General Question

kheredia's avatar

Do you think the legal drinking age in the U.S. should be 18, given the fact that we are considered adults and are legally responsible for our actions at 18 years of age?

Asked by kheredia (5561points) May 20th, 2011

Why is it that in the U.S. a person is allowed to do pretty much anything, including going to the military and potentially killing somebody, at age 18, but they can’t drink legally until they are 21? If we are considered adults at 18 years old, why is alcohol the exception?

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42 Answers

zenvelo's avatar

Experiments by various states in the 70s to have a lower drinking age was considered by many to not lead to any responsible drinking by 18 to 21 year olds, and encouraged drinking by those 16 -18. After many many young people died from alcohol related incidents, Congress passed laws banning federal highway tax sharing with states that allowed drinking under age 21.

Much of the higher age limit was driven by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD); the law was signed by Ronald Reagan.

DominicX's avatar

I first drank alcohol when I was 15; somehow I doubt that lowering the drinking age to 18 would have made me want to start at 12, but I don’t know. If the studies say that, then I can’t exactly argue with that. In which case, I would be against lowering it if it encouraged even younger kids to start drinking and causing accidents.

However, whether or not the drinking age should change, there should be no damn draft/conscription at all (or it should be raised to match the drinking age on principle). I can be forced to die for my country but I can’t drink a beer? Fuck that.

everephebe's avatar

In the U.S, it should be 25.

Roby's avatar

I think it should be about 45. Hopefully maturity has set in by that time.

Thammuz's avatar

Started drinking at 14, actually been drunk only once, and I was 19 by then (mind you, 14 is the legal limit here).

Having 21 as the legal limit for drinking is just the kind of bullshit Americans seem to love so much like the age of consent for sex being 18 (yet somehow 16 for a driving license, go figure).

American stereotype voice:
“Why drinking is a corrupting and debasing activity! It is debauchery and should not be engaged in by anyone who’s not old enough to go kill some foreign civilians, potentially traumatising him for life! And why on God’s green earth should I not be allowed to sue and send to jail this dastardly 19 year old boy, who is still too young to have a beer, for having sex with my age appropriate 17 year old daughter? He should be killing foreigners and driving cars, not partaking in a natural act of love and affection! I mean, I can entrust someone even younger than my daughter with a vehicle that can severely injure and kill both those inside and outside of it, but I can’t be asked to trust them to make their own decision regarding their own bodies! that would be insane!”

Seriously, though, those are some fucked up priorities. (And I’m just joking, so please don’t take this piece seriously)

Nullo's avatar

@Thammuz The age of consent (and probably those for alcohol and tobacco) varies from state to state. California’s is 18, and since they produce the media that goes overseas, they project the image of 18 being a national standard age. By contrast, Arkansas (I think) sets the age at 14.

FluffyChicken's avatar

If we can send an 18 year old kid to die in Afghanistan, he should be able to have a beer.

laureth's avatar

Society is safer when the drinking age is 21 (link). If the reasoning behind changing it is so that people who “could go” to Afghanistan (or wherever) can have a beer, then perhaps we could lower the age to 18 for people with an active military I.D. – that way, those who actually do have the responsibility may engage in the reward. ;)

Thammuz's avatar

@Nullo Hm, I didn’t know that. Are the various states really that different in matters of legislation?

woodcutter's avatar

It’s easy to teach an 18 yr old to properly handle an M-16. Impossible to do the same with alcohol. Can’t be done. When I was 18 it was legal to buy and drink alcohol and I was almost killed so many times because of drinking it gives me the willies just thinking about it. There are tons of ways for teens to socialize without drinking.

Thammuz's avatar

@woodcutter. – ”

Sorry, I’m living proof of the contrary. I’ve been drunk only once in my life (because of a badly mixed drink, and I had to drink half a litre of it) and, among the people with which I regularly go out drinking, the one who has been drunk the most has been drunk maybe 5 times, and all on special occasions, like passing a test in a subject he was struggling with or something like that. We’ve all been drinking since we were 14, I started drinking with them when I was 16.

