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February, 2005

YES! This is not as Quixotic as it seems: five Vermont legislators co-sponsor a bill to lower the state's drinking age to 18, fully cognizant that this will cost them $10 million in federal highway funds! Its a matter of logic and reasonableness, says one of them. "Its hypocritical.

I'm an Adult Now

Reckon I'll get some mail on this one. Just do me a favor: read the whole thing first.1

When I was 19, I discovered Conowingo. Back in the late 1970s, around the time when I'd had my first beer (a Genny Cream pounder) and decided I wanted a lot more of them, I was living in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, with my parents. The drinking age in Pennsylvania was 21. But in Maryland, a coincidental 21 miles away as the crow flies, the drinking age was 18. The booze was also quite a bit cheaper. 

As you can imagine, Conowingo, Maryland, just four miles over the border and the first town on the main road south from Lancaster, was crowded with  bars and liquor stores. They weren't anything to look at, but they would sell beer to me and my friends after they checked our IDs. We were legal! We would buy pitchers of Stroh beer for $3.50 and scarf them all night long as we listened to a honky-tonk band that pretty much sucked except for an old guy who was a genius on the steel guitar.

And when the bar closed, we would get back into someone's parents' car, and drive home. Drunk. Because you know...when we were in Maryland we could drink as much as we wanted without having to look over our shoulders. We'd pack it in, because who knew when we'd get to have another blissful draft of cold beer in such freedom. And then we'd take the winding back roads home -- sticking to the windiest back roads to avoid the cops -- and somehow, somehow, we never met the fate of some of our cohort: smashed against a tree, crushed under a truck, slammed into each other, wrapped around a telephone pole. When I think back on how little consideration we gave to those consequences, just to get out where we could have a couple of beers...I shudder in the closely avoided chill of the angel of death.

Which is why I ask you this month: why not lower the drinking age to 18?

Sound crazy? Well, you know my answer to that one. But it all ties together. Let's think about it.

I've actually been meaning to write about this for quite a while. But I wanted to get my facts straight. I wanted to find breakdowns on how much of the widely trumpeted numbers on "underage drinking" actually represent drinking by 18 to 20 year olds (I suspect it's a lot of it). I was looking for a split on underage drunk driving arrests along that same line (found that one, and I'm right, there are a lot more 18-21 year olds than 16-17 year olds2). I wanted to get a lot of numbers like that...but I can't find most of them. It's almost as if someone doesn't want us to see that truth. Maybe this will flush them out, if someone who knows where to find this stuff reads this, but I couldn't wait any longer.

Let me explain. Argument #1: What's so Dangerous About A Glass of Beer?. Why do we lock up alcohol until the age of 21? At the age of 18, an American is an adult. They can take a full-time job, they can get married, they can have children, they can rent an apartment, they can get a mortgage (okay, they can apply for a mortgage), they can own and drive a car (at 16!), they can buy a handgun, they can buy cigarettes, they can shoot pool in public, they can sign a contract, they can get a passport, they can get a hunting license and legally carry around high-powered rifles, they can join the military and fight, kill, and die for our country overseas, they can (they must) pay taxes, they can (and should) vote, they can run for political office, except the Presidency. All this they can do, without the permission of their parents, at the age of 18, but they cannot walk into a bar and buy one stinking, lousy glass of light beer, they cannot get so much as a watered-down Jack and Coke at a dancehall. Hell, they can't even go to the beer store and buy a six-pack to take home to their dad. Does that seem right? Does it even seem reasonable?

Argument #2: Forbidden Fruit. The argument runs like this: if you deny something to a teenager or a young adult, you make it that much more alluring. "YOU MAY NOT HAVE A BEER UNTIL YOU ARE 21!!" How are you going to react to that? I'm going to want to find out what the big fuss is all about. I think this one is valid, but it's iffy. Different kids will react differently. A factor, but not a solid one. 

Argument #3: It's a Different World. It's true. When I was underage, it was the 1970s. Drunk driving was still a subject of mirth. I remember hearing drunk driver jokes on the radio. Underage drinking wasn't the subject of much hand-wringing. I went on a band exchange trip to a school in Massachusetts during high school where the host school parents were organizing a kegger for after the concert, knowing that 15 and 16 year olds would be there. And if the kids down to college drank, well, they drank, so did we, makes a man out of you, blahblahblah. 25 years later, the whole social tenor has changed. The effects of MADD, SADD, the push for the designated driver, the so-called Center for Science in the Public Interest3, the 0.10 and now 0.08 BAC driving laws...things have changed, and the roads, the bars, the hearts and minds of parents are all a lot safer. People take drunk driving a lot more seriously (good!) and pay a lot more attention to underage drinking. So...it's a safer world for 18 to 21 year olds to drink in.

