This semester I am teaching a lot of college freshman. As I look out into my classroom I am excited for my students. They will get to participate in university life, make new friends, and try to figure out what to do when they enter “the real world.” It’s an exciting time in their lives. But looking at my students, I also worry. I worry that some will have problems adjusting. I worry that some will abuse their newly found freedom, and it will get them in trouble. I worry about the choices they will make. It concerns me that, at 18, they may make decisions with life-altering consequences and repercussions they can’t yet appreciate.
I think back to when I was a freshman in college. I was by no means a partier, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have memories of drinking the worst rot-gut whiskey in my friends’ dorm rooms and houses. (The warm cola chaser didn’t help.) The worst I ever suffered were hangovers, but others aren’t so lucky. Every year about 2,000 college students die from alcohol-related injuries. Rape and sexual assault are issues on many campuses, and alcohol often lurks in the background. About 25 percent of students report their drinking has resulted in academic consequences ranging from missing class and failing exams to receiving poor grades. Tragically, more than 150,000 students develop health-related problems from drinking.
That’s why I support lowering the drinking age.
Given the data I’ve presented, my position must seem crazy. But the laws setting the minimum drinking age at 21 are classic examples of a well-intentioned policy with truly devastating unintended consequences.
In 1984 the National Minimum Drinking Age Act required all 50 states to raise their drinking age to 21 or face a 10 percent decrease in federal funding for highways. On the surface this seems like a good idea. The federal government, interested in preserving the lives and health of American youth, pushed states to adopt stricter guidelines on alcohol. But the story doesn’t end there.
Prohibiting a substance doesn’t make the market for it disappear. Just as the prohibition of drug use and prostitution has not stopped these activities, banning drinking for persons under 21 doesn’t stop 18-year-olds from drinking. Prohibition does, however, make underage drinking a lot less safe. By pushing that market for alcohol underground, people like my college students have to do their drinking in secret or risk getting caught, fined, and possibly jailed. They could face additional consequences at school.
The problem here is obvious. If a 21-year-old woman overindulges at the bar, the bartender, friends, or even other patrons can encourage her to stop. If she becomes ill or injured, someone is there to help.
But if the woman is 18 she can’t go to the bar. So, like many college students, she goes to her friends’ place or a party. If she becomes violently ill from overconsumption or something else happens, what options are available? The woman, unable to help herself, must rely on friends who are probably also underage. They are faced with the choice of calling for help and getting busted or trying to care for their friend themselves and hoping for the best.
Another problem is what economists call “potency effects.” Underage drinkers are more likely to consume stronger or greater quantities of alcohol at each opportunity than legal drinkers because they know they may be caught or not have regular access to alcohol. They “pregame” -- that is, drink -- before going out, knowing they won’t be served alcohol later. This behavior, encouraged by the drinking laws, is more likely to lead to alcohol poisoning and even death. In fact, of all underage drinking, some 90 percent is consumed through binge drinking.
People who care about the perils of alcohol should seriously consider supporting a lowering of the drinking age. While that policy won’t eliminate alcohol abuse among youth, it could save thousands of lives.
Hall is an Independent Institute Research Fellow (Independent.org) and an assistant professor of Economics at the University of Tampa.