It’s just a matter of education, I’ve never been told not to drink too much, it was always implied that just as I should avoid eating 5 hamburgers I should also refrain from showering in alcohol.

laureth's avatar

@woodcutter and @Thammuz – Rather than arguing that “it’s impossible to teach 18 year olds” or that “you’re proof of the contrary,” is it possible to admit that people are all kinds of different, and that some people are responsible and some are not responsible? Because there are so many people, though, we have to create some kind of blanket policy, else we risk chaos. So we pick the policy that keeps the most people safe.

woodcutter's avatar

@Thammuz Well ,its all in the odds that when teens get involved with alcohol it will sooner or later turn out badly for them or somebody they have never met. Are there some who don’t abuse? possibly but they are an anomaly that society can’t depend on. But we all know that the law is easy to break by anyone so really we can only hope most people obey and refrain from doing wrong. The odds thing is why I can get auto insurance for a heck of a lot less than a teenager.

Thammuz's avatar

@laureth Sure we can, if only I could find any statistics on that subject that didn’t involve the US alone I would gladly consider the point.

Working from a single cultural premise (The USA’s) which, as data shows, is not exactly the best one as far as living standards go, is not exactly a good way to prove a point. I would be decisively sold on the issue if, say, countries with a higher living standard than the US, like Norway (18 for beer and wine, 20 for anything above 22% ABV), Sweden (18 for drinking, no limit for buying anything under 2.25%, 18 for anything above but subject to the seller’s preference, i.e. shops decide if they want to set a higher age), Switzerland (18), Canada (18/19 depending on the state), etc. all had a higher MLDA, or even vice versa, and if you could link me to such a study i would be more than glad to concede the point but, by the looks of it, that doesn’t seem very likely.

@woodcutter Correlation =/= causation It’s not the only reason, though it surely is a concurring factor. Even assuming no teenager would ever break the law about drinking and driving, they’re still much more inexperienced compared to a grown adult who has been driving since he was a teenager.

skfinkel's avatar

No. Drinking and driving is a recipe for death—even without legal alcohol too many teens die driving. No, no, no.

laureth's avatar

@Thammuz – I had assumed that since the questioner was asking about U.S. law, the discussion was about the drinking age in the United States. Perhaps in other cultures, there are different expectations for young, drinking-age adults which are taken into account by those young people. Many times, laws in a given country evolve to meet the needs of that country, not of other countries near or far.

kheredia's avatar

I’ve seen plenty of irresponsible adults who drink and drive. I really don’t think it’s an age thing. I person can be in their forties and still get a DUI. I just question why it’s okay for 18 year olds to go to war but not be able to have a drink (legally that is because we all know they drink anyway).

zenvelo's avatar

@kheredia That argument was used in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s to lower the voting age and the drinking age in some states, mostly because of the draft. With an all-volunteer army, that argument loses its strength. But I would support @laureth‘s idea of allowing active duty service men to buy alcohol at a PX or in a bar.

DominicX's avatar


It still bothers me that when I turned 18, I had to register for selective services, for the possibility of being conscripted into the military, yet at that same age it was still illegal to drink alcohol. The principle of it is a bit on the absurd side. Of course, my solution is rather than lower the drinking age, we can just abolish conscription, but that’s another story…

woodcutter's avatar

Sure there are older people who get hammered and drive, They probably started drinking when they were young and took off from there. They are being shitheads. They are bad enough. On the premise that 2 wrongs don’t make a right I think adding 18 yr olds to the mix is a bad idea. I mean who wants to be on the road with any drunkards at large? A car smashing into you is going to do damage whether the driver is a teen or someone older. Who needs it? It’s only 3 more years to 21so its not like a life sentence worth of a wait.

Thammuz's avatar

@laureth I know the question asks about the US, but you have to realize that, unless you want the US not to ever evolve, the US is not a good measurement standard for itself. Just like Italy is not a measurement standard for Italy. You need to look outside your country to see if your conclusions, i.e. that higher a MLDA is necessary to obtain the benefits your article mentions, are correct because you can’t see what your society looks like with and without that law at the same time.

Think about it: since the time you instated the fixed MLDA for all states, that is not the only social change that happened. An entire generation, by now, grew up in a nation that was well aware of the fact that alcohol can be very dangerous regardless of your age, for instance, and i doubt that the law has not been supported by extensive social awareness programs, and so on. The MLDA might have helped but it’s surely not the only factor.

