Let’s Discuss Lowering the Legal Drinking Age

It has been years since any state seriously considered raising the age at which it is legal to drink. But it’s notable that for decades that age was not near what the mark is today in all states. Most would consider it folly to make an attempt to lower the legal drinking age. And I understand that. But I’m not one of those who think it is a bad idea. And now it appears that there are others who also don’t think it is a bad idea

Last Thursday, Representative Todd Rutherford of South Carolina introduced House Bill 4512. If passed, it would lower the legal age in South Carolina for drinking and purchasing alcohol to 18 years of age. His rationale is familiar:

His reasoning is impeccable. There is nothing about moderate alcohol consumption that is any more dangerous for an 18-year-old than going to war. Voting responsibly presumably requires a higher caliber of maturity and thoughtfulness than putting back a beer while watching the Clemson Tigers. And Being responsible for paying back thousands of dollars in loans must require a higher level of personal responsibility than enjoying a Manhattan in advance of consuming a dinner of Riblets at Applebees.

To my knowledge, every state in the U.S. has a legal drinking age of 21 due primarily to the 1984 National Minimum Age Drinking Act, which declared federal highway funds would be withheld to any state that did not raise its legal drinking age to 21. The blackmail worked.

The year prior to the passing of the Minimum Drinking Age Act, only 11 states had a legal drinking age of 21, the majority of other states put the legal age to drink at 18 or 19 years old.

But it’s not as though the United States does not stand in good company today with its 21-year-old drinking age. Those other countries not banning alcohol consumption that also have a 21-year-old drinking age include:

Indonesia
Bahrain

Kazakhstan
Pohnpei and Yap ( 2 of 4 Federated States of Micronesia)
Palau
Samoa
Solomon Islands

Egypt
Oman

Quatar (but only if non-muslim)

Every other country in the world that does not ban alcohol consumption has a lower legal drinking age than the U.S., with the vast majority of states pegging it at Representative Rutherford’s proposed 18 years of age.

Just looking at the response to Representative Rutherford’s tweet concerning his bill, it appears there is not considerable support for his proposal. As one Twitterstan citizen noted, “no one is asking for this”. And this is true. There does not appear to be any significant call among South Carolinians for a lower drinking age.

Some point to Representative Rutherford’s various alcohol-related campaign contributors and have suggested that House Bill 4512 was introduced in the service of their bottom line. But this seems unlikely. This contingent of producers and wholesalers that have contributed to Representative Rutherford’s campaigns are unlikely to ask for such a heavy lift given its very small chance of actually succeeding.

The primary argument against lowering the drinking age is the loss of federal highway funds. But this isn’t a real argument, but rather a reaction to states’ dependence on federal funding. But Representative Rutherford, anticipating this objection, had a response:

“Now is the time to do this. Between the existing state budget surplus, all the money that Joe Biden has sent us, and the economic growth that will come as a result, we can afford to do this.”

 

The other arguments against lowering the legal drinking age revolve around death and development. The Center For Disease Control notes all the health and safety impacts of raising the legal drinking age to 21.

But the health and safety case for keeping the legal drinking age in the U.S. (including South Carolina) does not address Representative Rutherford’s most compelling argument for raising lowering the drinking age:

“This is a personal freedom issue. If you are old enough to fight for our country, if you’re old enough to vote, if you’re old enough to sign on for thousands of dollars of student loans for a college education, then you are old enough to have a drink”

Returning to Twitterstan, it’s notable that some of those responding to the Representative’s “personal freedom” argument insisted that perhaps it is time to raise the legal age for joining the military to 21 also. I don’t have a response to this idea for the same reason I don’t have a response to the idea that the best way to fix the disparity among groups who are represented in advanced academic classes in K-12 is to eliminate the advanced academic classes.

If I were a betting man, I’d lay money that this bill does not even get a hearing in committee, let alone pass into law. Yet both should happen for exactly the reasons that the Representative provides. So, I have a couple suggestions for Representative Rutherford.

1. Place the legal drinking age at 20, not 18
What’s a one-year difference? Moreover, lowering the legal drinking age forces opponents to make a much narrower argument, allows for a “test”, of sorts, to occur around the legal drinking age question, and still moves the state of South Carolina to a more freedom-oriented posture.
2. Lower the BAC Level as you lower the Drinking Age

It’s notable that the vast majority of European countries have an 18-year-old legal drinking age. Yet, the majority also do not have higher rates of drunk driving or alcohol abuse issues (then there is Greece) than the United States. However, most of these countries also have a lower maximum blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for their drunk driving laws.

