Leo Brian Schafer
Catholic Values Columnist
The vast majority of the world has the age where one can legally purchase alcohol set at 18. All of Europe, much of Asia, South America, and much of Africa all concur: 18-year-olds are physically and emotionally mature enough to have the responsibility to drink.
Why is the United States an outlier? Why can you be sent off to war, pay taxes, smoke and sign legally binding contracts, but not drink? Wouldn’t it be better if the U.S. were more uniform with the rest of the world’s general understanding of alcohol?
There are convincing arguments on both sides, but I believe that the answer is clear. The U.S. should not amend the legal age to purchase alcohol.
First, let us address some history. Before July 17, 1984, states were allowed to set their own purchase requirements. Many had the age set at 18, a few as young as 16 and a handful at 21.
After a spate of particularly nasty traffic accidents involving drivers under the influence of alcohol under the age of 21, the federal legislature was spurred to action.
As a part of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, passed unanimously by the House of Representatives and by an 81-16 margin in the Senate, it was mandated that a requirement for receiving federal highway funds was a statewide purchasing age of 21.
This brings me to my first argument. The current situation is in place to combat traffic accidents and DUIs. Alcohol-fueled traffic fatalities fell by a third, and the NMDAA has saved over 30,000 lives since implementation according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Services Administration.
Yes, it is true that countries with a minimum age of 18 or lower have even lower rates of DUI than the United States, despite that lower minimum age. This point, however, is merely a correlation that does not evidently suggest a causation.
Indeed, it suggests deeper cultural differences surrounding alcohol. Alcohol has been an integral part of European culture for millennia, even serving as subsistent food at certain points in history. It is totally normal for a German family to accompany a meal with a beer, or an Italian family to finish dinner with a glass of red. But for the most part, that is where it stops. There is simply no culture of binge drinking at all.
Compare this with the drinking culture in the U.S. For many people, mainly in the 18-21 age bracket — the ages effected by the proposal — it is simply unthinkable to stop at one drink. Or two. Or three.
In order to safely and in good conscience lower the national age, we must first address the glaring cultural problems with youth drinking. It is evident that currently, underage drinking, specifically the prevailing culture of binge drinking, is inseparably linked to alcoholism later in life.
Cultural change fundamentally must come before legal change, and that cultural change must start in the home.
Indeed, many states have sought to encourage this. There are exceptions in nearly every state’s laws for drinking in the home, supplied by parents or legal guardians.
This closely mirrors the culture in most European countries, where families gather together and drink responsibly. There is almost no chance of things getting out of hand, and no chance of the situation leading to a DUI.
More importantly, the current laws help instill a healthy culture of drinking that will allow us to safely lower the age to 18 or lower in the future.
I have no principle of opposition to keeping the purchase age 21. In fact, I am in favor of lowering it to 18. But the key qualification is “not yet.” Lowering the purchase age now would only serve to make things worse. Lowering the purchase age now would only throw vodka on the dumpster fire of binge drinking and driving under the influence.