Raising the drinking age to 21 hasn't reduced drinking -- it’s merely driven it underground, to the riskiest of settings.
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Updated February 10, 2015, 10:33 PM
Return the drinking age to 18 -- and then enforce the law. The current system, which forbids alcohol to Americans under 21, is widely flouted, with disastrous consequences. Teaching people to drink responsibly before they turn 21 would enormously enhance public health. Now, high school and college kids view dangerous binge drinking as a rite of passage.
The current law, passed in all 50 states in the 1980s, was intended to diminish the number of traffic deaths caused by young drunk drivers. It has succeeded in that -- but tougher seatbelt and D.U.I. rules have contributed to the decrease, too. Raising the drinking age hasn't reduced drinking -- it’s merely driven it underground, to the riskiest of settings: unsupervised high school blowouts and fraternity parties that make "Animal House" look quaint. This age segregation leads the drinking away from adults, who could model moderation.
The roots of this extreme drinking lie in our own history. Prohibition, which banned most alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933, normalized the frenzied sort of drinking that occurs today at college parties. In speakeasies and blind pigs, the goal was to drink as much and as soon as possible, because you never knew when the feds would show up. Today's law, likewise, encourages young people to dodge the system. Like Prohibition -- and abstinence-only sex education -- it’s been a dismal failure.
A 2009 study published in The Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs found that between 1998 and 2005, the number of cases of alcohol poisoning deaths among 18- to 24-year-olds nearly tripled, jumping from 779 cases to 2,290. The study also tracks a rise in fatalities from hypothermia and falls. Some reports link excess drinking to sexual assault.
American 18-year-olds have the right to vote, marry, buy guns and join the military. They're astute enough to defend their country, decide elected officials and serve on a jury -- but not regulate their own appetites? They deserve the chance to learn.
We don't hand teenagers car keys without first educating them about how to drive. Why expect 21-year-olds to learn how to drink responsibly without learning from moderate models, at home and in alcohol education programs?
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