With the citation of President Bush's twin 19-year-old daughters for misdemeanor alcohol violations in Texas, an old debate has resurfaced — is the drinking age set too high?
In a society where 18-year-olds are considered adults for most purposes and children as young as 13 are being punished as adults for their crimes, some consider keeping the legal consumption of alcohol out of range until age 21 as unfair.
When the Bush sisters, Jenna and Barbara, were cited at a Mexican restaurant in Austin, much of the public outcry focused less on a 19-year-old attempting to procure alcohol, and more on the president's daughter being insensitive to the demands of having a parent in public office.
But in most countries they'd have been perfectly within their rights to belly up to the bar.
Talkback radio was flooded with callers on the topic, and it has been one of the most popular stories for news Web sites carrying the story.
Underage drinking in the United States, it seems, is so widely prevalent, the act, or attempted act, comes as little surprise.
The most recent national study on youth risk behavior conducted by the CDCP (Center for Disease Control and Prevention) found that half of the high school students aged between 12 and 16 who participated in the survey had consumed alcohol in the 30 days prior tothe survey.
According to a recent Gallup survey, two-thirds of American college students said they drink alcohol and 54 percent of teenagers nationwide said they had no problem getting alcohol.
Vote, Marry, Just Don’t Sip?
Part of the problem with alcohol abuse by young people, some say, is that the legal drinking age in the United States is too high.
"When we raise the drinking age to 21, which incidentally is the highest in the world, it makes drinking more attractive to young people," says David J. Hanson, Ph.D., Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York at Potsdam.
He cites research showing that prior to increasing the drinking age, alcohol consumption by college students increased as they moved toward graduation.
"Then what happened was when the law mandated age 21 in every state we discovered for the first time in history that those younger students suddenly began drinking more than older students," he says. "It suddenly made it more attractive. And it drove drinking underground," he said.
Many European countries set the age at 18, and in some countries — like France and Spain — 16-year-olds can legally buy alcohol. In those countries, says Hanson, drinking has no taboo. "It is neither a terrible poison nor a magic potion."
Critics of the drinking age limit also point to the fact that at 18, U.S. citizens can vote, marry and own a gun, but cannot legally gulp a beer.
What's needed, says Hanson, is better counseling for young people on the dangers of drinking, or, if they do drink, to do so in moderation.
"What we're doing with alcohol is really analogous to telling young people that driving is dangerous and they're too young to drive, and we don't give them any drivers' instruction, and then suddenly we hand them the keys to the car and tell them to be careful," he says.
Concerns About Maturity
But Evelyn Avant, a spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) does not agree that the U.S. legal drinking age is too high.
"We believe 21 is right on target," she said. "The number of young people indulging in drinking in crashes is so pervasive and we believe that lowering the drinking age would definitely have a negative impact on the number of young drivers in crashes."
In 1999, 2,238 people between the ages of 15 and 20 were killed in drinking-related crashes, according to the NHTSA. In a country where the bulk of transportation takes place in cars, not public transportation, driving while drinking continues to be a major concern among youth.
Ruth Sanchez-Way, director of the Center of Substance Abuse Prevention, says teen drinking also involves serious issues of emotional and physical maturity.
"Alcoholism is a brain disease and the earlier people start drinking, the worse the effects on the brain," she said. "Besides, research has shown that the earlier people start drinking, the more likely they are to develop alcohol problems later in life."
Law enforcement officers commonly refer to what they call the "shoulder tap" phenomenon, where under-age youth tap someone on the shoulder and ask them to buy alcohol.
And the media, said Sanchez-Way, did not help. "Kids get messages from the media that drinking is fun, it looks sexy and it seems like to have fun, you should be drinking."