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US Drinking: Twenty-one should be done


My mom tells a story of her days at Cornell. While students remained on the straight and narrow during the week, unwinding in Ithaca was a rite of passage come Friday. During my mom’s education, New York state’s drinking age was only 19. That meant students could indulge in tequila sunrises, some chardonnay or a pint; an experience that my mom credits to calming an otherwise tense campus.  

For better or worse, times are quite different now. In 1984, Mothers Against Drunk Driving gained the traction needed to raise the national drinking age to 21. While some states had already stricter laws, Ronald Reagan permanently changed drinking culture in all 50 states. 

According to the U.S. Library of Medicine, fatal alcohol-related accidents subsequently dropped by 26%. Despite roads becoming safer, the mystique and illegality of alcohol made it more popular amongst teenagers. 

U.S. drinking culture, unlike other Western Nations with lower drinking ages, gravitates towards binge-drinking. People from ages 12-20 consume 11% of the alcohol purchased in the United States. According to the CDC, the annual cost to the U.S. government from drinking-related emergency room visits is 24 billion dollars. And over 100,000 underage drinkers are admitted to emergency rooms every year.     

Just how does the rest of the civilized world stack up?   

According to Eurostat, 10% of E.U. residents report having at least one alcoholic beverage per day. On the other end of the spectrum, the Washington Post reports that 30% of the U.S. population takes at least two alcoholic beverages every day. In Europe, Alcohol is largely reserved for special occasions. In the U.S., alcohol is used more often to self-medicate. 

Perhaps Europe has the right idea. As the birthplace of wine, beer and other giggle juices, maybe Washington could take some notes from the pros…  

With legal wine and beer purchase ages of 16 to 18 in the E.U., European teens get to practice with training wheels before drinking more potent libations. Meanwhile, the mystique of alcohol here only fuels the fire. 

Without the convenience of legal liquor, many rambunctious teens in U.S. opt for fake IDs. And many of those many are reprimanded. The National Institute of Health reports that between 2013-2018, nearly 30,000 people were prosecuted for fake ID use.  

In no way should drinking be promoted, marketed or targeted towards younger audiences. However, the European view of alcohol as a treat and source of national pride earns respect from its consumers.  

In the age of Uber, Lyft, improved radars and breathalyzers, drunk driving is easier to avoid and harder to practice. In exchange for safer roads, alcohol is more abused than ever before. The 21 purchase age is becoming antiquated, as adverse effects towards the health and habits of the United States outweigh the drop in vehicular accidents. With a two-tiered purchase age, the gratification from doing something forbidden would decrease significantly. When young people are told they can’t do something, the allure to rebel only grows. Giving teens earlier access to wine and beer would only improve their views of how alcohol should be used. 

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