Following Common Sense: Lowering the Drinking Age as a Step Towards Safer and Healthier Communities

Polis: Center for Politics
4 min readMay 8, 2024

Ryan Selig (PPS ‘24)

Ryan Selig (PPS ‘24)

I have always disliked the quote “rules are meant to be broken.” I think to myself, “what’s the point of making a rule that people won’t follow?” Setting rules, laws, or policy with the understanding that people will not abide by them simply makes no sense. I see no greater example of this phenomenon than the underage consumption of alcohol. Although it may be considered an unpopular position, for reasons I hope to illuminate below, I believe the US drinking age should be reduced from 21 to 19.

The legal drinking age was not always 21 in the US. Prior to the 1980s, the legal drinking age was not set federally, and many US states had a legal age of 18. In response to a surge in drunk driving fatalities among young people, a coalition called Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) began campaigning to raise the legal drinking age. The federal government quickly passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984, which required all states to set their legal drinking age at 21 or risk losing federal highway funding. Currently, every state abides by this change.

While proponents of this policy point to reductions in underage drinking-and-driving fatalities since passage of the act, a direct causal link cannot be established. General car fatality trends were already decreasing before the act was passed and further reductions can be attributed to improved vehicle safety. Most importantly though, going beyond drunk driving incidents, the act categorically failed to stop its target: underage drinking.

As recently as 2021, over 34% of Americans aged 12–20 self-reported having consumed alcohol. Research shows that around 80 percent of college students drink alcohol, and almost half report binge drinking within 2 weeks. Although not every college student is under 21, about 50% are, correlating to over 8 million Americans in 2022. I highlight these statistics not to argue that enforcement of the law is lacking, but to demonstrate that, despite millions of dollars spent on underage alcohol regulation in states like North Carolina, the “problem” persists.

Having established that raising the drinking age definitively did NOT end underage drinking, let’s consider some of the problems it has caused and ways to remedy them by reducing the legal age.

First, the 21-year-old drinking age contributes to a dangerous drinking culture in the US with widespread underage binge-drinking. One study, from Duke researcher Aaron Wright in 2006, showed that underage college freshmen drink at levels far beyond the binge threshold. This study suggests that students’ efforts to hide their drinking contribute to binging. Laws have the unintended consequence of encouraging underage college students to “secretly” chug hard alcohol in dorm rooms rather than access alcohol openly and safely in controlled environments. In a world where drinking is going to occur regardless, why would we want it to be less safe?

Ok so if 21 isn’t working, why does 19 make sense? Nineteen is an age at which young people are typically out of high school, are legally allowed to vote, can serve in the military, and are asked to make other important decisions about their lives. It’s a time when they are expected to take on adult responsibilities, yet they are heavily policed and restricted on the consumption of alcohol. This discrepancy is not only harmful to society, but also simply illogical. Lowering the drinking age to 19 would help to align the legal drinking age with other age-based milestones and allow young adults to craft a healthier and safer relationship with a legal product that they will have access to throughout their lives.

In order to achieve this shift, the following policy action items should be taken:

- Amend the currently ineffective National Minimum Drinking Age act of 1984 to alter the age from 21 to 19. Ensure compliance with the same 10% federal highway funding stipulation.

- Offer states the option to establish “Drinking Learner’s Permits,” similar to learners permits for new drivers, eligible to any US citizen 19 and older. This system could require passing a state issued drinking class or test.

- Encourage colleges to implement “wet-campus” policies that allow of-age students to safely and openly consume alcohol.

I started this piece with the statement that this would be an unpopular position to take. An underage college student advocating to be able to legally drink? Self-serving? Maybe. But also, just common sense.

Ryan Selig is from McLean, Virginia and an Undergraduate at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy. This piece was submitted as an op-ed in the Spring ‘23 PUBPOL 301 course. This content does not represent the official or unofficial views of the Sanford School, Polis, Duke University, or any entity or individual other than the author.

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