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Thursday, February 15, 2007

Lowering the Drinking Age: a real voice in the debate

You may or may not know that I'm in favor of lowering the legal drinking age (LDA)in the U.S., for a variety of reasons. One of those reasons is that I believe the 21 LDA is poorly-conceived policy that has actually increased dangerous drinking by driving drinking underground. Young adults are denied access to the places where normal, structured drinking takes place -- the tavern, the restaurant, the brewpub -- and instead learn the bad habits of the house party, the frat party, drinking and driving on the run while avoiding notice.

I've wanted to look at some information that might help solve the question of whether the 21 LDA has saved lives or cost them, but that kind of data-digging is not a full-time job for me. I haven't been able to come up with anything I'd rely on. What I have found is a number of mistakes, exaggerations, and outright lies in the numbers put out by the anti-alcohol establishment. That made me think that the booze industry should really have a clearinghouse for straight, unspun alcohol research, and figure out a way to sponsor unbiased alcohol research.

John McCardell beat me to it. McCardell is the emeritus president of Middlebury College in Middlebury, Vermont, and has been one of the few college administrators willing to speak up on this issue. He did so most publicly in a New York Times editorial in 2004 in which he called the 21 LDA "bad social policy and terrible law." Here are the relevant bits:

To lawmakers: the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law. It is astonishing that college students have thus far acquiesced in so egregious an abridgment of the age of majority. Unfortunately, this acquiescence has taken the form of binge drinking. Campuses have become, depending on the enthusiasm of local law enforcement, either arms of the law or havens from the law.

Neither state is desirable. State legislators, many of whom will admit the law is bad, are held hostage by the denial of federal highway funds if they reduce the drinking age. Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground. This is the hard lesson of prohibition that each generation must relearn. No college president will say that drinking has become less of a problem in the years since the age was raised. Would we expect a student who has been denied access to oil paint to graduate with an ability to paint a portrait in oil? Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.

And please - hold your fire about drunken driving. I am a charter member of Presidents Against Drunk Driving. This has nothing to do with drunken driving. If it did, we'd raise the driving age to 21. That would surely solve the problem.

Strong words. Now McCardell has taken strong action to match them. He announced yesterday that he was leaving his teaching position at Middlebury College to start a new research group called Choose Responsibility. McCardell has been researching the ramifications of changing the 21 LDA, supported by a grant from the Robertson Foundation. The time has come for action.

What's he basing the action on, what did the research turn up? Pretty interesting stuff. First, as I suspected, the 20,000 lives supposedly saved by the implementation of the 21 LDA are not so concrete. Here's the low-down on that from an article that appeared in the Middlebury Campus yesterday:

Citing a National Highway Transit Safety Authority (NHTSA) study, [student researcher Amanda] Goodwin said, "[We found] that there was no demonstrable cause and effect relationship between the 21 year-old drinking age and the decline in alcohol-related traffic fatalities, but rather, that the decrease in drunken driving fatalities could be attributed to a composite of other factors. More important contributing factors include safer motor vehicles, more vigorous law enforcement, shifts in societal trends and fluctuations in the population of relevant age cohorts."

The decline in traffic fatalities following the lowering of the drinking age is one of the main reasons opponents give for maintaining the current drinking age. However, Goodwin said that according to NHTSA data, "More lives have been saved in the last two years from seat belts and airbags than in the entire history of the 21-year-old drinking age."

Amazing? Not really. The anti-alcohol people are just not that good at connecting cause and effect.

And the main thrust of Choose Responsibility? Continued research, creating a network of researchers, and fund-raising to support a grass-roots campaign to explore the real possibility of alternatives to the current laws. For instance...

Rather than simply lowering the national legal drinking age from 21 to 18, Choose Responsibility advocates that states launch alcohol education programs to teach young adults about responsible purchase, possession and consumption. Upon successful completion of a course, a participant could receive a license to consume and purchase alcohol at the age of 18.