Meanwhile other nations of the western world didn’t need to instate that MLDA. Why is that? Maybe because we (Speaking as an Italian here) are thaught that you’re expected to act as an adult when you reach 18, and our 21st birhtday only marks the day when we can vote for senators, but nothing else. I’ve always been of the opinion that people grow on expectations. If you expect someone to act like a child, and you treat them accordingly, you will be right in expecting that. If you treat someone like an adult, let them fuck up once or twice, maturity sets in somewhat faster. Either that or death sets in.

@kheredia I completely agree.

@woodcutter Newsflash: If you’re a shithead at 18 you’re more than likely to still be a massive shithead at 21 because, as you already pointed out, it’s not exactly a lifetime of difference. 21 isn’t even completely outside puberty yet, for crying out loud! Your argument would only be good if you were advocating banning alcohol altogether, which i don’t think you are.

Also: They probably started drinking when they were young and took off from there.
Yeah, don’t think you can handwave an assertion of that magnitude. Data to back it or this point is moot. In fact, i would say that it’s probably the opposite, seeing how you can’t exactly make a habit of drinking and driving without serious repercussions long enough to reach mid-life.

As for starting drinking young: Well, no shit. Society glamourizes alcohol and teens are naturally attracted to the forbidden, i doubt there is even one person in the US, who’s not a child in a family of raving fundamentalists, who never actually had a drink before the age of 21.

laureth's avatar

@Thammuz – I have heard that some countries (Germany comes to mind, but very likely also other European countries) have different expectations for young people and drinking. If you are raised in a place where people drink generally responsibly, like having a wine with dinner and maybe letting your older teenagers do so if they want, and where adults model responsible drinking throughout the kid’s growing-up years, the kid grows up with (probably) those same attitudes, and turning the drinking age doesn’t necessarily signal a long bacchanalia of boozed-up partying, driving drunkenly, and being a shithead about it.

However, having grown up here in the USA, I know the cultural expectations. I watched my peers turn 21 and go on a bender, puking in the alley behind the bar. Alcohol isn’t so much respected as treated like an endurance sport. (Yes, I presume that not all Americans are boneheads, and that some Europeans are.) We don’t even have a nice public transportation infrastructure so maybe they don’t have to drive home drunk. But I don’t think changing the age from 21 to 18 will suddenly change how American kids treat alcohol. I think the alley-puking bar crawl will just happen a couple years sooner.

If we want to change how the teenagers drink, we need a bigger cultural shift here than just changing the drinking age. We need to provide a model for them so that they can mature into a younger drinking age. You say that in Italy, the youngsters are “expected to behave as adults” when reaching that age. It isn’t as much like that here. We need to expect them to do so before we give them a bottle and car keys. We need to show them how not to be idiots, but I don’t see too many adult, experienced drinkers stepping up for that. The entire alcohol culture is different here.

However, I might be mistaken, and going on rumors and hearsay of how Europeans treat alcohol consumption. I’m willing to accept that it might be different than I have heard. Can you tell us about how alcohol is introduced to young people in Italy or elsewhere? Is the drinking-age birthday a bottoms-up throwdown of drunkenness? Do parents generally teach responsible consumption even before the kid is allowed to do it legally himself? Does alcohol have the allure of the “forbidden fruit” that you have to sneak around to get, or by the time they’re old enough is it like, “Meh, no big deal?”

If the culture changes in a way to warrant a drinking age change, then they might deserve it. Until then, I am not convinced that changing the age will change the way that Americans get plastered.

woodcutter's avatar

American teens don’t drink responsibly enough for me to warrant taking the risk. As a former 1st responder I have seen gruesome wrecks after the fact where the driver was drunk. It never gets easy and whether you want to believe it or not young people do the worst. With them it’s almost a contest, generally speaking of course. We all gotta die but nobody wants to be taken out by some teenager out getting wasted thinking they are having a good time. Or…it ain’t the drunk kid that kills, it’s the car….right?

