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The Daily Tar Heel

Right to focus on underage drinking?

Correction (April 13 11:14 p.m.): Due to an reporting error in this column, the instances of underage binge drinking are incorrectly stated. There are roughly 1.5 billion instances of binge drinking a year in the U.S. involving those 18 and older. Most of those involve people age 26 and older. The Daily Tar Heel apologizes for the error.

I turned 21 on Sunday and during the last few weeks leading up to my birthday, I thought a lot about the law against underage drinking.

The law is designed to protect underage people from themselves. It strives to stop underage people from drinking because they have less of a rational capability and aren’t stopping themselves. The end goal is the safety of people who are 20 years old or younger.

In college we seem to be pretty flippant about underage drinking; to many of us, the law seems rather unjust.

After all, it’s particularly aimed at people under the age of 21 that want to drink, and that makes up a sizeable portion of college students.

Sure, underage drinking can lead to dangerous consequences.

But most health-related consequences that just come from drinking happen to everyone, not just people who are underage. Liver damage can begin no matter how old you are, and according to the CDC it kills 27,555 people a year.

Fetal alcohol spectrum disorders also don’t check your drivers license twice. But it still affects between 0.2 and 1.5 of every thousand live births.

Drinking and driving is an oft-cited reason for not allowing underage drinking. But you and I both can see the problem with that rationale.

Say you live on a college campus. You don’t have a car. You go without driving for months at a time and couldn’t drive even if you wanted to. But you’re 20 years old and you can’t drink because of the risk of drinking and driving.

Binge drinking is the reason for the prohibition that makes the most sense.

It can lead to alcohol poisoning and other dangerous conditions, which contribute to the 4,600 yearly deaths among underage drinkers.

College students are notorious for binge drinking, but most of the roughly 1.5 billion instances of underage drinking are adults older than 25.

I’ll let you in on a little secret. You can drink safely as an underage person. You can gather a few people together and have a few drinks with your dinner, and be perfectly safe.

But we probably can’t enforce a law that allows underage people to only have a drink or two. We can scarcely enforce the law we do have effectively. At the end of the day, though, laws are optional.

If the health effects are generally the same across the age groups, then we don’t need a law against underage drinking. We need a method of lowering binge drinking period, no matter who is doing it.

We can’t merely educate people and expect binge drinking to go down. That experiment is already in place.

We educate children and adolescents about the effects of alcohol and we aren’t reaping the benefits that we have wanted to see.

We aren’t winning the battle to stop underage drinking, but we also shouldn’t be fighting that battle in the first place.

If we could stop underage people from drinking, we might also be able to stop them from driving drunk. But that doesn’t make them the same thing.

What we need to do instead is stop everyone from dangerous drinking activities, and cultivate an environment that supports safe habits.


Reed Watson is a junior philosophy and psychology major from Raleigh. Contact him at

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