I’ll drink to that
Lowering the drinking age could lessen negative, secondary effects exacerbated by underage drinking
The culture of drinking in the United States is very distinct from the majority of the Western world. In most countries, the drinking age is at most 18, and children are regularly allowed to consume alcohol with their families and even in public well before then. Part of this has to do with the larger culture of the United States as compared to other countries — alcohol is not integrated into our meals and is not central to our economic and cultural identity like it is in France or Italy. The United States’ values are much more puritanical than those of our continental counterparts, so we tend not to promote actively the consumption of beer or wine as a normal, safe part of our diet. Our legal drinking age is indicative of these values, but has many consequences that I believe necessitate a change.
The first, and most obvious, impact the U.S. system has had is the amount of illegal behavior associated with drinking. More than 70 percent of American teenagers have consumed alcohol by the end of high school, which is before they often spend three or four years in college with even more access while still underage. All of this drinking is by definition illegal. This creates a two-faced culture of drinking, where the legality and morality of the action have been so separated that breaking the law becomes a non-issue. More than one foreign friend of mine has commented on the bizarre culture this creates where drinking is simultaneously hidden and celebrated. It has also furthered other illegal practices: around half of college-age people in the United States have a fake ID. While most of these IDs are used for the purchase of alcohol, the proliferation of the industry certainly makes it easier for other, more serious illegal behavior to occur, such as fraud, identity theft or smuggling. It also exposes underage drinkers to much harsher laws — especially in Virginia, where having a fake can be prosecuted as a class 2 misdemeanor with the possibility of six months in jail.
The widespread nature of this illegal behavior also impacts the availability of medical assistance while drinking. Although many people who suffer from alcohol poisoning do go to the hospital, the desire not to be identified as underage, even when assurances of anonymity or lack of prosecution are given, often leads young adults to avoid seeking help for much longer than is safe. In many cases they decide to suffer through potentially serious bouts of sickness without any treatment, and only go the hospital when the situation has deteriorated from bad to critical. If there were no legal consequences to be afraid of, people might be more willing to seek medical assistance when necessary.
Most of the problems associated with drinking today involve safety issues such as sexual assault and other violent consequences. To avoid the police, drinking often occurs in settings where the potential for sexual assault and violence are magnified. At a private party, it is much easier for a girl to get stuck in an isolated area where her friends are unable to help her ward off unwanted sexual advances. There is no security to keep especially drunk people from doing something stupid and dangerous. While none of these problems are exclusive to underage drinking, they are certainly exacerbated by it. And organizations such as universities are unable to provide safer avenues for drinking themselves because they cannot legally provide alcohol to students, which could be a way to promote less dangerous drinking practices.
Many will point to the data suggesting that U.S. teenagers get drunk less than their European counterparts — which is only true for non-college aged students. And I would agree that there are some advantages to the U.S. system, in that the law encourages waiting until an age where impairment to growth and development by alcohol are minimized and when young adults are mature enough to make good decisions about their drinking. But these benefits are undermined by the widespread willingness to ignore the law. The biggest struggle in the United States right now with regards to alcohol is to improve education and safety. This is difficult to do effectively when it occurs with an understanding that, legally speaking, anyone under 21 should not be drinking at all, which makes people much more likely to ignore any information that does come their way. Our culture’s values condemn getting dangerously drunk and the behaviors associated with it, but the rival and contradictory culture of underage partying celebrates it, leading to a confusing double-standard. Lowering the drinking age would not by any means completely solve the problems drinking creates, although I think it would go a long way to mitigating them. But if we did not need to conceal a significant portion of our drinking culture, we would be able to approach these problems more openly, honestly and effectively, which might allow us to find some better answers.
Forrest Brown is a Viewpoint writer for The Cavalier Daily.