Thammuz's avatar

@laureth What you’re saying is absolutely right, it is mainly a matter of cultural mindset, which is exactly what I was trying to point out. as for your questions:

Can you tell us about how alcohol is introduced to young people in Italy or elsewhere?
I can only tell you about Italy and France and pertaining to my personal experience, but here it is: I don’t live in a very alcohol drinking family but whenever we are at a restaurant my father asks for a quarter litre of wine (red or white depending on the food he ordered) and I’ve been having some of that since I turned 14. One of my oldest friends is the son of a Norwegian sommelier and he too has been introduced to fine wines (only the best in his household) since he was even younger than 14. Neither of us have a drinking problem, firstly because we actually can take quite a lot of alcohol since we’re used to it and secondly because to us it’s just another drink. A good, very expensive drink that occasionally makes you act like a moron if you drink too much of it. As I already mentioned, I had to drink a half a litre of badly mixed screwdriver to actually get drunk, and even then I didn’t vomit, I went to a kebab shop, bought me a kebab to soak up the alcohol in my stomach, sat down on a bench and started telling all my friends that I was drunk and laughing like an imbecile. That’s it.

Is the drinking-age birthday a bottoms-up throwdown of drunkenness?
Nobody actually cards you here if you ask for alcohol, so if you’re actually that desperate to try it you can do it whenever you want, there are cases of very young people (read younger than 14) who start drinking a lot, but they’re rare cases where the parents live with their heads up their asses and allow a 13 year old to stay out alone at night.

Do parents generally teach responsible consumption even before the kid is allowed to do it legally himself?
Mostly, at least in my experience

Does alcohol have the allure of the “forbidden fruit” that you have to sneak around to get, or by the time they’re old enough is it like, “Meh, no big deal?”
The latter. Basically if you live in a normal household you probably will have at least tasted wine and beer before you’re 14, and in some cases even grappa, like in my case (I was veeeeeeery annoying when someone didn’t let me try something, I basically went through catechism only to try the communion wafer).

Since here it’s treated as something adults drink regularly in small quantities, we also see it like that. Restaurants often offer you a glass of Limoncello or red Mirto after you had your meal, some even on the house, and wine during the meal is generally the norm when you’re with family or colleagues or otherwise not in a small group where not everyone might drink it, and even then it’s just not to waste it.

@woodcutter It’s the drunk kid driving that kills. Drunk kids themselves are no more a problem than drunk midgets, drunk adults and drunk geese. And that’s why there are laws against drinking and driving.

The fact that your kids are more likely to break that particular laws is not necessarily dependent on the fact that they are kids. Here, you can drink at 14, you can’t drive until you’re 18. You’ve got plenty of time to get drunk off your ass before you can damage anyone by ramming into them with a car. And this is basically due to the fact that our cities and even our small towns have a good state financed public transport system that makes cars unnecessary or, rather, replaceable, for the most part.

laureth's avatar

@Thammuz – thank you. :) It is definitely not like that here, at least not for most. (If I ever have a kid, my homebrewer husband and I plan to introduce alcohol responsibly so that when they turn 21 they don’t feel the need to drink a case of Natty Light.)

Until then, I still think that once the 21 year olds are responsible enough to earn that drinking privilege they automatically get, we can then think of lowering it. ;)

Thammuz's avatar

@laureth on a side note, I don’t drink beer, though all my friends do. In fact I’m the only reason we don’t only go to breweries when we go out on Saturday nights, because I only drink stuff like rum, vodka, absinthe, mixed drinks, etcetera which generally suck if you go to a brewery because they only have them for the ladies and “pussies” like me. Because drinking something that has three times the alcohol content of a beer makes you a pussy apparently.

woodcutter's avatar

I do have some hope for humanity that, in those 3 short years a teen is asked to wait to imbibe, their little brains may develop into a vehicle that transforms them into responsible adults, by the time they reach legal drinking age. Odder things have happened.

mattbrowne's avatar

Absolutely. Beer at 16. Plus all the education how to handle it in a responsible way.

Thammuz's avatar

@woodcutter You’re just kidding yourself, you would be making the exact same argument with any two given ages.

