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Should We Lower the Legal Age for Drinking?

Photo by: Greg Gorman

Posted: Mar 17, 2009 2:25pm ET

France is considering raising its drinking age. Should we consider lowering ours?

A bill under consideration would raise the legal drinking age in France from 16 to 18 for wine and beer, according to published reports. Some analysts believe it has a good chance of passing.

In the U.S., of course, the legal drinking age is 21. But many – including myself – believe it should be lowered to 18.

There are many sides and angles to what constitutes a safe legal age for consumption of alcoholic beverages. For me, if 18-year-old men and women can serve in the army, and fight and risk their lives in combat, then they too should be allowed to drink wine and beer at that age.

There is also the issue that the current laws in the U.S. are merely circumvented—that is, if young people want alcohol, they can get it. I’m not suggesting alcohol be available to people under 18 (though there are plenty of people under that age who drink). But it has to do with the current laws being unenforceable.

Vivienne Sosnowski reminds me of this, as I've just read her excellent book on Prohibition, When The Rivers Ran Red : How California's Legendary Winemakers Survived Prohibition (Palgrave Macmillan, $26.95, 256 pages), about when wineries were forced to dump their wines. It’s a great read that’s due for publication later this year, and I plan to review it soon.

One of the main themes is that by effectively banning the production and sale of alcoholic beverages, our country set out to enforce an unenforceable law. And in the process of implementing those laws, we made criminals out of people who made wine for their livelihood, which led to many fines and jail terms and created layers of corruption within law enforcement.

In our country, many of us have tried to educate our children about responsible drinking and that too should be a central part of health education.

I'm curious about how you line up on the drinking age question. Should the legal age in our country be dropped from 21 to 18, and why or why not?

Leslie Hauser
Calgary —  March 17, 2009 3:47pm ET
I live in a Province in Canada where the drinking age is 18 and I would support the lowering of the U.S. drinking age to 18 as well.
Josh Woodward
March 17, 2009 3:51pm ET
Absolutely - you're an adult at 18. You can make your own decisions.
Bryan So
CA —  March 17, 2009 4:32pm ET
I'm impartial. But I think driving age should be raised.

