21 It’s the law, but is it fair?
By James Fuller
If the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was a person, it would likely be headed out to a local bar tonight to celebrate.
Today is the 21st birthday of the law enacted by President Ronald Reagan that tied the drinking age to federal transportation dollars. States that didn’t set their minimum purchase age at 21 lost their federal road money.
The idea was to help put the brakes on drunken driving deaths among 18- to 20-year-olds – those most likely to be in alcohol-related accidents.
Twenty-one years later, government agencies and substance abuse groups say the law has played a key role in saving thousands of lives. But youth rights groups, armed with studies from sympathetic college professors, tell a different tale of self-destruction brought on by a discriminatory law.
As the United States continues to send young people overseas to fight wars, some lawmakers are beginning to show signs of bending to the argument of “old enough to die for the country, old enough to drink.”
Wisconsin is considering lowering the drinking age for military personnel. Vermont Gov. James Douglas has voiced support for lowering its drinking age to 18 if it passes the state legislature.
If either change happens, it’ll be the first sign America is learning from a longstanding failure, Arlington Heights native Brad White believes.
A senior at the University of Missouri-Columbia, White is a former staff member of the National Youth Rights Association.
“I don’t think our kids can learn responsibility by just giving them alcohol and saying ‘OK, be responsible’ when they hit 21,” White said. “You don’t hand a kid a car at 16 and tell them to go drive. You have to teach them.”
Driving is a key component of the issue, with statistics cited on both sides to show the law has been both a success and a failure.
From 1993 to 2003, nearly 60,000 drivers under 21 in Illinois were arrested for driving with some amount of alcohol in their blood systems, according to the secretary of state’s office. Drivers under 21 are still the single largest group involved in alcohol-related deaths.
That only counts the number of people who were caught.
“It does point to a problem with underage drinking,” said Brad Fralick, adviser to Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White on DUI issues. “No one is disputing that underage drinking is going on. But no matter which end you’re looking at, the law has certainly been a success.”
The proof of success is in the 1,000 lives the drinking age has saved every year, said Susan McKinney, executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in Illinois, where the drinking age was made 21 in 1980.
MADD and other like-minded groups also cite numbers that show fewer young people are drinking now than in the mid-1980s. And while drunken driving deaths for the under-21 set still occur, they are happening less frequently than when 18-year-olds could buy alcohol.
Susan Wishnetsky is the secretary of Chicago-based Americans for a Society Free of Age Restrictions and believes those numbers are a product of selective memory.
“They single out particular age groups and particular periods of time that make their case and ignore others,” she said. “What they don’t mention is that the decrease in drunk driving has covered all age groups and accidents.”
Seat belts, air bags, safe-driver courses and alcohol education programs are all factors contributing to lower numbers over the years. So spotlighting the age increase as the sole reason simply isn’t fair, she said.
The argument comes down to civil rights versus human health.
The main support for why the drinking age is 21 versus 18 or any other age is medical research. The human brain doesn’t stop developing until the early 20s. Drinking regularly before then can kill brain cells that never come back, said Sara Moscato, associate director of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association.
“It wasn’t an arbitrary number by any stretch of the imagination,” she said.
Alex Koroknay-Palicz, executive director of the National Youth Rights Association, refutes that notion.
“Almost every other society and country around the planet has a lower drinking age than the U.S.,” he said. “If the entire rest of the world is drinking before 21, and realistically, most Americans are as well, then all of us are brain-damaged.”
The 21 law has also created another problem seen more broadly during the age of Prohibition, said Ruth Engs, a professor of applied sciences at Indiana University.
“The bottom line is the 21-year-old purchase law has caused more problems related to alcohol abuse than it has prevented,” she said.
Engs points to the forbidden fruit syndrome, which, she said, “has caused young adults to rebel against something they feel they are entitled to. If they can die for their country, vote, get married, sign contracts, why shouldn’t they be allowed to drink?”
In Illinois, 18-year-olds can also buy cigarettes, get a hunting license and own an assault weapon. The criminalization of drinking under 21 compared to those other rights is exactly why people under 21 end up in the hospital for trying to down 21 shots on their 21st birthdays, Wishnetsky said. It’s also why some youths binge-drink in secret before they turn 21.
