Teenagers are drinking alcohol at alarming rates these days. An Associated Press report this week said the average age at which teens start drinking has fallen from about 18 in the 1960s to about 16 as of the late 1990s. In 1999, 2,273 teenagers died in drunken driving-related accidents.
Incredibly, against this backdrop, some are calling on states to begin lowering the drinking age from 21 to 18, returning to levels that existed prior to the mid-1980s, when Congress began withholding federal highway funds from states that didn't raise the age to 21.
This move has been spurred in part by the recent arrests of President Bush's daughters for under-aged drinking. The argument usually goes something like this: If 18-year-olds are old enough to vote and to fight and die in the armed forces, why shouldn't they be considered old enough to drink?
It is an emotional argument that flies in the face of sound reasoning. In the United States, governments have wisely believed in granting privileges at different ages. These ages reflected, in general terms, the point at which most people are considered mature enough to treat the granted privilege responsibly. For example, most states grant qualified teenagers the privilege of driving at age 16. The Constitution grants the right to vote at age 18.
These privileges exist separately. One could not reasonably argue that because a 16-year-old is entrusted with guiding a heavy vehicle down the highway at 75 mph, he or she therefore ought to be considered mature enough to vote. Likewise, it makes little sense to equate the right to vote, or to serve in the armed forces, with alcohol consumption.
Research shows that a person's chances of developing alcoholism or other alcohol-related diseases increases dramatically the earlier one begins consuming alcohol. A law that prohibits drinking until age 21 is both responsible and compassionate. It is a sound public policy.
Some experts have called the effort to raise the drinking age to 21 the most successful anti-drinking effort of the past several decades. As The Associated Press report shows, teen drinking declined by 13 percent in the years after all states had complied. During the first 10 years, the number of alcohol-related traffic deaths among people aged 15-20 decreased by nearly a half.
Another argument for lowering the drinking age goes like this: Kids naturally want to rebel. If they could legally consume alcohol, they wouldn't be so tempted by it.
This simplistic reasoning is flawed on many levels. No responsible person would think of applying it to the use of illegal drunks or any other temptation of youth. More to the point, however, it rests on a faulty premise. Teenagers do not always rebel against what they have been taught at home.
Two years ago, the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University published a study that equated the number of meals parents and children have together with rates of drug, alcohol and tobacco use. The greater the number of meals, the less the abuse. Parents use meals as times to teach and discuss important issues.
The Partnership for a Drug Free America has made similar findings. It found that teens who receive strong anti-drug messages at home are 42 percent less likely to use drugs than those whose parents ignored the issue.
The rise in teen alcohol consumption has nothing to do with the law. It has everything to do with families and parental involvement and with a culture that through movies, advertisements and other means has made drinking seem glamorous and even mandatory.