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The Legal Drinking Age: 18, 21, or 25?

Debates over the age of legal drinking in the U.S. are a common occurrence, especially at times of the year when it comes into the spotlight, like during spring break and around graduation. Many people think our Puritanical ways are responsible for a drinking age that is higher than in European countries and that this leads to more rebellious behavior. The argument is a regular one, but did you know that some people also advocate for a higher drinking age? There are many reasons to be on either side of the debate.

Lower the Drinking Age to 18

Too often, casual proponents of lowering the drinking age give emotional and unsubstantiated reasons for allowing 18 to 20 year olds to drink. Some of the favorite arguments include the fact that many people this age drink anyway, in spite of the law, and that if younger people were allowed to drink they would be less rebellious and secretive and more responsible.

What is certainly true is that many underage people drink, and some drink excessively. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, drinking by those under the age of 21 is a serious public health problem. In the U.S., 11 percent of all alcohol consumed is by youths between the ages of 12 and 20, and 90 percent of their drinking is done while bingeing. On average, these young people drink more in one sitting than adults do. A 2009 survey conducted by the CDC found that in the 30 days prior to the study, 42 percent of high school students had consumed some amount of alcohol, 24 percent binged on alcohol, and 28 percent drove with someone who had been drinking.

Many proponents of a lowered drinking age blame the above behaviors on the fact that drinking is a taboo for most young people and, therefore, an act of rebellion. They also cite society’s attitude toward drinking as more of an issue than the drinking age. As Americans, our society treats drinking as a way to relieve stress, as a fun element of society, and rewards the irresponsible behavior that follows from binge drinking.

If the drinking age were to be lowered to 18, young people would perhaps feel less compelled to drink in secret and to binge while doing so. They would be allowed to drink in bars and restaurants where behavior, as well as the amount consumed, can be regulated.

While it may be absolute fact that young people drink and flaunt the age restrictions, evidence that raising the drinking age would negate dangerous behaviors is limited. A lowered drinking age would need to be accompanied by shifts in alcohol education and the manner in which society in general treats alcohol consumption.

Raise the Drinking Age to 25

Those on the other side of the issue are prone to the same sentimental reasons for keeping kids from drinking even longer. The statistics do not lie and they are scary. That young people drink so much may be related to the drinking age, but some believe that the restriction should be raised even higher, to the age of 25. Many proponents of this idea cite the excessive drinking, not of high schoolers, but of college students.

On college campuses, it is rarely a prerequisite to be of drinking age to find and consume alcohol. Parties and fake identification lead to plenty of drinking among the first, second, and third year students who have not yet turned 21. According to the Core Institute, almost 73 percent of college students drink at least sometimes, and the average male freshman in college drinks an average of 7.4 alcoholic beverages per week. Nearly one third of college students have missed a class because of drinking, and one fifth failed an exam for the same reason. Almost 90 percent of sexual assaults on college campuses involve alcohol.

The facts regarding college alcohol use are straightforward. Because there is a mix of underage and of age students on campuses, the alcohol flows rather freely. If the drinking age were to be raised to 25, most students on campus would be underage, and as some hope, it could curtail the excessive drinking and resulting negative consequences.

As with the arguments for lowering the drinking age, these seem reasonable, but untested. Whether the age limit should be lowered, raised, or remain the same, will undoubtedly continue to be debated and the right answer may be difficult to find.

There is still hope.

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