David Tietz
Columbus, OH —  March 17, 2009 5:01pm ET
I agree. Living on a college campus, as much as local stores enforce the age to purchase, the age to consume may as well be 18. Even the local police & campus security are very lax in their enforcement of underage drinking. They are VERY strict about DUI, however, which is where the enforcement should be. I waited until I was 21 to start drinking wine, but wish I could have sooner.As a future pharmacist, I would also like to see the age lowered to potentially cut back on binge drinking- if people 18-20 can drink legally, it takes much of the thrill out of overindulging when they know they're not supposed to but can.
James Rego
Redding, Ca., Shasta County —  March 17, 2009 5:03pm ET
I agree that it should be 18 years; primarily , for the reasons you outlined. At 18 you are considered an adult and legally responsible for your actions.
Brad Smith
Napa, CA —  March 17, 2009 6:01pm ET
In ALL other legal respects they are full citizens of the nation. An 18-year-old can drive, vote, marry, use tobacco, be drafted - you name it, but they can not enjoy alcohol? It makes no sense, legally or otherwise.
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  March 17, 2009 7:33pm ET
its an issue of a cut-off value -- as if there is some meaningful difference in maturity between a person who is 20 yrs 364 days and 21 years 1 day. The real issue is how we approach ETOH in this country that leads to the youthful binge drinking that causes so much harm
Aaron Eyler
Edison, NJ —  March 17, 2009 7:53pm ET
I often find this debate fascinating as I seem to waffle based on a number of factors. If the drinking age is lowered then it brings about a huge cultural shift in the way that our teens would perceive maturity and accountability. I would be more inclined to support a legal drinking age of 19 for a decade or so and then lower it again to 18. I know that most people would argue the slower decline would be irrelevant, but hear me out on this one. If the legal drinking age is immediately lowered to 18, there will be a higher percentage of students that are in high school gaining access to alcohol simply because their drinking-eligible friends are still in school with them (rather than at college where there is another whole slew of problems). I am completely aware that students in high school will still have a means of getting their hands on alcohol, but forcing a slight divide might limit the effect of ¿open season¿ on under-age drinking that, I would hypothesize, would occur with an immediate, speedy descent. I just feel that when taking on these paradigm shifts, we can deaden some of the negative impact that occurs from rushing, rather than hybridizing, into these situations.
Frank L Hugus
Danville, CA —  March 17, 2009 8:06pm ET
I agree. Having grown up in NJ where the age was 21 it was only 20 minutes over the Outerbridge Crossing to Staten Island,NY where the age was 18. Finally turned 21 while serving in the Navy on Guam of all places where the age was 18! Go figure.
John Burman
Jupiter, Fl —  March 17, 2009 8:39pm ET
As an airborne infantry squad leader with the 82nd I led 18 year olds in combat in Iraq. I can promise you that they are plenty mature and more mature than many of my over 30 friends. It is an arbitrary age from a bygone era, like so many state shipping laws.
John Jorgenson
Seattle, —  March 17, 2009 9:19pm ET
I think . . . no. Maybe they could obtain a learner¿s permit where they could partake in a supervised situation, but not the ability to purchase alcohol and drink on their own. While they are "considered" legal adults and do have many of the liberties and responsibilities as such, it is still the parent in many situations that is held responsible financially in most cases for the harm done while under the influence. Most 18 to 21 aged young adults are still on the parents insurance and many still reside at home. I believe the law looks at those issues when dealing with any case where any kind of damage has occurred and they frequently indict the parents as well as the young adult in order to get the financial assets to cover the loss, and sometimes no amount of money could make their loss more endurable. I would love to start allowing my grandchildren to participate in the pleasures of fine wine somewhere around the age of sixteen, but I wouldn't want them going out with their friends after graduating from high school and tying one on . . . legally. What additional consequences might there be? Might we experience an increase in rape? Or might there be an increase in unplanned pregnancies? How about a doubling in the cases of fetal alcohol syndrome? Maybe if they gave it a trial run in a few states where underage drinking has been a problem anyway and gather some data to support a lowering of the legal age I would be more supportive, but I am among those who would resist until such evidence is convincing.
Craig Mason
March 17, 2009 10:53pm ET
Been there. Done that. 21's where it needs to be.
Tim Fish
Santa Rosa, CA —  March 18, 2009 12:02am ET
I've always thought the real issue in this debate is deciding when you are considered an adult. Pick an age, whether it's 18 or 21, and that's it. Then you're entitled to all the benefits and dangers and complexities of adulthood, just don't muddy the waters.
Michael Golliday
March 18, 2009 2:16am ET
"Did you really think that we want those laws to be observed?" said Dr. Ferris. "We want them broken. You'd better get it straight that it's not a bunch of boy scouts you're up against - then you'll know that this is not the age for beautiful gestures. We're after power and we mean it. You fellows were pikers, but we know the real trick, and you'd better get wise to it. There's no way to rule innocent men. The only power any government has is the power to crack down on criminals. Well, when there aren't enough criminals, one makes them. One declares so many things to be a crime that it becomes impossible for men to live without breaking laws. Who wants a nation of law-abiding citizens' What's there in that for anyone? But just pass the kind of laws that can neither be observed nor enforced nor objectively interpreted - and you create a nation of law-breakers - and then you cash in on guilt. Now that's the system, Mr. Rearden, that's the game, and once you understand it, you'll be much easier to deal with."

- Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged
Tony Aukett
Chicago, IL —  March 18, 2009 9:46am ET
James, as the (formerly British) father of a 16 1/2 year old, this is a big issue for me. The deciding factor is whether I want him to go off to college where he will be without any adult supervision without having any experience of alcohol. If he could have alcohol around his home town I believe this is a much safer place to be initiated.
James Laube
Napa, CA —  March 18, 2009 11:31am ET
Thanx, Michael, and Tony, helping navigate your children into adulthood is challenging at about every turn!
Mark Lewis
Napa —  March 18, 2009 1:02pm ET
I think driving should be raised to 18 and drinking could be lowered to 18. Lowering it would remove the "forbidden fruit" aspect of drinking, which I think would then result in losing its lustre. You can be a nurse or paramedic and administer narcotic pain relief prior to age 21, but you are not allowed by law to buy alcohol at that age. It does seem kind of ridiculous. Put it on a ballot and let the voters decide. I bet you would see a large young voter turnout for this issue.
Michael Myette
Sacramento, CA USA —  March 18, 2009 3:26pm ET
A devil's advocate point of view: Speaking as a pediatrician, I have to interject that the younger a person starts habitually drinking, the more likely they are to develop a problem. This is not so much an issue about liberty, as it is about public health. The libertarian in me says that someone can do to themself whatever they want, but we keep hard drugs illegal (or controlled) because the high rate of addiction to them makes access ultimately DECREASE one's liberty if one should become addicted. There is a large body of literature to support the notion of earlier access and higher rate of abuse/addiction. If we move toward nationalized healthcare, we all will pay for the public health consequences of this expanded "liberty". Just food for thought.
Michael Eacrett
Los Altos, CA  —  March 18, 2009 6:49pm ET
If someone can be deemed to be mature and responsible enough to vote, fight for their country, buy weapons and be able to make major decisions for their children/health/etc at an age below the drinking age then something is quite wrong. By defining the drinking age as 21, we are effectively restricting freedoms of mature people. It will be an interesting debate to get this changed. Alcohol, unfortunately, is one of those "lighting the touch-paper" topics in America.

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