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The Debate on Alcohol and 21 Year Olds

Suddenly it’s a new world once again, as states take their independence seriously and realize that they are not beholden to our federal government for laws they disagree with. The law in question is the forced adoption of the 21-year-old alcohol drinking age, basically federal law since 1984 (states who do not adhere to the guideline lose a percentage of their federal highway funding — a stick that has little to do with responsible alcohol consumption).

Dana Boyd has an interesting essay on the topic, which has risen to the forefront of public debate as some states want to revisit the issue, noting the hypocrisy of sending 18-year-old children to war in Iraq who, after returning home from duty, still can’t have a drink while talking about the carnage they witnessed.

Enter 100 college and university presidents who have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative, calling for an open and frank discussion about the arbitrary 21-year-age limit for drinking in the U.S. Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD) will have none of it, of course, suggesting that even discussing the topic is akin to madness.

The reason for the college and university presidents signing onto having this discussion has nothing to do with the war, but instead the sheer size of the growing epidemic of binge drinking on their campuses. They’ve thrown all the resources they can at the problem and have hit a brick wall. What do you do when the students in your charge break the law, flaunt university policies, and have little regard for this arbitrary line drawn in the sand by older adults decades who share nothing in common with those that the law is directed against?

I think Boyd is on the right track about a need to rethink our current laws, and how this issue is complicated by factors that many politicians and mothers don’t fully appreciate (my comments in italics):

1. Alcohol is a marker of status.
Just as cigarette smoking once was the marker of status, now alcohol is. You can’t stop a societal status marker with laws so much as cultural change.

2. Moderation of enjoyable and high status activities must be learned.
You can’t learn moderation unless you have access to the activity. Imagine how absurd it would be to try and learn how to drive a car responsibly by not driving it!

3. Age segregation makes learning to moderate harder.
If you don’t see how older people engage in the activity in moderation (and participate in it with them), moderation takes longer and is harder to learn.

4. Abstinence programs make education and guidance impossible.
“Just say no” is easy to say but hard to do.

This isn’t so much about new laws as trying to help our society and culture integrate alcohol consumption in our lives earlier. Yes, that’s what I said. I think that the more acclimated a person becomes to alcohol earlier on (alcoholism in the family notwithstanding, as that is a separate issue altogether), the easier it is to being learning. Since college is the first opportunity of independence for most teens these days, it is natural for them to test their own limits by binge drinking (laws notwithstanding).

Opponents of even talking about this note that deaths due to driving drunk have been halved due to the 21 year-old drinking age. It’s a sobering statistic and one that has no causal proof (but as correlations go, you’d be hard pressed to explain the death decrease because of something else). But this data is a symptom of the larger cultural problem, the consequence of too little exposure and education about alcohol. Instead of just upping the age limit from 18 to 21 (as we did) and cutting deaths by half, why not increase it to 23 or 26 and decrease deaths by 75 or 85%? I mean, why stop at only half? (The rate of death by drunk driving has remained steady since its initial and significant decrease.)

I think this is a pretty clear sign that it’s not the age in a vacuum that’s contributing to these numbers. It’s as Boyd points out — a cultural phenomenon influenced by sociological and psychological factors readily (and illogically) ignored. So let’s stop focusing on these arbitrary ages and focus instead on how we can change young adults’ entire approach to alcohol in the U.S., because currently it completely emphasizes and celebrates binge drinking. To everyone’s detriment.

But avoidance of discussing this topic and re-examining the data and research while a new problem emerges (binge drinking on campuses) is short-sighted and too ostrich-like for a free society such as ours. We must be willing to examine society’s (and lawmakers’) past decisions and ensure they are still relevant to the ever-changing times.

Read Dana Boyd’s essay: apophenia: Dionysus and the Amethyst Initiative

The Debate on Alcohol and 21 Year Olds

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). The Debate on Alcohol and 21 Year Olds. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 4, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 28 Aug 2008)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
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