I would like to respond to Joe Roche’s column, “Students worse off from 21-and-up law” (Tuesday). I am a graduate student in the School of Public Health working in alcohol prevention. Roche’s arguments are common, but they are grounded in emotion, not fact. Roche suggests that our “righteous” lawmakers designed the 21-and-up law to marginalize those under 21 and punish them for their immaturity. Luckily, our lawmakers were influenced by solid research when they passed the 21-and-up law. Here are just some of the arguments and facts I’m sure they considered, and we too should consider, when looking at underage drinking.
Roche begins with a common argument that those under 21 are responsible and mature enough to drink. While certain individuals may be, the huge body of research in underage drinking consistently shows that underage youth account for a disproportionately high percentage of health problems associated with alcohol. One reason may not even be irresponsibility, but the fact that alcohol affects those under 21 differently than it affects adults. Although students under 21 may look mature, their bodies are still developing. Because of this, they actually get drunk from less alcohol than a person in his or her twenties. To make matters worse, students often binge drink, as Roche has observed, which has a more serious affect on them than it would on someone 21 or older.
Roche proceeds with the common “forbidden fruit” argument, which suggests that by regulating alcohol for those under 21 we are actually making it more appealing and causing them to drink more. But again, research does not support this idea. In fact, legal access at age 18 is associated with higher rates of drinking later in life. And when the drinking age is 21, those under 21 tend to drink less and continue to drink less through their early twenties and beyond.
His next argument is that the 21-and-up law forces underage students to drink in unsafe, unsupervised settings. But studies show that when the legal age is lower than 21, teens buy most of their alcohol in liquor stores because it’s cheaper than in the bars. After buying the alcohol in a store, they consume it in homes, cars and parks where there is no control. Even assuming they did drink in bars, there is nothing to suggest bars are either safe or supervised. After all, a bar’s main objective is to make money from the sale of alcohol. It seems highly unlikely that a business whose livelihood depends on the sale of alcohol is best prepared to ensure the safe, regulated consumption of alcohol. This theory is supported through research that shows many underage drunk drivers report having obtained alcohol from a bar.
Roche goes on to discuss his “fun and safe” drinking escapades in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. Roche was lucky that it was fun and safe. I lived in Washington, D.C., and know that many of the young people who drink in Georgetown bars drive in from the suburbs just like they do here in the Twin Cities. When they’re finished drinking, they get back in their cars and drive home. There is absolutely nothing safe about this practice. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for young adults, and alcohol is involved in one-third of these crashes. An average of 11 American teenagers die every day in alcohol-related crashes.
And the problem doesn’t end with car crashes. Numerous studies show that underage drinking increases the risk for sexually transmitted diseases, unplanned pregnancies, suicide, drownings, committing crimes and becoming victims of sexual assault. Before we lower the drinking age, we need to ask whether we want to increase these problems on our college campuses.
Another argument Roche uses is that minors will find alcohol regardless of the laws. This is true, however, far fewer will drink. The 21-and-up policy has resulted in a dramatic decrease in the amount of consumption of alcohol and has reduced six types of fatal injuries for young people including car crashes.
We also must consider that there is always some trickle-down effect. When the legal age is 21, then 19- and 20-year-olds can often obtain alcohol. When the drinking age was 18 or 19, then 17- and even 16-year-olds were often able to get alcohol. And, 18- and 19-year-olds are even more likely to buy alcohol for younger teens than are 21-year-olds. There will always be some people who break laws, but this doesn’t mean we should condone the illegal behavior of a few by modifying the law.
Roche ends his piece with a familiar cry: “If I’m old enough to vote and die for my country, I am old enough to drink.” But one right has nothing to do with another. Many rights have different ages of initiation. A person can obtain a hunting license at age 12, drive at age 16, vote and serve in the military at 18 and serve in the U.S. House of Representatives at 25. Other rights we regulate include the sale and use of tobacco and legal consent for sexual intercourse and marriage. The minimum age for initiation is based on the behaviors involved and must take into account the dangers and benefits of that behavior at a given age. Any social benefits of drinking for those under 21 are greatly outweighed by the numerous health problems.
Roche and others should keep in mind that laws are designed to protect our entire community. We do not live in a vacuum. Our actions affect others. Drunk driving already costs our country more than $10 billion a year. In Minnesota, more than a third of our police budgets go toward addressing alcohol-related incidents.
If we lower the drinking age, who will pay for all this “fun” Roche claims he and other students will have? Are we prepared to lose even more young lives to the problems associated with underage drinking? I think not.
Carolyn Rosenfeld is a graduate student in the School of Public Health and is a research assistant in the division of epidemiology.