ALCOHOL TO 21
Lessons From The Drinking Age Experiment
For 600 years of English common law and throughout most of U.S. legal history, the age of 21 was regarded as the age of full adult status. Until 1971 the legal minimum voting age was 21 and many states maintained age 21 as their legal drinking age. It was not until the Vietnam War with the unpopular, forcible draft of disenfranchised 18-year-olds, that the age to vote in the U.S. was shifted downward to 18 by the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
During that period 25 states also moved to reduce the age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages. The result was a dramatic increase in highway crashes, injuries and deaths caused by intoxicated drivers in the 16-20 age group. These increases, and the disparities in alcohol-related injuries between states that maintained a 21 drinking age and those with lower ages, resulted in 1984 federal action initiated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) under President Reagan. By 1988, all U.S. states had moved to raise their legal drinking age to 21. NHTSA estimates that this policy prevents more than 1,000 deaths annually from highway crashes involving intoxicated young drivers.
Raising the drinking age had a dramatic effect on youth alcohol use
Total drinking by high school seniors dropped by 38% and binge drinking fell by a similar amount. Daily drinking fell by half. Enforcement remains spotty and drinking by teenagers remains a serious problem, but those gains persist even today among teens. Most significantly, today’s thirty year-olds also drink at a significantly lower rate than those of a generation ago. Clearly, not all of this effect was due to increasing the legal drinking age. Many other forces were also at work. However, a study examining just those states where the legal drinking age was raised shows a significant effect.
Importantly alcohol is used much differently that nicotine and tobacco. Most alcohol users are social drinkers, imbibing only intermittently. Most smokers are nicotine addicts and can only go a few hours without feeling withdrawal and craving. Moreover while there is well known incentive to buy alcohol for others to induce a party atmosphere or sexual compliance, there is little incentive to buy someone else an expensive pack of cigarettes on a daily basis.
The bottom line is that age 21 worked to reduce drinking in teens and age 21 for tobacco has been shown to be even more effective in preventing nicotine addiction in vulnerable adolescents.