The Case for Lowering the Drinking Age to 18

By: Shayna Herszage  |  February 6, 2020

By Shayna Herszage, Opinion Editor

Age milestones come in various forms in the United States. At 16 (at least in my home state of Ohio, although it differs slightly by state) we get to earn our driver’s licenses. At 18, we become “legal adults” in almost every way — we can join the military, be in consenting relationships with other legal adults, and we can vote. Then, three years later, we are able to legally drink alcohol at 21.

The nation’s minimum drinking age was raised to 21 across all states, as established in 1984 by Ronald Reagan’s National Minimum Drinking Age Act, in order to combat rising numbers of youth car crashes. However, rather than producing a nation of sober young adults, the minimum drinking age has produced other problems. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act is logical in theory, but in practice, it proves harmful and confusing for young adults at a point of critical transition in their lives. For the safety of young adults and those who exist around them, the minimum drinking age in the United States should be lowered to 18.

As the saying goes, “strict parents create sneaky children.” Similarly, a strict country produces rebellious young adults. Compared to countries with lower minimum drinking ages, the United States has an unusually high rate of binge drinking among young adults and adolescents. According to Dr. Thomas Frieden of the Center for Disease Control, 90% of all alcohol consumed by young adults and adolescents in the United States is consumed during binge drinking sessions.

Meanwhile, countries with lower drinking ages, such as the majority of Europe, have different statistics. While young adults in France, Italy, the Czech Republic, Germany, Denmark and Finland drink on more occasions than young adults in the United States, the amount of alcohol they consume is smaller than those in the United States.

In the majority of Europe, the drinking age is around 18 years old. Most people turn 18 before graduating high school. As a result, people in these countries have the chance to encounter alcohol legally and safely as high school students, usually living at home. 

In the United States, however, most young adults leave home before they can legally drink, and gain other freedoms all at the same time – including the freedom to make dangerous decisions without the judgment of parents. Excited about the new opportunity, and unsure when they will get such an opportunity again, underage college students often binge drink when presented with the opportunity. This leads to blacking out in dangerous places, alcohol poisoning, and many other health and cognition problems. The sudden increased freedom to drink in college, without prior experience with alcohol in a safe environment, is a contributing factor to the United States’ status as being the country with the highest rate of youth binge drinking.

When defending the minimum drinking age of 21, people often argue that young adults are not mature enough to drink. But think about what we do consider 18-year-olds “mature” enough to do: vote on the people who run the country and on its laws, join the army and carry a firearm, and engage in sexual relationships with other adults. The heightened minimum drinking age is inconsistent. At what point do we truly consider people to be “adults”? If we are willing to give an 18-year-old a gun and put them on the front lines in the military, but we are not willing to give them a beer at a restaurant, what does that say about how we view young adults? Are they only pawns of the government and military, only objects of sexual and reproductive activity, that we somehow do not trust to get beers with a few friends? If we can trust 18-year-olds and consider them responsible enough to hold a gun or have sex, we can consider them responsible enough to drink a glass of wine and understand the health, social, and legal consequences of being irresponsible.

The move from youth to adulthood is shocking, abrupt, and often stressful. Lowering the minimum drinking age in the United States to 18 years would make for a more consistent transition by making most “adult coming-of-age checkpoints” occur at around the same time. It would also allow for a smoother transition and prevent drinking binges, because the majority of young adults would be able to drink while still in a period of structure and supervision.