Argument #4: Graduated Entry. I already told you about discovering the differences in legal drinking ages at the Maryland border when I was growing up. When I was already legal, I went to grad school in Washington, DC. I wound up renting dorm space at a women's college...long story, buy me a beer sometime and I'll tell you all about it. The interesting thing was that DC, at the time, had a two-level drinking age: 21 for liquor, 18 for beer and wine. Because of that, the women's college had a pub in the basement of one of the dormitories (not mine, unfortunately) that served beer and wine. The girls could go there, they could take dates there, and drink beer or wine, dance, watch TV, and hang out. It was a very good thing, because the kids got experience drinking in a social setting, they didn't have to drive or even take public transit, there were no predatory types around. 18 for beer and wine sounds like a great idea to me; you have to work at getting seriously drunk on beer or wine, and the bartender, a good bartender, can keep an eye on you more easily.

Argument #5: Unsupported Arguments. Keg registration is the latest unsupported argument that is sweeping the nation. Here's how the argument goes. "Whenever anyone buys a keg, make them give personal info backed up with valid ID, charge them a hefty deposit, and limit the time they have to get the keg back. Stick a tag on the keg and make it criminal to remove or deface it (never mind that the paper tags will almost certainly be defaced if the keg is in a tub of ice and water). This way if the cops raid an underage drinking party, they'll know who supplied the keg and be able to arrest them for giving beer to minors." Well, you already know what I think about that one. It doesn't work! Keg sales dwindle to nothing because it's too much of a pain for anyone to buy a keg, 30-pack and beer ball sales skyrocket, and nothing changes except the amount of litter at underage field parties.

So why do these laws continue to get passed? Because they sound good. Because rational-sounding arguments can be made for them. Because so many legislators find it impossible to vote against an idea that 1)doesn't cost them anything; 2)makes them look like they're solving a problem; or 3)is supported by someone who says "If it just saves one life, it will be worth it." Well, it does cost you something -- police attention distracted from drunk driving prevention, for one -- and it doesn't solve anything, and...how do you know it saved one life?

That's really the crux of my whole argument. We don't know that raising the drinking age to 21 saved any lives. There are so many factors involved that it would be impossible to know: states went to 21 at different times, other changes took place in the drinking laws, different states enforce the laws differently... Any real scientist would take one look at such a snake's nest and just walk away4

So how do we know that raising the age to 21 didn't cause more deaths of young adults? I'm cold serious here. Remember my drunken runs home from Conowingo. You may think that raising the drinking age to 21 everywhere solves that problem -- they don't have anywhere to drive home from -- but it doesn't. There are still those drinking havens for 18 to 21 year olds -- they may not be legal, or permanent, or openly acknowledged, but they exist: the pasture over the hill, Joey's parents are away, that unfinished house in the new development, the back of Rebecca's car, whatever. 

As long as young adults are kept outside the legal, social, personal systems for controlling alcohol consumption -- the bar, the restaurant, the liquor store -- they are going to binge when they have the opportunity (Why savor and sip? Alcohol's a drug: their government, teachers, and parents told them so) , and then someone's going to drive home drunk. Hey, as long as it saves one life, it's worth it, right? 

Tell me this: whose life is being saved? Go back to argument #1. If you tell these people that they're adults in every single way but one, and for that one little glass of beer they've got to wait three years...Do you really think they're not going to drink? They will. I say it's better to admit they're adults, and to put them fully into the system where they can be helped to learn how civilized people drink. I believe that there'd be a lot less binging...but I don't pretend to be able to prove it. I can't, I don't have the research grants and shrieking anti-alcohol weenies to back me up. 

But I do think it's an idea that is worth being debated. Debated honestly, openly, and fairly. And if anyone comes to that debate and starts the hysteria about saving the children...I want to take them by the back of the neck and drag them down to the tree on the way home from Conowingo that has claimed the lives of about 8 adults...who should have been legal, and should have been drinking moderately in their hometowns, not driving drunk and scared over 30 miles of winding back roads. Who should have been alive today. And then maybe we can get back to honest and open debate.

Start the debate. Let's start treating alcohol like adults -- and treat our kids like adults, too.

 

 

1Except these footnotes. They're just for fun, really.

2And there's a really interesting footnote in this report.5 It refers to an approximate number of 169,000 for underage drivers who had been nailed for DUI (alcohol OR drugs) in the previous year, but then says: "This excludes an estimated 38,000 persons who reported they had been arrested and booked for DUI in the past year but indicated elsewhere that they had not driven under the influence of alcohol or drugs in the past year." Anyone else ever been concerned about the veracity and clarity -- not to mention general intelligence -- of teenagers taking these damned polls about drinking? 

3But you have to look at this website, too: CSPI: Not Scientific, and Not in the Public Interest.   And this one: CSPI Scam. And what the hell, this one, too: UNDUE INFLUENCE: CSPI.

4But not these guys

5You know, you start reading all these damned "reports," and you feel the need to start footnoting everything. Sorry.

 

Copyright 2008 Lew Bryson. All rights reserved. 
Fee required for reprints in any commercial media.
Revised: April 27, 2005