A Lower Age Would Be Unsafe

The 21 drinking age has saved lives and should remain.

Effective laws reflect social and cultural reality, not abstract ideals.

Effective laws reflect social and cultural reality, not abstract ideals.


As the fall semester begins at colleges across the country, campuses once again face the challenge of combating underage and binge drinking. This is a serious and difficult issue for colleges, for communities, and for parents like me who are preparing to send a son or daughter to college.

Unfortunately, more than 100 college presidents have chosen to address the issue by signing on to a misguided initiative that ostensibly favors a debate but is supported by a group, Choose Responsibility, whose sole aim is lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18 years old. Mothers Against Drunk Driving is open to a discussion about solving the problems of underage and binge drinking. But the discussion must be based on facts, and, in this case, the facts are clear: 21 saves lives.

Since states began setting the legal drinking age at 21, the law has been one of the most studied in our history. The evidence is overwhelming: More than 50 high-quality scientific studies all found the 21 law saves lives, both on and off the road. And the public agrees: 72 percent of adults think that lowering the drinking age would make alcohol more accessible to kids, and nearly half think that it would increase binge drinking among teens, according to a new Nationwide Insurance poll.

This is why stakeholders from scientific, medical, and public health organizations have joined MADD to form the Support 21 Coalition: We believe in basing public health policy on sound medical research and are committed to highlighting the lifesaving impact of the 21 drinking age.

Twenty-one isn't just an arbitrary number set by Congress—more than 20 states already had laws setting the drinking age there in 1984. And since the 21 law was widely enacted, the number of young people killed annually in crashes involving drunk drivers under 21 has been cut in half, from more than 5,000 individuals in the early 1980s to around 2,000 in 2005. By the end of 2005, the 21 drinking age had saved nearly 25,000 American lives—approximately 1,000 lives a year.

The Support 21 Coalition stands behind the indisputable scientific research that demonstrates lowering the drinking age would make the difficult problems of underage and binge drinking far worse. Research indicates that when the minimum legal drinking age is 21, people under age 21 drink less overall and continue to do so through their early 20s. When the drinking age has been lowered, injury and death rates significantly increased.

Lowering the age of those who have easy access to alcohol would shift responsibility for underage drinking to high school parents and educators.

A neurotoxin. Research has shown that the harmful effects of alcohol abuse are magnified on a teenager's still-developing brain. The adolescent brain is a work in progress, marked by significant development in areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory, complex thinking, planning, inhibition, and emotional regulation. The neurotoxic effect of excessive alcohol use is a danger to these key regions of the maturing adolescent brain.

A person's brain does not stop developing until their early to mid-20s. During this period, alcohol negatively affects all parts of the brain, includcognitive and decision-making abilities as well as coordination and memory. Adolescent drinkers not only do worse academically but are also at greater risk for social problems like depression, violence, and suicidal thoughts.

Lowering the drinking age would have dangerous long-term consequences: Early teen drinkers are not only more susceptible to alcoholism but to developing the disease earlier and more quickly than others.

The problem of binge drinking on college campuses needs to be addressed, but lowering the drinking age would be not only short-sighted but deadly. The simple fact is that the 21 law saves lives and is, therefore, nonnegotiable.

What do you think? Should the U.S. drinking age stay at 21? Or should it be changed? You can join the debate at usnews.com/drinkingage.