The license would be legal in the state in which the 18-year-old is a resident, and in the state in which he or she attends college, if they attend out of state. Individuals who drank illegally before turning 21 or before receiving the 18 year-old license, would delay their eligibility for the license.
A drinking license. What a beautiful, simple idea. Of course, you can tell that it came from a far-off state: only legal in the state of residence? What fun is that to the hordes of New Jersey folks who can't wait to go drink in Philly and New York? Ah, I jest. But truly, a brilliant idea.

A web site is planned for mid-March. I'll have it here, count on it (It's up:, along with a blog). I really believe that this is the right way to treat our serious national problem of dangerous drinking. Well, one right way. Getting everyone to think more deeply about what they're drinking, why they're drinking it, and what they could be drinking that's better tasting is always good too.


Lew Bryson said...

Fair warning: if anti-alcohol folks bomb this post with flaming and their usual barrage of bogus statistics...I'll just delete those comments and turn off permissions on this post. If you want to debate, come prepared with well-researched facts and a reasonable amount of civility.

Bryan Kolesar said...

Thanks, Lew for continuing to take up this important topic. You've continued to address this topic from very logical angles and have covered so many different bases, that I'm really not sure how any reasonable person (or governing body) can argue otherwise. The ignorance, or willing blindness, can be staggering.

Will the website that you mentioned give your readers a chance to join in the debate and a place to formally register their voice?

Are there other such places currently where these voices can be heard?

Lew Bryson said...

Thanks for the kind words, but...the problem never has been the reasonable people!

The website I mentioned isn't mine, I should have been more clear. It's going to come from McCardell's organization.

And are there other such places? Not really. This is an enthusiast thing that only got talked about on blogs, or newspaper letter-to-the-editor spaces, or anti-alcohol screed websites...or rather, it was. Until now.

Grace said...

Hi Lew (and others),

Thanks for your thoughts on this important issue--they are right on. I am John McCardell's assistant at Choose Responsibility and would like to be in touch with you as our work unfolds. For now, check out which will have some very basic content for the next month or so as we work on the full site. You can also weigh in on our blog,

Anonymous said...

i think the drinkinng age should be owered because its just stupiddddddddddddddddddddd

Unknown said...

i think lowering the drinking age is just retarded i mean im only 15 and i know its a bad idea

Unknown said...

like i said you would have to be mentaly retarded to think that to be anything close to a rational thought and people that think that it is a good idea is eather underage our immature in some sense hell i like to drink some times but that dont mean its right like i said im only 15 and i think it is stupid as hell that last commentor could even spell lower!!!!!!!!!!!!

Anonymous said...

I writing a Speech on this topic and i would like to say that this web page helped me tremendously. It gave me many different reasons why the drinking age should be lowered,and a counter action of the opposing view. And Billy, possibly a 38 year old virgin, if you are fifteen why are you looking up information on lowering the drinking age if you were against it in the first place.

Anonymous said...

Why are we bothering with this?
Tis a petty thing to argue about - drinking. Reminds me of politics. You never agree completely with the one side or t'other. We should be more like (warning - blasphemy ahead) Europe in drinking, politics, education, and our measurement system. But we aren't gonna be even doin that fer a while now, so i suppose we can start with the drinkin. Let's lower it, and a pint fer you and all yer family. Long health and good beer to you all.

JoeWilson said...

I completely agree with everything that you had to say Lew Bryson. In my main opinion, I think that if 18 is an old enough age to fight and possibly die for your country, then the least the government could do is let you have a beer. I'm only 17 and I'm not being bias just because I like to drink (which to be honest I do on occasion, but who doesn't these days) I also think that the idea of having to take classes to get a license to be able to purchase and consume is by far one of the witty ideas ive heard of, because if someone isn't willing to take the time to learn the safeties then they obviously aren't mature enough to even be dealing with alcohol.