Should Drinking Age Be 18?

Vermont native Kyle Gilbert was killed in Iraq almost two years ago, but before the 20-year-old shipped out to war he couldn't join his buddies at a local bar for a goodbye drink. And one lawmaker from the Green Mountain State thinks that's wrong.

"It just doesn't sit right with me that people [at the age of 18] have the right to do everything else, including serve their country, but don't have the right to consume alcohol," state Rep. Richard Marron said. "It's a form of age discrimination."

The Republican has proposed a bill to lower the drinking age in Vermont to 18. He has gained support from other lawmakers -- 17 others have signed on as co-sponsors -- but many others are against it.

Wendy Hamilton, the national president of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, disagreed with Marron's comparison of drinking at 18 to gaining the right to vote or buying cigarettes.

"The right to vote isn't going to kill you; drinking at age 18 could," she said.

MADD and the Chrysler Group on Wednesday launched a "21 Turns 21: Lifesaving Milestones" campaign celebrating the anniversary of the 1984 law making 21 the legal drinking age nationwide.

The National Minimum Drinking Age Law

The proposed bill is not likely to pass in Vermont because the state would lose about $9.7 million in federal funding for highways, a provision of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984.

The act required all states to raise their minimum age for purchase and public possession of alcohol to 21. Non-compliance would have meant a reduction in highway funds under the Federal Highway Aid Act.

Marron argues this law is an example of the "federal government intruding where it doesn't belong. Federal highway funding shouldn't be tied to whether or not someone is able to drink."

Hamilton, of course, disagrees, and says the law "has been the most effective drunk driving law in history."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 22,798 lives have been saved from 1975 to 2003 from the raised drinking age. The agency also says that these laws have reduced traffic fatalities involving 18- to 20-year-olds by 13 percent.

Before the national law came into effect in 1984, states had differing minimum drinking ages. A spokeswoman from the NHTSA explained that any state in that time that had a minimum drinking age above the age of 18 is included in these numbers.

Not Just About Drunk Driving

Marron contends that drinking and driving is not the issue at hand. "We should discourage that for all of us," he said.

Hamilton gives another reason for not legalizing drinking for 18-year-olds: it affects the brain.

"We know a whole lot more now than we did in 1984 -- adolescent brain development doesn't really end until the early to mid-20s," she said.

Recent studies from the National Institutes of Health found that brains are not fully developed at 18, perhaps not even until 25. Further, the NIH found that alcohol use at a young age can seriously affect brain development and can increase the likelihood of adult dependency.

A Forbidden Fruit?

When asked if 18-year-olds would just drink the same way 21-year-olds do -- marking birthdays with shots in the quantity of their age -- Marron contested that when he was 18 ("about five decades ago"), he was permitted to drink. He would go to parties with his parents where adults and his friends consumed alcoholic drinks in separate rooms "in what I considered to be an appropriate manner."

Numbers show that times may have changed in those five decades.

A survey by the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration found that in 2003, 71.8 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds consumed alcohol in the past year. Slightly more than 36 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds said they had participated in binge drinking within the past month -- binge drinking is defined by SAMHSA as consuming five or more drinks on the same occasion at least once. Heavy drinking is binge drinking on more than five occasions in the past month, and 13.1 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds admitted to that.

Advocates of lowering the drinking age use examples such as this to make the forbidden-fruit argument. That if 18-year-olds could drink, it would take away some of the excitement of having to wait until 21.

Whether or not younger teens would then start drinking earlier with 18 as the new legal age is unknown.

For now, SAMSHA's survey shows that in 2003, 34.3 percent of 12- to 17-year-olds used alcohol in the past year. Of teens 12- to 17-years-old, 17.7 percent used in the past month, 10.6 percent binged in the last month, and 2.6 percent considered themselves heavy drinkers based on SAMSHA's description.

So the idea that younger teens could start abusing alcohol while waiting for their 18th birthday is not completely out of the question.