The Drinking Age Debate: Time to Go From 21 to 18, But It's Not an Easy Call

Yes, we should probably come down from 21 to 18, but there are larger issues.

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By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

60 Minutes had an interesting piece last night looking at the debate over whether or not to lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. I guess I must be getting old as I viewed the scenes of college students trying to drink themselves to death with bemusement rather than the enthusiasm I would have undoubtedly exhibited at their age (and for several years thereafter).

You can watch the full piece here:

The debate has special resonance for me because the leading proponent of lowering the drinking age is John McCardell, who was president of Middlebury College when I was an undergrad there—I like to joke with my undergrad buddies that we are in some small way responsible for his view that the current drinking age has promoted a culture of secret, binge drinking.

McCardell and Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, squared off on this topic in our pages last fall. Both sides make strong arguments, but I still haven't gotten a satisfactory answer to this objection to the 21 law: How can we as a society say that 18-year-olds are old enough to kill or die in the armed forces, participate in the course of the nation in the voting booth, judge their peers in a jury, and, yes, operate automobiles ... but that they are insufficiently mature to take a drink. (I wonder, by the way, if the driving age shouldn't be increased from 16ish depending on state to 18.)

McCardell makes an interesting suggestion in the 60 Minutes piece that I hadn't heard before: Teenagers should be educated about booze and its effects before they can legally take a drink.

There are larger issues we need to address as a society regardless of what happens regarding the drinking age. First, alcohol education starts at home: Parents are the first line of education when it comes to liquor and how teens deal with alcohol will reflect at least in part how it is regarded at home. More broadly, as Maureen Ogle, author of a history of beer, wrote in this space in December, this country still has a prohibition hangover. We repealed the prohibition laws but still treat booze like it ought to be illegal.

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