“If you’re going to commit crimes, you’re not going to do it moderately,” she said. “They figure they’re already criminals, so they might as well behave like them. It’s also a matter of opportunity. If it’s more difficult to obtain alcohol, then once you get some, you have to take advantage of it to the fullest.”
Few groups, if any, seem to advocate raising the voting or driving age to 21. The only solution to make the drinking law fair, youth rights groups say, is to lower or eliminate the age restrictions – and then trust parents and teens to make responsible choices in controlled situations.
In other words, don’t allow 12-year-olds to buy a six-pack on the way home from middle school, but do allow a beer at home with Mom and Dad. At the college level, allow drinking in local bars and university-sponsored events, but no kegs in dorm rooms.
Achieving a lower drinking age, whatever the parameters, is not without a price tag.
Lowering the purchase age in Illinois, or any other state, means forfeiting federal transportation dollars. For Illinois, that would have cut a nearly $64 million hole in the state’s purse in 2004.
That chunk of cash represents an abuse of federal power in the eyes of Bill Olson, executive vice president of the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois.
“The biggest thing here from our standpoint is that this is the law of the land, and the federal government passed legislation that blackmailed the states into doing this,” he said. “It’s a controversy that’s really beyond us as an alcohol beverage industry. It’s for policy makers to decide.”
Policy makers will continue to be pushed from both sides. Youth rights groups will watch Wisconsin and Vermont to begin a chain reaction of change.
“If alcohol is bad, and I believe that it is, then alcohol is bad for all people,” Koroknay-Palicz said. “We believe alcohol is a problem and a vice, but the reason that we’re in on this issue is equality. You can’t single out young people. It’s not fair.”
Meanwhile, MADD and substance abuse groups will continue to chip away at the ways youths circumvent the age law.
Bars are the next frontier, said Moscato, of the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association. Far too many college town bars allow admission at 18, all but guaranteeing such customers will drink illegally once inside, she said. Keeping 21 the minimum purchase age is key to attacking addiction problems and giving parents a basis to push responsibility with their children and show them alcohol isn’t necessary to have a good time.
“Maybe the 21 law isn’t fair, but I don’t know that I’m in the business of being fair when it comes to saving lives,” Moscato said. “I’m not the fair queen. So I’m sorry if it’s not fair, but it’s right.”
Key dates in drinking age laws
Jan. 1, 1980: Illinois establishes 21 as the minimum drinking age.
July 17, 1984: President Reagan signs National Minimum Drinking Age Act, which cuts off highway funds for states that don’t set 21 as minimum drinking age.
Sept. 12, 1986: New state law revokes all driving privileges for a year or until driver turns 21, whichever is longer, for any person under 21 convicted of a second DUI.
Jan. 1, 1994: New state law suspends driving privileges for one year for drivers under age 21 caught illegally transporting alcohol. Driving privileges are revoked on the second offense.
Jan. 1, 1995: Illinois institutes “Use It & Lose It” law. Drivers under 21 caught with even a trace of alcohol in their systems lose their driving privileges.
Jan. 1, 2003: Local liquor commissioners ordered to report to the Secretary of State any conviction of a person under age 21 who buys, accepts, possesses or consumes alcohol. A violation results in a one-year suspension or revocation of driving privileges.
Source: Illinois Secretary of State
Other alcohol-related offenses
– Providing alcohol to a person under 21
– Parents or guardians allowing underage consumption of alcohol
– Hotel/motel employees renting rooms to someone under 21 and knowing alcoholic beverages will be consumed there
– A person 21 or older paying for a hotel room or facility knowing alcoholic beverages will be consumed there by underage individuals
Penalties: All of above are considered Class A misdemeanors with possible imprisonment for up to 1 year and fines of $500-$2,500. In addition, people over 21 paying for the hotel/motel room are liable for injuries or property damage caused by underage drinkers.
Source: Illinois Secretary of State
– Alcohol is the No. 1 drug of choice for youths.
– Alcohol kills more young people than all other illicit drugs combined.
– In 2003, 2,283 people ages 15-20 were killed in alcohol-related traffic crashes, accounting for 36 percent of all traffic fatalities.
– All states prohibit possession and purchase of alcohol by those under 21, but 14 states allow consumption.
– Nearly 10 million drinkers in the United States are between the ages of 12 and 20.
Sources: Mothers Against Drunk Driving, U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services