Ailts: Reconsider our minimum legal drinking age

The current minimum legal drinking age is too strict and arbitrary to foster a healthy culture around alcohol.

Ellen Ailts

As a legal adult, you can join the military, sign a contract or rent an apartment, but you cannot legally purchase or consume alcohol until the age of 21. Lawmakers in Wisconsin may soon change that, having proposed a bill that lowers the state’s drinking age to 19. The bill comes from Republican state Reps. Adam Jarchow, Cindi Duchow and Rob Swearingen, and was proposed partly in the hope that a lower drinking age, one that allows college students to legally consume alcohol, would end the need for, as Rep. Jarchow described, “countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars” spent on the enforcement of drinking laws. This is especially true on college campuses, where underage drinking is a given — the figures on how many college students who consume alcohol range from about 60 to 80 percent.  

Besides saving money and time enforcing underage drinking laws, lowering the drinking age could also be a turning point in America’s alcohol culture. Nearly three Americans in 100,000 die of alcohol consumption per year. In Italy, the ratio is 0.37, though the legal drinking age is 16; in the United Kingdom, 1.70, with a legal drinking age of 18; Australia’s rate is 1.43, with a legal drinking age of 18. In the 1970s, Australia changed its legal drinking age to 18, and alcohol consumption in Australia has declined by 25 percent since the 1970s. The United States is only one of six countries with a legal drinking age of 21, with 18 being by far the most common. 

The drinking culture in the U.S. is often unhealthy, especially among young people. The minimum legal drinking age, or MLDA, being 21 creates a kind of “forbidden fruit” culture around alcohol, causing young people to drink in unregulated environments and decide among themselves what “normal” drinking habits look like. In countries where the drinking age is lower, young people more frequently consume alcohol in environments like restaurants, family functions and other, more constrained social situations where they observe alcohol being consumed responsibly. 

In college, alcohol culture is not so much informed by these kind of “safe” environments. Instead, we just have stressed-out college students drinking as much as humanly possible, trying to relish in the few nights per week when they’re “allowed” to drink. If alcohol just became a normal part of life, taught by example from a young age to be enjoyed in moderation, college drinking habits would naturally become less frenzied and rebellious. 

The underlying point of this fact is that the current MLDA is ineffective anyway. Alcohol consumption has already become so normalized and widespread on college campuses that the MLDA is essentially obsolete and only serves to force the behavior into private environments, which create unsafe situations where young people experiment with alcohol and risk disastrous consequences. By working to alter our alcohol culture — not only by lowering the legal drinking age, but through teaching by example how to enjoy alcohol responsibly — we could see widespread positive changes, on college campuses in particular. 

By exposing the problems of underage drinking, we could see negative consequences of college drinking, like fake ID misdemeanors, sexual assault, alcohol poisoning and other alcohol-related injuries, diminish and potentially even save lives as a result.