Drinking through the ages

Gerald Rich

Editor’s note: This is the second installment in a semimonthly, three-part series of Thirsty Thursday Investigates underage drinking focusing on minimum legal drinking age.

Why is the minimum legal drinking age 21 and not 18?

The answer is more complicated than you might think. Every aspect of the regulation of alcohol, beyond the one regarding underage drinking and counterfeit IDs, depends upon almost innumerable factors. The question of the minimum legal drinking age being 21 is more than someone’s bluff to keep kids wholesome. It’s a question of public safety for multiple groups of voters and state versus federal power.

There was a time when an 18-year-old could buy alcohol. From the end of Prohibition until the Vietnam War, the minimum legal drinking age, or MLDA, was 21 in a majority of states, with each state deciding their own minimum. In 1973, Texas lowered the drinking age to 18 — only two years after the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18 during the rising tide of young anti-war protestors. Texas then raised the drinking age to 19 in 1981 shortly before President Reagan used his federal power to override individual states’ MLDAs in 1986.

“There were arguments that the lower drinking age was contributing to more highway deaths and, in fact, the number of highway deaths fell significantly after the drinking age went back to 21,” said Carolyn Beck, director of communications and governmental relations for the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission. “Additionally, the federal government tied highway funding to alcohol laws, including the drinking age and the allowable blood alcohol content for drivers. Those states who didn’t conform their laws lost federal funding.”

So, not only are MLDA- and DUI-related fatalities major factors in the decision, but the federal government ensures this isn’t a law for states to mess with. If states do not comply with the law, the government can subtract up to 10 percent from the National Highway System Component, Surface Transportation Program and Interstate Maintenance Component budgets, totaling millions of dollars and jobs lost for the state, according to Title 23, Section 158 of the United States Code.

“State legislators, many of whom will admit the law is bad, are held hostage by the denial of federal highway funds if they reduce the drinking age,” wrote John McCardell, president emeritus of Middlebury College in a 2004 New York Times op-ed article. “Would we expect a student who has been denied access to oil paint to graduate with an ability to paint a portrait in oil? Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.”

However, McCardell’s argument for a more open society that allows for people to learn their limits at a younger age ignores some
important numbers.

“The year that Reagan passed MLDA 21, crashes went down by an overall 15 percent nationwide and 20 percent in Texas,” said Jill Johnstone, state and central program specialist for Mothers Against Drunk Driving. “The brain doesn’t stop developing till you’re 22 or 24, specifically your ability to make judgments, risk assessments and short-term memory. An 18-year-old isn’t mentally developed to make the right decisions.”

Nevertheless, what about Europe, the seemingly fantastic “open waters” where almost any Longhorn studying abroad can pull up a chair, order a stiff drink and play the game?

In recent years, Europe has been rethinking their minimum drinking age, their policies on alcohol and what they commonly call across the pond, drink-driving. But the European Union’s 2009 Alcohol Strategy Progress Report also points out other factors that have successfully reduced the number of drunk-driving deaths, such as lowering the blood alcohol content limits without raising the MLDA.

After 24 member states adopted a BAC limit of 0.05 percent by volume or below in 2004, with some adopting a graduated limit for younger or more at-risk drivers or an overall limit of 0.2 percent or even 0 percent, the number of deaths fell from 54,000 in 2001 to 39,000 in 2008. That’s an impressive 28-percent drop. Conversely, Texas’ BAC limit remains at 0.08 percent by volume for anyone of legal drinking age.

Unfortunately in the U.S., here’s where the game of politics becomes tricky. In recent legislative sessions, MADD has tried to introduce more legislation such as random BAC tests in high-risk areas, but to no avail.

“It has to do with a lot of civil liberties and potential racial profiling,” Johnstone said. “The fact of the matter is that’s not supposed to happen. Police officers are supposed to look at areas with high rates of DUI fatalities, not tell people where that is and know how many cars they’re pulling over.”

Even by attempting to lower blood alcohol levels to compensate lowering the legal age to drink, there will always be a bigger game of politics in the U.S., and especially in Texas. If politicians play the civil liberties card well, it trumps everything else regardless of perceived civil liberties of the 18- to 20-year-old voting bloc.

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