How about we withold what is really dangerous, like cars, which can do gigantic damage even with a sober fucking driver, and allow what is still damaging but at least only to the individual and maybe the living room couch and the wallpaper to allow teens to get some experience with it before they could personally decide the trajectory of a big fucking hunk of metal that moves at ludicrous speeds? Seems to make more sense to me.

woodcutter's avatar

@Thammuz It makes sense to me that if you can’t teach teens to not fuck, you won’t have any better luck with alcohol awareness either. Just my observation.

kheredia's avatar

@woodcutter You can teach them to “fuck” responsibly.

woodcutter's avatar

They will fuck responsibly ONLY when they want to.

Thammuz's avatar

@woodcutter Jesus Christ, you did not just compare a base need and biological imperative to alcohol, did you?

Then again, you Americans are incredibly thick when it comes to Sex Ed, so personally I’m not surprised. You can’t teach teens not to fuck. That’s the goddamn point. That’s why you teach them to use condoms when they do and how to prevent them from tearing, that’s why you teach them how the pill works so they realise it’s imperative to take it with regularity and that if they can’t manage it’s better to stick to condoms, that’s why you teach them that pulling out is not a valid method of contraception. That’s the sodding point.

What emerges from your words is that you think you need to teach teens not to drink and not to fuck which would be fucking dandy if it weren’t for the fact that both activities are fun, both are legal after a certain age and both are going to happen whether you want them to or not.

That’s the kind of mentality that makes the US have the highest teen pregnancy rate in the western world and one of the highest abortion rates, while European countries like Italy and France, that have a well earned reputation for being full of horny people, still have a lower spot in both those charts, and with a good numerical distance as well.

So yes, if you can’t teach them not to fuck (which is a much more important biological function and you comparing that to alcohol speaks volumes of how much you know about human psychology, to be honest) you probably still could teach them not to drink, because alcohol doesn’t have a biological imperative behind it. Still, the point isn’t to teach people not to drink, just as it is not to teach them not to fuck, so your point is completely and utterly moot.

Nullo's avatar

@Thammuz There is indeed a lot of legislative variation, though it’s rarely of any significant magnitude. Traffic laws differ, but are similar enough that a person from New York can drive through Kansas. Some states don’t permit the sale of alcohol on Sundays, while others make you wait until after 10 in the morning. Missouri presumably has a law dating back to the 19th century permitting Mormons to be shot on sight, a law since overridden by federal legislation.
Broadly speaking, federal law is limited to regulating inter-state and international affairs. Everything else is left to the state governments. There is also a lot of non-legislative control exerted by channeling money and performing political favors. Public schools, for instance, are (under)funded and regulated by the states that they are in (leading to differing dropout ages, flavor of education, and the like); the federal government can influence education policy in the states by offering money in exchange for compliance with their requirements/goals/what-have-you.

Thammuz's avatar

@Nullo I see, that’s really interesting.

Also lol at shooting mormons on sight.

woodcutter's avatar

So, just to satisfy the all important “fun” needs of the few, it’s worth it to risk real lives of the many? I just want to get you on record @Thammuz , that’s all. There is a reason why the drinking age was raised to where it is now. You really believe our legislators have a hard -on for 18 yr olds? The death rate was high enough to get many people’s attention, it just didn’t happen in a vacuum. Do you really believe the death rates will NOT increase if the legal age was lowered? I just want to get you on record, that’s all. You assume too much when you elude to 18 yr olds being shown how to drink responsibly. Some my heed such advise but I think you know that human nature will override wisdom in most cases. I was 18 once as was everybody on here. I see what is there, and it’s just my observation that most teenagers don’t have enough sense to pour piss out of a boot, much less take good advise seriously. It’s not their fault, them being the way they are. They can’t help it. They’re young and very inexperienced with life. Here’s an idea, How many parents out there want their 18 yr old to take up drinking? You could do a survey to get some facts. Make it a project, if you will. When you get to the end of your survey, and you see that there is an overwhelming number of ( responsible) parents who would really like to see their kids take up drinking…get back to me.

Response moderated (Flame-Bait)
laureth's avatar

Drinking at 18, driving at 21. I could almost get behind that. Too bad we don’t have very good public transportation here, which makes an early driving age an economic necessity for some families. Economic necessities beat out “fun” drinking in importance, I’m afraid.

Response moderated (Personal Attack)
augustlan's avatar

[mod says] Flame off. No need to get personal, people.

Thammuz's avatar

@laureth Absolutely, that’s why we have driving at 18, drinking at 14.

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