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Pros and Cons of Lowering the Drinking Age

Updated June 25, 2021
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Pros and Cons of Lowering the Drinking Age essay

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The drinking age in this country has been set to 21 years of age since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in 1984 (Centers for Disease Control). This seemingly arbitrary age was chosen with the intent to make it harder for young people to purchase and consume alcohol thus lowering the amount of young people drinking and driving. When one turns 18, they can enlist in the military, vote, and buy tobacco. If we trust a young person to fight overseas and vote for the President of the United States, then why are they not allowed to consume and purchase alcohol?

It appears to be hypocritical. Those opposed to lowering the drinking age cite the growth still occurring in a young person’s brain from the ages of 18-25 years old. Therefore, the consumption of alcohol can negatively impact the way one’s brain develops. One thing we can all agree on is that the goal of the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) is to keep our young people safe. Keeping the drinking age at 21 helps to protect young people from themselves as well as those around them.

The argument to lower the drinking age is rather simple. Once someone turns 18 in this country, they are considered a legal adult. For the government to feel as if they could make this subjective change in 1984, based on lobbying from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), and enforce a different age for legal drinking feels like a governmental overreach and over regulation. When one reaches the age of 18, they are legally able to register to vote for the Commander in Chief of our nation’s military and one of the most powerful leaders in the world but, they cannot have a beer while they watch election coverage in November.

When one reaches the age of 18 they can go to far off lands, put their lives on the line for our nations freedom, see horrific carnage and lose some of their best friends but, when they come home they cannot have a drink and swap war stories with friends and family. It is important to note that the reason states have not changed from the MLDA law set forth in 1984 is because any state that enforces a lower MLDA will forfeit 10% of their federal highway funding (Keen).

This threat to the states funding incentivizes states to make the legal drinking age 21. In USA Today Judy Keen writes that several states were looking into changing the legal drinking age for military members. “Legislation in Kentucky, Wisconsin, and South Carolina would lower the drinking age for military personnel only.”

State Representative Fletcher Smith stated, “If you can take a shot on the battlefield, you ought to be able to take a shot of beer legally.” State Representative David Floyd, whose proposed bill would have applied to troops stationed in Kentucky 18 or older, said it is “common sense to recognize as full adults the young men and women who serve in the military.” It is easy to understand why these Representatives can feel this way.

It seems insincere to allow men and women to enlist in the military and face many dangers that most people cannot even dream of, yet they are not mature enough to know how many beers to drink and be responsible. To think that these highly trained men and women who must make split second decisions on rules of engagement in high tension environments cannot decide when they need to call a cab to get home rather than drive drunk seems ludicrous and far-fetched. Are there outliers and exceptions to this? Yes, there are.

However, just like the military polices themselves on a whole host of issues under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Commanding Officers and their subordinates would be able to police and train responsible drinking across the entire force. While this idea would not lower the drinking age to 18 for all Americans it would serve to close a loophole of the hypocrisy that is the legal drinking age. As Representative Smith stated if an 18 year old can put their life on the line for our country they can come home and have a beer.

In 2014 the World Health Organization did a study on the MLDA of 190 countries around the world. Of the 190 countries surveyed 61% have a drinking age of 18 or 19 years old (“Minimum Legal Drinking Age in Other Countries”). Only 12 countries have a drinking age of 21. Côte d’Ivoire, Equatorial Guinea, Iraq, Kiribati, Micronesia, Mongolia, Nauru, Oman, Palau, Samoa, Sri Lanka, and the United States (“Minimum Legal Drinking Age in Other Countries”). Not exactly what you would think of when you think of countries on par with the US in terms of developed nations. So why do other developed nations such as England, France, and Italy have a MLDA of 18 years old?

They do not fantasize alcohol in those nations the same way that Americans do. It is not a taboo subject for teenagers to dream about partaking in to feel rebellious. They are introduced to alcohol at an early age and by the time they turn 18 they are usually still under the supervision of their parents due to them still living in their parents’ home. This gives them the ability to learn how to drink and use alcohol responsibly without this giant 21 year old birthday bar hop looming over their head like their American counterparts.

The consumption of alcohol would become normalized. Were the US to adopt the European model of alcohol use it would be much less of a faux pas for a child to have a drink under the supervision of family. For a young teen to have a glass of wine at a large family gathering, or to have a beer with their father while watching a sporting event. Were the US to adopt this ideology of alcohol it would be much more normalized in our society rather than glorified into this large, glorious milestone that one reaches on their 21st birthday and the earlier mentioned obligatory bar hop around the nearest downtown/metropolitan area.

Alcohol is a drug and is not something that we can allow children under the age of 21 to take part in. Kids who begin drinking before age 15 have a 40% chance of having their brain “wired for alcoholism” (“Effects of Alcohol on Teens: Physical, Mental & Emotional”). Among 12-17 year old’s who are current drinkers 31% exhibited extreme levels of psychological distress and 39% exhibited behavioral problems (“Effects of Alcohol on Teens: Physical, Mental & Emotional”).

These types of psychological and behavioral issues are issues that no countries younger population should have. People can also agree that when alcohol is not used responsibly it can be dangerous no matter their age group. In 2012 there were 3.3 million deaths or 5.9% of all global deaths related to alcohol consumption across all age groups (“Alcohol Facts and Statistics”).

