Drinking at Eighteen: Is It a Social “Right?” By Kristin Hartley

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As a continuation of my previous post on reducing the legal drinking age in the United States from twenty-one to eighteen, I would like to examine a different perspective on the reasons behind support for a change in the policy and the implications of that change. It is important to note that not all college officials are suggesting that reducing the legal drinking age is a worthwhile change. At the moment, there are 130 colleges that have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative, a statement in support of discussion on lowering the drinking age. I do not condemn those college officials who have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative and parents of adolescents who support a lower drinking age; however, I do believe that there is a better way of going about sparking change.

Understanding the Other Side

In an attempt to better understand the pro-change argument, I read the proposal of Choose Responsibility, an organization founded to consider the negative effects of the current legal drinking age. Choose Responsibility’s proposal consists ofa multi-faceted approach that combines education, certification, and provisional licensing for 18-20 year-old high school graduates who choose to consume alcohol.” The organization cites characteristics, such as maturity and responsibility of young adults (under the age of 21), that should give them proper discretion in choosing to drink if so desired. In reference to these same assumed characteristics, I pose a question: If college officials and parents are concerned with the restriction of responsibility or maturity of young adults, then why not encourage the expression of true responsibility and maturity through following the law?

Arguments have been made that binge-drinking off campus and the secret abuse of alcohol by those 18-20 years old are major challenges for colleges and parents who want to teach young adults about safe alcohol use. Just because it is a challenge to educate young adults on alcohol misuse does not mean it is not worthwhile. Generally speaking, individuals in their late teens and early twenties tend to be irresponsible when drinking, not just those under 21. Can we also attribute the fact that binge-drinking is a large problem among 21-25 year olds to the legal drinking age of 21? It is not a fair argument to say that the current drinking age encourages binge-drinking among those younger than 21, then also state that those under the age of 21 are not the problem when it comes to binge-drinking. This double-negative is indicative of the fact that lowering the drinking age is not the answer to changing perceptions of alcohol among individuals of all ages.

A Social “Right?”

An avenue that has not been entirely explored, but seems to be at the core of the arguments of parents and college officials is the social aspect of drinking and how the social “right” to express one’s maturity and responsibility is being restricted by the current drinking age. Posts on Choose Responsibility’s blog, which I understand do not expressly indicate the views of the organization itself, expose parental concerns regarding the current drinking age, especially in reference to the idea of drinking as a social “right.” What I find most disturbing about this perspective is that it places far too much emphasis on the use of alcohol in our society and legitimizes young adults’ desire to fit in by using alcohol.

Taking a (Not-So) Different Approach

Alcohol education does not have to start at the age of 21. I recall learning about the negative effects of alcohol in the D.A.R.E program in 5th grade. Did that program encourage alcohol use by teaching youth about alcoholism and addiction? Starting alcohol education (or drug education, in general) in the adolescent years, when individuals in this age group are being coerced into drug use, is really not a bad idea. But, this is also not a new idea.

Too much energy is put into disputing the current drinking age, rather than exploring the ways in which society can change its perception of alcohol and discourage drinking. As an individual of legal drinking age who chooses not to drink because of the uncomfortable social climate that alcohol creates, I often witness that maturity and responsibility tend to slip away from otherwise mature and reasonable individuals after a few drinks. Forcing the legal drinking age down will not only ignore this recurring situation, but will also ignore the fact that drinking can lead to a dangerous environment. Maintaining the current drinking age may be somewhat in vain, as many teenagers and young adults are violating the law regularly, but the point is still made that it is not acceptable. That statement of acceptability is really important in shaping the social view of alcohol and, at the very least, attaching the negative consequences of drinking (especially underage) to those actions.

Social Health vs. Public Health

When thinking of the social “need” to drink in the context of the greater public health, risks of an increase in drunk driving, earlier onset of alcoholism and interference with natural brain development surpass socially-motivated, hard-to-discuss arguments for a reduction in the legal drinking age. The fact is that there are lifelong consequences that are associated with drinking as a young adult, but none that are suffered from not having the right to drink at 18. Should it really be a priority? Instead of shaping health policies to fit our social wants and “needs,” we should be changing social environments to discourage dangerous and irresponsible violation of the law. Regardless of one’s belief in the efficacy of the existing law as it stands in reducing alcohol-related crimes, injuries and fatalities, at least the law sends the message that alcohol does not have to be a way in which to express one’s adulthood or maturity. Am I less of an adult because I choose not to drink? I would like to think that I am more responsible for my choice.

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