21's a Bust? Seven States Debate Lowering Drinking Age

Is 21 a bust when it comes to drinking?

Lawmakers in seven states are actively considering legislation that would lower the legal drinking age.

Military Rights or Drinking Age Bill?

State pols in Kentucky, Wisconsin and South Carolina have introduced legislation that would lower the drinking age only for military personnel, while Missouri, South Dakota, Vermont and Minnesota are considering more expansive measures that would lower the drinking age for the general population.

"These people set themselves apart," said Rep. David Floyd of Kentucky, who supports the state lowering the drinking age to 18, and believes the responsibility that enlistees assume with military service demonstrates their ability to make mature decisions when it comes to alcohol.

Floyd looks at his efforts to lower Kentucky's drinking age as more of a military bill than a drinking bill, and would be opposed to expanding the bill to include nonmilitary personnel.

Highway Funds Risked

Legislators, like Floyd, who are proponents of legally lowering the drinking age, are putting their state's highway funds at risk.

Each state contemplating lowering the drinking age could stand to lose up to 10 percent of its federal road money.

In 1984, Congress passed the Uniform Drinking Age Act, which was designed to reduce car accident deaths among young people by setting the minimum drinking age at 21 and threatening states with the loss of federal highway funds if they did not comply.

Since the '80s, groups like Mothers Against Drunk Driving and why21.org have cited research for their continued support of 21 as the legal drinking age.

According to the National Institutes of Health, alcohol-related traffic deaths have decreased across the board with the greatest proportional declines among people 16 to 20 years old.

NIH studies also revealed that teenagers who began drinking before age 15 are four times more likely to develop alcohol dependence during their lifetimes than those who started drinking at age 21 or later.

Despite the research, some still disagree with the federal government's role in raising states' drinking age.

"Our own law makes it clear that the drinking age was raised 'solely under the duress of a funding sanction imposed by the United States Department of Transportation.' In short, we passed this law not because it reflected our values, desires and customs as a state but because we wanted the extra money," said N. Bob Pesall.

Pesall, a lawyer in Flandreau, S.D., drafted a proposal that would make consuming low alcohol beer legal at age 19 instead of the current 21 for all alcoholic drinks.

"I support the idea of lowering the drinking age in South Dakota for several reasons, but it all boils down to respect. In South Dakota, when a person turns 18, he or she can enter into contracts, pay taxes, do business, get married, bear arms and fight overseas to protect our national interests. It is simply disrespectful to tell that same person that they can't handle a cold beer when they come home," said Pesall.

Debate Rages

A planned ballot initiative in Missouri would allow everyone 18 and older to become drinking age adults. A Minnesota bill would allow anyone who is 18 and older to buy alcohol in bars and restaurants but not in liquor stores until they're 21.

"In short, based upon research, the current drinking laws are counterproductive. This is why I recommend lowering the drinking age in controlled environments such as restaurants and campus pubs or anytime with parents, in addition, to not allowing young adults to buy alcohol in retail stores to take home to get drink as that is not responsible drinking behavior," said Ruth Engs, profesor emeritus in Applied Health Science at Indiana University.

John McCardell, the former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, also supports states that are trying to lower their drinking age. McCardell founded Choose Responsibility, an advocacy group that is opposed to age 21 being the legal drinking age.

"We need to support public policies that reflect reality, not our illusion of what reality is," said McCardell about proposed legislation. "We can either try to change the reality -- that is called Prohibition, which has historically failed -- or we can create the safest possible environment for the reality. Legal age 21 creates the least safe, most life-threatening environment, and thus it neither reflects nor represents reality."

McCardell argues that the current drinking age negatively affects youth behavior, and aids in binge drinking.

"Binge drinking, however you may define it, is not behavior that takes place in public. The law has banished alcohol consumption from public places and public view. The only place binge drinking can occur, then, is where the law has banished it, in clandestine locations," said McCardell. "How can one argue that the drinking age is not responsible for this?"