Myths and Facts About The 21 Minimum Drinking Age
Myth: Europeans let their kids drink at an early age, yet they do not have the alcohol-related problems we do.
Actually, in Europe, young people have higher intoxication rates than in the United States, and less than a quarter had lower or equivalent rates to the United States. Also, a greater percentage of young people in a majority of Europe report binge drinking at higher rates then compared to their US counterparts. 1-2 Most European youth have higher rates of alcohol-related problems because of their heavy drinking.
Perhaps the best example of fact versus myth is what happened in New Zealand. In 1999, New Zealand lowered its purchase age from 20 to 18. Not only did drunk driving crashes increase, but youth started to drink earlier, binge drinking escalated, and in the 12 months following the decrease in legal drinking age, there was a 50 percent increase in intoxicated 18- and 19-year-old patients at the Auckland Hospital emergency room.3
When the “forbidden fruit” is no longer forbidden, youth simply drink more. In states where the drinking age was 18, young people drank more than in states where the minimum drinking age was 21. They continued to drink more as adults in their early 20s.4
Myth: Lowering the drinking age will encourage young people to be responsible consumers rather than drink at uncontrolled, private parties.
While many bars serve alcohol legally and responsibly, many bars encourage irresponsible drinking with happy hours, two-for-one specials and bar crawls. Many also serve obviously intoxicated patrons. On college campuses, fraternity and sorority members drink more frequently than their peers and accept high levels of alcohol consumption and associated problems as “normal.”
Many youth drink with the goal to get drunk. They are not “wired” in the brain to assess risk and to be responsible when it comes to risky behavior. There is no class or situation that will prompt a teen to drink responsibly when alcohol flows freely.
Actually, many don't. In fact, the earlier someone begins drinking, the more likely they are to be alcohol dependent in later life. More than 40 percent of individuals who start drinking before the age of 13 will develop alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence at some point in their lives.5 Ninety-five percent of the 14 million people who are alcohol dependent began drinking before the legal age of 21.6
Many rights have different ages of initiation. You can get a hunting license at age 12, drive at 16, vote and serve in the military at 18, serve in the U.S. House of Representatives at 25, and serve as the U.S. President at 35. Other regulated rights include the sale and use of tobacco, and legal consent for sexual intercourse and marriage. Vendors, such as car rental facilities and hotels, also have set the minimum age for a person to use their services—25-years-old to rent a car and 21-years-old to rent a hotel room.
And these minimum ages are set for a reason. In the case of alcohol, 21 is the minimum age because a person’s brain does not stop developing until his or her early to mid-20s. Drinking alcohol while the brain is still developing can lead to long-lasting deficits in cognitive abilities, including learning and memory.
Alcohol use by those under 21 is also related to numerous health problems including injuries and death resulting from alcohol poisoning, car crashes, suicide, homicide, assaults, drowning and recreational mishaps. Not to mention that the early onset of drinking by youth significantly increases the risk of future health problems such as addiction.
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1. The ESPAD Report 2003. Alcohol and Other Drug Use Among Students in 35 European Countries. Published 2004. Read excerpts here.
2. Johnston, L. D., O'Malley, P. M., Bachman, J. G., & Schulenberg, J. E. (2004). Monitoring the Future national results on adolescent drug use: Overview of key findings, 2003 (NIH Publication No. 04-5506). Bethesda, MD: National Institute on Drug Abuse. Read the overview here.
3. Kyrpi, Kypros, et al. "Minimum Purchasing Age for Alcohol and Traffic Crash Injuries Among 15- to 19-Year-Olds in New Zealand." American Journal of Public Health, January 2006, Voi 96, No. 1. Read the study here.
4. Maisto, S.A., & Rachal, J.V. (1980). Indications of the relationship between adolescent drinking practices, related behaviors, and drinking age law: An examination of data from a national sample. In H.
Wechsler (Ed.), Minimum drinking age laws: An evaluation (pp. 155-176). Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath & Co.
5. Grant, Bridgett and Deborah Dawson. “Age at Onset of Alcohol Use and Its Association with DSM-IV Alcohol Abuse and Dependence.” Results from the National Longitudinal Alcohol Epidemiologic Survey. Journal of Substance Abuse 9 (1997): 103-110.
6. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. “Alcohol Dependence or Abuse and Age at First Use.” Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, Office of Applied Studies, October 22, 2004. Read the full study here.