Underage, under the influence
Efforts to reduce youth drinking need rethinking
Published: Wednesday, November 12, 2008
Updated: Wednesday, November 12, 2008 01:11
Many people can remember when they took their first sip of alcohol. Many can remember the first time they ever got drunk, or their first hangover. And the majority of these memories most likely took place before the age of 21.
At 18 years old, an individual is legally considered an adult. They become old enough to vote, drive, pay taxes, serve on juries, be tried as adults and be drafted into a war. They are not, ironically, old enough to drink. And while underage drinking is extremely dangerous, it is not, however, new or shocking.
With the accessibility of alcohol and the peer pressure often involved, it is actually rare to find someone who abstains from having their first drink until they are 21.
Yet, underage drinking obviously does pose a very large threat.
According to The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, about 5,000 youth under the age of 21 die annually from motor vehicle crashes, homicides, suicides and other unintentional injuries that involve drinking.
One of the most tragic components is that drinking underage can subject completely innocent people to harm. A youth driving drunk is a danger to anyone in the vicinity.
It is also believed that drinking alcohol is a precipitator of violent behavior. If already unpredictable people are under the influence, they become an even larger threat, and not only could it be tough to try to restrain such individuals, it is likely they will be unable to control even themselves.
There has always been controversy surrounding alcohol. From 1920 to 1933, the United States experienced Prohibition, in which the sale, consumption and manufacture of alcohol for consumption was banned nationally, as mandated in the 18th Amendment to the Constitution. It was hugely unpopular and repealed with ratification of the 21st Amendment.
In the United States between 1970 and 1975, 29 states lowered the minimum legal drinking age to 18, 19 or 20. After research revealed a lower drinking age resulted in more traffic injuries and fatalities among youth, the federal government passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1983, requiring states to legislate and enforce a 21 and over policy for ordering, purchasing and publicly possessing alcohol. While the act did not outlaw the consumption of alcoholic beverages, some states extended its provisions into a ban. Most states, however, still permit "underage" consumption of alcohol in some circumstances.
The legal drinking age is different in various parts of the world. In some places such as Turkey, the legal drinking age is 11. In other places like India, the drinking age can go as high as 25. Some countries outlaw it completely and others have no drinking age at all.
Launched in 2008, a group of presidents and chancellors of colleges across the United States made up the Amethyst Initiative. The higher education leaders support informed and unimpeded debate on the 21-year-old drinking age and invite ideas on how to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol use. Their statement said in part, "Our experience as college and university presidents convinces us that 21 is not working. A culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking' – often conducted off-campus — has developed."
While many professionals were in favor of a discussion of the proposal, many other college officials, health experts and parents were aghast at the idea.
One organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, is one of the biggest advocates for keeping the drinking age at 21. Their strongest argument is that lowering the age will only result in more fatal car crashes and accidents.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that since 1975, laws setting the drinking age at 21 have cut traffic fatalities among 18-to-20-year-old drivers by 13 percent, saving an estimated 19,121 lives. The American Medical Association reports that the brains of adolescents are so vulnerable that even short-term or moderate drinking can impair memory, learning, information recall and socialization.
Others believe that despite the fact 18-year-olds are considered adults, they still are not mature enough to handle alcohol or consider the consequences. In addition, adversaries of lowering the age argue that lowering the drinking age to 18 will only therefore encourage children 17 and younger to drink, and that whatever the age, there will always be kids who will abuse alcohol.
There are, however, valid arguments from enthusiasts. Many believe that alcohol expenditure has been made taboo and turned into a prohibited topic, therefore resulting in curious youth wanting to take part even more. Furthermore, if kids fear they cannot tell their parents they may be experimenting with alcohol, they will instead sneak around, increasing the risk.
"I think the drinking age should be lowered because if it is lowered, there will no longer be an urge to explore the forbidden values in search of some late night entertainment," UC Riverside student Kyle Maudlin said. He said that instead, drinking will lose a crucial part of its appeal because it will become more of a routine recreational activity. "As suggested by Sir Thomas More in ‘Utopia,' giving jewelry to kids will have adults regard the jewels as childish," Maudlin said.
Some also think it will decrease the number of students who take part in "binge drinking," or heavy consumption of alcohol over a short period of time, as well as promote more responsible youth, because they will at a younger age be able to drink with adults who may offer better models.
Both sides agree that further education on alcohol and its possible consequences should be a priority in schools. One program already in place, Every 15 Minutes, focuses on high school juniors and seniors, challenging them to think about drinking, driving, personal safety and the responsibility of making mature decisions.