In 2018 26.45% of adults reported that they engaged in binge drinking within the last month (“Alcohol Facts and Statistics”). All people understand that binge drinking is risky behavior and can not and should not be condoned. However, it happens and will continue to happen no matter how normalized or educated the population is on alcohol use and the side effects of it. Everyone agrees that alcohol is dangerous when not used responsibly and the statistics appear to bear that out. The one job all parents have is to keep their children safe. Everyone in a society carries this responsibility.

There have been countless studies done on the human brain and the amount of time that it takes the adolescent brain to fully develop into the adult brain that is able to make quality decisions while understanding the impact of those decisions both on themselves and those around them. In a study done by Frances Jensen, former head of the Harvard University Neurology Department, it appears that the human brain does not fully develop until their mid-20’s (McMahon).

The prefrontal cortex which governs our decision-making ability is only halfway developed after puberty is over around the age of 18. Jensen writes in her book The Teenage Brain: A Neuroscientist’s Survival Guide to Raising Adolescents and Young Adults that the brain is continuing to develop in drastic ways through a human’s teenage years and into their 20’s and 30’s (McMahon).

As neurologists understand brain matter it is split up into grey matter and white matter. Grey matter are the building blocks of the brain and are normally fully developed by 6 years of age (McMahon). However, the white matter, which includes the axons that interlink all the grey matter in the brain, is only 80% complete by the age of 18. The prefrontal cortex discussed earlier is the last portion of the brain to be “hooked up” with white matter (McMahon).

The introduction of alcohol before this portion of the brain is more developed can lead to an underdeveloped prefrontal cortex through the destruction of the white matter. The adolescent brain is in a critical learning stage as well. Therefore, it is critical for humans to learn many skills that we commonly use in adulthood at this age as it is much easier to learn and remember these lessons. According to Jensen, “Learning is the process of repeatedly exposing the brain to something that stimulates the production of dopamine, which strengthens connections in the brain’s reward centre and helps form new memories” (McMahon). This is what eventually leads to addiction.

Jensen says, “addiction, therefore, is simply a form of “overlearning” by the brain” (McMahon). This process can be controlled by the prefrontal cortex but due to the underdeveloped nature of the prefrontal cortex in teens and the prefrontal cortex being primed to learn new things teens are premier candidates to develop addictive behaviors. Not only can alcohol impact an 18 year old’s prefrontal cortex but it can have long lasting effects on the hippocampus region of the brain that controls long term memory (McMahon).

With this region effected the 18 year old brain will have trouble retaining learning topics over the long term. It is naïve to believe that an 18 year old will not share alcohol they can legally purchase with their younger friends. Studies show that teens who start drinking before 15 years of age are four times more likely to become alcoholics than their peers who wait until 21 to drink (McMahon). Why would it make sense to make it legal to allow a young person whose brain is in such a critical developmental stage to poison their brain with a drug such as alcohol. If the human brain is not fully developed by age 18 and in fact nowhere near full development, then placing trust in these young people to make coherent decisions to use alcohol safely is setting them up for trouble.

Overall, there are many intricacies to the discussion of lowering the drinking age to 18 but in the end, everyone just wants young people and those around them to be safe. There are definite reasons why it would make sense to lower the drinking age to 18, and for certain individuals such as military personnel it may make even more sense. We allow 18 year old’s to vote in all of our elections, they can buy as much tobacco as they want, enlist in the military and die for their country, and they can be sentenced in court as an adult and go to prison with fully grown and mature adults.

Many other countries around the world have lowered drinking ages to 18 years old and seemingly do not have the same amount of alcohol related issues as America. However, it is hard to go against the science. Does it make sense to argue with studies done by neurologists stating that young people’s decision-making complex in the brain is not developed until their mid-20’s? Do we want a generation of individuals with damaged prefrontal cortices and hippocampi? No of course not. If the goal is to keep young people safe, then the only logical choice is to keep the drinking age at 21 years old.

Works Cited

  1. “Alcohol Facts and Statistics.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 18 Feb. 2020, www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/alcohol-facts-and-statistics.
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21 Saves Lives.”, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 7 Jan. 2020, www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/minimum-legal-drinking-age.htm.
  3. “Effects of Alcohol on Teens: Physical, Mental & Emotional.” Talk It Out, 19 Nov. 2019, www.talkitoutnc.org/teenage-drinking/effects-alcohol-on-teens/.
  4. Keen, Judy. “States Weigh Lowering Drinking Age.” USA Today, 21 Mar. 2008. EBSCOhost, web.b.ebscohost.com.whccd.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=cd5ed483-ae1f-41ef-a098-6f6b2464960b%40pdc-v-sessmgr06&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#AN=J0E015704909308&db=a9h
  5. McMahon, Tamsin. “Inside Your Teenager’s Scary Brain.” EBSCOhost, West Hills Comm College – Lemoore Campus -, 12 Jan. 2015, web.a.ebscohost.com.whccd.idm.oclc.org/ehost/detail/detail?vid=2&sid=d69cee0f-a42d-46b3-9d24-afad8ad3293a%40sdc-v-sessmgr01&bdata=JnNpdGU9ZWhvc3QtbGl2ZQ%3d%3d#db=a9h&AN=100185141.
  6. “Minimum Legal Drinking Age in Other Countries – Drinking …” Procon.org, 10 Mar. 2016, drinkingage.procon.org/minimum-legal-drinking-age-in-other-countries/.
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