Minimum drinking age of 21 €˜‘saves lives’

Report also dispels notion that a lower drinking age in Europe helps adolescents learn responsible drinking habits

A student drinking beer at the Pub, an on-campus bar at St. Mary’s College in Maryland.
Linda Davidson/The Washington Post via Getty Images

A three-decade-old federal law raising the nation’s minimum legal drinking age to 21 “saves lives,” a report said Monday, despite a continued push by some to lower the minimum age limit for alcohol consumption.

William DeJong, a Boston University public health professor and an author of the study, told Al Jazeera it’s a “widely believed myth” among Americans that a lower drinking age in Europe helps adolescents learn responsible drinking habits early on.

A 2011 study mentioned in the report showed that 36 percent of high school sophomores in the U.S. said they had been drunk in their lifetimes, compared with 47 percent in Europe. A 2003 study showed “heavy alcohol use” was more prevalent among youth in 35 European nations than in the United States.

After the drinking age nationwide rose uniformly to 21 (from 18) in 1988, there were 5 to 9 percent fewer deaths among drivers ages 18 to 20, according to one study cited in DeJong’s report.

DeJong’s study notes that in 2006, a nonprofit organization, Choose Responsibility, was formed to repeal the 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act, arguing that the older minimum drinking age drove more college students to abuse liquor in secret.

Choose Responsibility members, at one college conference where DeJong was present, asked students about their study-abroad experiences in Europe. Many said their European counterparts in countries with lower age limits drank more responsibly, he said.

“In fact, the opposite is true,” Jan Withers, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, told Al Jazeera, citing DeJong’s study. She called his work the most comprehensive synthesis of the 1984 legislation’s public effects to date.

Withers said a common misperception is that U.S. drinking-age laws make alcohol consumption a kind of forbidden fruit for American youth.

“Social enhancement — that’s more of a motivator to young people than reacting to the forbidden fruit,” Withers said.

Improvement is gradual, but Withers fully supports the current age limit, along with 77 percent of U.S. adults ages 18 or older, according to a 2007 Gallup poll. Withers’ daughter, Alisa, died when she was 15, driving in a car with inebriated schoolmates.

According to a University of Michigan study cited by DeJong, the number of college students who reported having five or more drinks in a row in the past two weeks dropped from 43.2 percent in 1988 to 36.1 in 2011.

Choose Responsibility did not respond to an interview request. But the Libertarian Party told Al Jazeera that it opposes the federal legislation mandating the drinking age at 21.

The 1984 act that prompted states to raise their minimum legal drinking ages withholds a percentage of highway funds from states that have a drinking age under 21. Not surprisingly, every state now has a minimum drinking age of 21.

"The federal government is not authorized under the Constitution to be involved in regulating the use of alcohol,” said Carla Howell, political director of the National Libertarian Party.

“Yet they have effectively bribed the states by offering highway money in exchange for raising what used to be a drinking age of 18 to 21. This is unconstitutional and should be left up to the states.”

DeJong dismissed Howell’s assertion that the minimum drinking age act is unconstitutional, noting that the legislation prompting the current limit was pushed by then-President Ronald Reagan, a Republican and a champion of states’ rights.

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