statistical evidence gleaned after the legal drinking age was increased show there was certainly, particularly in the onset, quite a bit of merit to Lightner’s argument, and the US saw a reduction in drunk driving deaths and accidents after the 1984 law was established, especially among drivers under the age of 21. Proponents for lowering the limit say this was due not to the new restrictions, but to education on the dangers of drunk driving.
The main arguments for lowering the legal drinking age in the United States, aside from the military argument, can be summed up in the following ways:
- Lowering the drinking age means that alcohol isn’t seen as the forbidden fruit, which would make fewer people tempted to try it.
- Countries with a lower drinking age appear to have fewer problems with alcoholism.
- People will drink in private, in potentially dangerous situations, whereas being able to legally obtain alcohol in public settings would be less dangerous.
- In addition to being able to serve in the army at the age of 18, people can also sign contracts, vote and get married. If they are ready for these responsibilities they are surely ready to drink.
There are more arguments, including those that statistics showing that the benefits of a higher drinking age are not as strong as supposed.
Arguments against lowering the drinking age include the following:
- Raising the minimum age has decreased drunk driving, accidents, and alcohol related deaths in people younger than 21.
- Though some people underage continue to drink, raising the age does limit access to alcohol and does decrease underage drinking.
- People under 21 may not be mature enough to handle drinking and may be more at risk for behaviors like binge drinking and for addictions like alcoholism.
- Having laws in place that prohibit the selling of alcohol to minors gives the state a way to enforce limits, and provides natural consequences of drinking that may be punishable by law, discouraging underage drinking.
It is unlikely that the US government will change drinking age to 18. Most people in government do not support a change. There is additional concern that lowering the threshold age might invite younger people to drink sooner, since children under 18 could argue that they are nearly 18 and thus entitled to drink. There remain strong arguments on both sides, with little likelihood that the laws will change in the near future.