I don’t think that it’s the drinking age that necessarily matters; it’s the mentality around drinking that needs to change, especially in the United States.
According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, over 50% of youth under the age of 21 have had at least one drink. While the Institute does not specify what “one drink” is, they also reported that, in 2018, 7.1 million people under the age of 21 had had alcohol beyond just a few sips in less than a month, indicating that those people probably became drunk or were drinking in a similarly unhealthy manner. Why is this problem so prevalent in our society?
Alcohol is not an evil in itself; after all, Jesus’ first miracle was to change water into wine, and he used wine at the Last Supper as the medium through which he gives us his precious blood. The mindset of alcohol being an evil stems from the Puritans, which led to the idea being engrained within American society from its roots.
That idea sprouted again in the early 20th century when the 18th amendment was ratified, forbidding the sale of alcohol after temperance societies advocated for a “dry” America.
However, prohibition did not stop people from drinking or illegally selling alcohol, and some states did not even bother to enforce the law. Prohibition made alcohol something thrilling since it was illegal, which developed further the idea of alcohol as taboo.
Prohibition affected at what age youth should be allowed to drink, and many states after the re-legalization of alcohol set the drinking age at 21.
However, after the ratification of the 26th amendment in 1971, which lowered the voting age from 21 to 18, the drinking age also was lowered to 18 in some states. However, not even 15 years later, advocacy groups called for the legal drinking age to again be 21 in order to reduce the number of car crashes and deaths related to drunk driving on the newly developed highways.
While this did somewhat reduce the number of crashes related to alcohol, it did not do so to the rate of other countries, which have had a lower drinking age and a healthier drinking mentality from the start.
Today, traffic accidents involving alcohol in America remain higher than countries with lower drinking ages such as Germany, China and Israel.
So, it does not seem that the drinking age being higher is the fix for the problem, since countries with a lower minimum legal drinking age have fewer accidents every year on the road than in America. In addition, drunk driving can occur at any age, 18 as well as 40, so raising the drinking age is not a strong solution to the problem of drunk driving.
It’s not the physical drink that is the problem; the issue lies in the mindset and attitude towards drinking. Americans have a “party culture” idea about alcohol, an idea that other countries with lower drinking ages do not have. And despite the lower drinking ages, other countries do not have a taboo mindset and do not experience as many alcohol related issues because of the cultural difference from America.
One thing that interested me when I traveled to Germany was the fact that beer was cheaper in restaurants than water. It’s such an integrated part of German culture to drink beer that the idea of having a higher drinking age that prevents youths from experiencing that part of their culture is absurd to them.
A study published in 2010 that the Boston University Medical Center ran on Italian youths found that children who grew up drinking alcohol with their meals at home in a healthy environment were less likely to develop harmful drinking habits as teenagers. It is a part of Italian culture to drink alcohol, especially wine, at meals. None see alcohol as something to be afraid of; instead, since they teach children how to properly drink, there is not an issue with unhealthy drinking habits.
Drinking alcohol comes with enormous responsibility, and learning how to handle that responsibility comes primarily from the home and the family. Sadly, a large number of teens grow up in unhealthy situations with alcoholic family members.
So regardless if the drinking age is 18 or 21, if youths do not learn how to drink responsibly at home, they often learn in other less controlled environments with often health or life-endangering consequences.
The mindset continues to build, leading to an increase in unhealthy drinking habits that do not have large impacts in other areas of the world. It’s not like 21 is the magical maturity age where, after three years of being able to vote, join the army, own a gun or live apart from the family, youths will suddenly understand how to drink properly.
Respect needs to start in the home and in society. Having a high drinking age and a taboo mindset around alcohol discourages that respect to grow, leading to an increase in alcohol-related issues in American society that does not exist to such an extreme elsewhere.