The Daily Tar Heel recently reported that government officials and owners of bars and restaurants on Franklin Street are working hard “to prevent underage drinking at off-campus establishments.” These officials and owners are in compliance with federal and state law, but we question the basic premise of these laws — namely that legal adults between the ages of 18 and 20 years old should not be allowed to make their own decisions to consume or not to consume alcohol.
We believe that the minimum legal drinking age should be lowered to 18. This change would afford greater agency to 18 to 20 year olds and make it such that all who are legally recognized as adults have the same privileges.
It is perplexing that 18 year olds are recognized as adults in 47 states (Alabama, Mississippi and Nebraska being the exceptions) yet they are not given all the rights concordant with this distinction. Adults can vote, serve on juries, get married, sign contracts and join the military. Those rights and responsibilities enable 18 to 20 year olds to significantly alter their lives and the lives of others.
Despite this fact, proponents of keeping the minimum legal drinking age at 21 argue that current laws protect developing brains and reduce alcohol-related crashes. These are certainly commendable aims, but are they worth the economic impacts, costs of enforcement and deterioration of personal freedoms resultant from such a high legal drinking age?
It is beyond unjust that, in a state like Texas, a 20 year old can be fined up to $500 for simply having a glass of wine at dinner, or go to jail for up to 180 days if caught for a third time. Laws like these are more harmful to young adults than the alcohol itself.
Besides, safer cars, tougher DUI laws and stronger seatbelt rules have also played a hand in reducing the number of deaths caused by drunk drivers. Driving while drunk is already illegal, so better enforcement of existing DUI laws should further reduce alcohol-related crashes and take away one of the most common justifications for preventing 18 to 20 year olds from legally consuming alcohol.
The alcohol consumption laws as they exist today encourage Prohibition-style, surreptitious binge drinking among younger adults. The National Institute of Health found that annual alcohol poisoning deaths for 18 to 24 year olds nearly tripled between 1998 and 2005. The United States’ relatively high drinking age inhibits parents from teaching their children responsible drinking habits before entering high-risk college environments.
Despite advocating for a lower legal minimum drinking age, we are not advocating for alcohol consumption.
Excessive alcohol consumption is not healthy, but adults make unhealthy decisions all the time; whether it is eating that chocolate bar, watching Netflix for hours or riding a motorcycle on the highway. The point is that 18 to 20 year olds, who are recognized as adults by the law, should be able to weigh the risks and rewards of their choices, including drinking alcohol if they deem it worthwhile to do so.