Why the drinking age is 21, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the law.

“Everyone drinks before they are 21.” “In Europe kids start drinking early.” “Teens just drink because it’s illegal – if it wasn’t illegal, it wouldn’t be as appealing.”

You’ve heard these arguments at some point – maybe even made them yourself. And it’s hard to respect laws and policies you don’t understand or that don’t make sense to you. The quotes above are myths; lowering the minimum legal drinking age has negative consequences here and in Europe. Yes, some people drink before they turn 21, but the fact is that the younger a person starts drinking, the higher their risk of developing alcohol dependence.

Because of all this fancy developmental stuff in our brain, when we are 18, 19, 20, or even 21, we have a hard time figuring out what’s risky. We might objectively know something is risky, but would anything bad ever happen to us? Nooooooooo. Never! (Yep, that’s sarcasm, friends.) You see, the part of our brain that controls judgment isn’t actually fully formed until we’re about 25. And guess what part of the brain alcohol affects? Yep – the part that controls judgment. That’s why people sometimes make decisions while drinking that they wouldn’t make if they were sober, like calling my ex-boyfriend (whoops!). Not only does it affect judgment, but drinking alcohol while your brain is still developing can affect learning and memory. Remind me again why you came to UNC? (Something about a degree…)

I know what you’re thinking – kids in Europe start drinking as teenagers and they’re fine, right? Well, actually, a whole bunch of research studies have found that young people in Europe self-report higher rates of binge drinking (that’s dangerous!), higher rates of intoxication and of alcohol related problems such as trips to the ER than we do in the US. Go America! Another thing – European teenagers are less likely to drive or have cars than American teenagers. Check out the link at the bottom of the page if you don’t believe me.

Here’s how it went down: in the late 60s and early 70s, about half the states lowered their minimum drinking age to 18 and what happened was pretty shocking. Drunk driving crashes and alcohol-related deaths among young people shot way up in those states. Once they raised it to 21, drunk driving crashes and alcohol-related deaths among young people went down. Some number gurus at the National Traffic Highway Administration figured it up and calculated that setting the drinking age at 21 has saved about 900 lives per year. Add that up and it’s more than 25,000 people alive today. I know, I know, you would never drink and drive. But even if you swear on your grandmother’s macaroni salad recipe you’ll never drink and drive, you are still taking a risk by drinking if you are under 21. Remember that stuff I said earlier about your brain? No? Yikes!

Even the American Medical Association says setting the minimum drinking age at 21 is a good idea. They say, “A higher minimum legal drinking age is effective in preventing alcohol-related deaths and injuries among youth. When the drinking age has been lowered, injury and death rates increase, and when the drinking age is increased, death and injury rates decline.” At least 50 studies confirm this. Hard to argue with facts like that.

Source: http://www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/physician-resources/public-health/promoting-healthy-lifestyles/alcohol-other-drug-abuse/facts-about-youth-alcohol/minimum-legal-drinking-age.page

One thought on “Why the drinking age is 21, or how I learned to stop worrying and love the law.

  1. dawntreader3 April 14, 2011 / 8:13 am

    I agree that setting the legal drinking age to 21 is probably a good idea. It would seem though, that if this is the case, we should also bring the legal age for joining the U.S. Army etc. to the age of 21. After all, if one is not responsible enough to drink at the age of 18…how can society at large consider handing over an M-16 to an 18 year old?

    But we do, and something doesn’t seem right about it.

    In promoting health and wellness, I would say that neither drinking under the age of 21, nor carting around an M-16 etc. is conducive to one’s wellbeing.


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