In 1984, the United States passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Under the Act, states that do not enforce a minimum drinking age of 21 will lose ten percent of their annual federal highway funds. Although the law did not technically outlaw underage drinking, it effectively forced state governments into compliance with the higher drinking age. For over 20 years, the Act went largely unchallenged, and the drinking age of 21 has become an accepted part of American culture. Now, however, there is an organized effort for change.
Drinking ages across America were last lowered in the 1970s in response to the Vietnam War. Public opinion was that it was unfair and even unpatriotic to ask men to die for their country, yet forbid them the simple pleasure of drinking a beer. After the war, public opinion gradually began to shift. Drunk driving deaths were a major concern, brought to the forefront in the 1980s by groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving. After much debate, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act was passed in an effort to curb highway deaths.
Despite the fact that the legal drinking age has been 21 for over two decades, binge drinking remains a rite of passage on college campuses. Whether or not it is legal, many experts point out, underage drinkers have little trouble obtaining alcohol.
Proponents of lowering the drinking age point to alcoholism statistics in countries where the drinking age is significantly lower or even nonexistent. Although the United States has one of the highest drinking ages in the world, alcoholism rates and drunk driving rates are also extremely high. Advocates of lowering the drinking age generally allege that lowering the age will remove the “forbidden fruit” temptation of alcohol.
Numerous studies show that the number of highway deaths has decreased in the years since 1984. Those who oppose lowering the drinking age claim that if the drinking age is lowered, the number of fatalities will spike. Opponents also worry that rather than drinking less, societal permission to drink will actually increase rates of binge drinking, which can lead to death from alcohol poisoning. They worry that those under the age of 21 lack the maturity to responsibly moderate their drinking.
Several states are currently considering proposals to lower the drinking age. The proposals advocate educational classes to help young adults learn to drink responsibly, along with increased penalties for law violations. Activist groups are working to get Congress to pass temporary waivers that would allow states to keep federal highway funding while pilot programs are tested.