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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

The 21 Drinking Age Law 101

Debunking Arguments and Myths and Offering Facts about the Law

Underage drinking, particularly amongst college students, is a serious problem that calls for a serious solution. But according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), that solution should not jeopardize the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age, which has saved over 26,000 lives since becoming the law.

Arguments, Myths and Facts

Argument: Some young people feel that it's unfair that an 18 year-old can vote, sign a contract, serve on a jury and be subject to the draft, but is not allowed to drink.

Answer: The 21 drinking age law is not based on the basis of creating a legal majority but rather on the problem that a lower drinking age created in the 1970s. The minimum drinking age of 21 is based on a variety of factors – motor vehicle fatalities, physical development, including brain function and additional health factors. Evidence proves that the 21 minimum drinking age law is effective, having saved over 900 lives a year since its inception. The fact is that underage drinking is related to numerous health problems including injuries and death resulting from alcohol poisoning, car crashes, suicide, homicide, assaults, drowning and recreational mishaps.

Argument: In Europe, people drink from an early age, yet they do not have the alcohol-related problems we do. We need fewer restrictions, not more.

Answer: The claim that the relaxed European attitudes toward alcohol consumption creates a culture where youth don't engage in binge drinking and that it leads directly to more responsible drinking is an urban myth and has no basis in fact or reality.

According to 2003 data from the European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs revealed that of 35 European countries, 31 had a greater percentage of 15-year olds who had been intoxicated in the past year than in the U.S. Most European countries' youth are out-drinking their American teens with regards to both binge drinking and drinking to intoxication.

Argument: If I'm old enough to fight a war, I should be old enough to drink.

Answer: When the 21 uniform drinking age law was passed, the Department of Defense was one of its biggest supporters, due to the fact that the number of lives being lost in the military each year was directly affected by alcohol abuse.

Statistics behind the Law

• The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has estimated that since the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age was enacted in 1984, approximately 900 lives a year have been saved in traffic fatalities alone. (1)

• The 21 law is one of the most studied public health laws in history, and the scientific research from more than 50 studies all found that the law saves lives. (2)

• Because of the 21 minimum drinking age law, those under the age of 21 drink less and continue to drink less throughout their 20s. (3)

• The earlier a person drinks (average age of first drink is about 16), the greater the likelihood they will become dependent on alcohol and drive drunk later in life. (4)

•Annually, about 5,000 people under age 21 die from alcohol-related injuries involving underage drinking each year. (5)

1. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), 2007.
2. Wagenaar & Toomey, 2002.
3. O’Malley & Wagenaar, 1991.
4. Grant & Dawson, 1997. Hingson et al, 2003. Hingson & Kenkel, 2004.
5. Surgeon General's Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, 2007.

Binge Drinking on College Campuses

• There is a maelstrom of tolerance towards drinking on college campuses.

• A serious problem is access to alcohol on college campuses. Underage students drink because they can get away with it, and alcohol laws are not always enforced as they should be on college campuses.

• It's estimated that each year, 1,700 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries, including motor vehicle crashes. Another 600,000 students are
 unintentionally injured while under the influence of alcohol. (6)

• Over 30 percent of college students abuse alcohol, and six percent are dependent on alcohol. These are rates much greater than for young adults who do not attend college. (7)

• Binge drinking is more prevalent among college-age students in college versus those who are not in college. (8)

6. Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, 2007.
7. Knight et al, 2002.
8. Slutske, et al, 2004; Johnson, et al, 1997.

Underage Drinking and Public Attitudes

A 2008 survey released by Nationwide Insurance reveals that the American public strongly disagrees with efforts to lower the drinking age:

• 78 percent of adults support the 21 minimum drinking age.

• 75 percent believe there should be more enforcement of underage drinking laws.

• 72 percent believe that by lowering the drinking age, alcohol would be more accessible to youth.

• Only 14 percent believe that lowering the drinking age will curb teen binge drinking.

• 47 percent believe that a lower drinking age would actually make a huge problem even worse.

• 72 percent believe colleges should alert parents when their son or daughter has an alcohol violation.

• Over 50 percent say would not send their children to colleges or universities with "party school" reputations.

• Over 50 percent say they doubt they would vote for a state politician who supports lowering the legal limit.

Is your teen a safe driver? The National Safety Commission has developed a new Teen Injury Prevention course to emphasize driving safety for teenagers. For more information, including a Driver Education Book for Parents, visit

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The National Safety Commission, Inc.
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Ponte Vedra Beach, FL 32004-3359

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