It would be fascinating to see how either of these proposals play out. In the end, I don’t think either would pass. Inertia is a powerful force and the determination that a higher legal drinking age has been pushed upon Americans for 40 years. It would take a wave of libertarianism to was over the country for the inertia surrounding higher drinking ages to be washed away. However, I think both of these proposals get the conversation started in a more realistic way. And I think the Representative knows his proposal is likely to flounder.

Still here is me raising my glass to Representative Todd Rutherford of South Carolina for taking a righteous and bold stand on the issue.

4 Responses

  1. Nicolas Mendiharat - November 14, 2021

    I like Rutherford pushing the lines here and your reaction to this (particularly lowering the BAC) but it misses 3 points in the arguments:
    1. The legal age to purchase alcoholic beverages might be 21, but we all know what happens in private homes or college parties. Would the limit go down to 18, the real question would be whether that would increase real consumption under 21. Not to mention fake (age) IDs used widely throughout the country. The point addressed should be the hypocrisy around consumption between 18 and 21.
    2. In many states like Florida or California, IDs are not checked at the restaurant if you order a glass of wine. So again it’s a matter of hypocrisy, enforcement of the law and reality.
    3. CBD is legal is many states at 18. So the 3rd hypocrisy here is to consider you would be less intoxicated by CBD than drinking a glass of wine or one cocktail (in moderate consumption of course).

    The best approach would be calling out those hypocrisies and through teenagers education of the damages and risks alcohol can do to you if you drink too much. That is the bill which should be on the table.

  2. Dean Stergides - November 15, 2021

    I think that there is an argument to be used in lowering the drinking age which is the following: in a democracy when something needs to be changed there is usually a constituency that mobilises and lobbies for that change. In this case, though, this constituency i.e. people between the ages of 18 and 21, is in constant flux. By definition it cannot be a constituency because it is in constant change, as those primarily concerned by the ban leave the age group relatively quickly. By the time they organise and mobilise they are already outside the group of interest. Therefore the law can never change because those most affected by it cannot realistically hope to get together and change it. Is this not unjust, indeed, unconstitutional? The counterargument allowing for others (adults?) to decide in lieu of this age group in their “interest” does not stand given that they are legally adults. Is this not an infringement on personal freedom?
    P.S. I live in Greece and I do not get the reference to it in your article.

  3. acv - November 15, 2021

    Has the coerciveness in the National Minimum Age Drinking Act ever been argued constitutionally before SCOTUS? There was a state’s rights argument that was debated in the Senate “Humphrey, (R-NH) amendment offered positive incentives to states that complied rather than threatening them with penalties, such as loss of significant funding, to those that didn’t” Lautenberg, (D-NJ) amendment passed with broad bipartisan support. It should be noted that “Nowhere in the Constitution has the power to regulate the sale and consumption of alcoholic beverages been delegated to the Federal Government.”

    If you untie funding, you can perhaps begin experimenting with the legal drinking age policy. A couple of points I would note.

    One thought is that the act of coming of age is synonymous w/ getting your driver’s license in America, and this is significant b/c that’s not always the case for young adults in the rest of the world. The first objection will be the rise of alcohol-related accidents and fatalities among this newly liberated population. The question was when it dropped after the Act passed was it ALL the result of the change in drinking age…. or was it a combination of this Act and stricter enforcement of seat belt laws at the time

    What further should be noted is that when the drinking age was raised to 21 this population (18-21) went underground in unsupervised places like dorm rooms, fraternities, etc. The law had the effect of preventing lives lost on the highways only to have it replaced by lives lost from alcohol abuse hiding from the law.

    And that’s the next point often raised concerning drinking driven underground and behind closed doors when an emergency arises, medical or physical, b/c those involved have broken the law they are less likely to call for help an EMT, or in the case of violence the Police. Again, the problem is alcohol abuse not just the downstream effect of drunk driving.

    One last thought not often considered. Why is it illegal to drink outside? Europe and the world largely don’t have these strict policies – public transportation maybe…but not always. The effect of a culture that drives drinking into the shadows makes it more appealing to the youth looking to break some social taboos. The recklessness of binge drinking, and engaging in extreme drinking games happens b/c the youth is driven out of the public eye for fear of violating an open container law.

    Lowering the BAC to 0.5. Adding alcohol education as suggested mandatory curriculum in high schools across the US …and then let’s join the other 150 odd countries across the world that allow 18-year-olds to have a beer…get married, smoke weed…. serve their country, legally vote, etc….and in America change your gender.

  4. Dean Stergides - November 15, 2021

    Excellent points, especially the one you raise about drinking outside. In Greece, as in most other wine-producing countries, children learn how to manage alcohol very young and that is why it is not considered such a big deal when they actually reach the legal drinking age. It is true, too, that being drunk in public is shameful in Greek culture, so that helps a lot as well.


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