In Defense of the Drinking Age

Friday, June 1st, 2012

Viewpoints like John M. McCardell Jr.’s in “Let Them Drink at 18, With a Learner’s Permit,” published this week on the New York Times site, are exactly what gets in the way of progress in substance abuse prevention and education today. McCardell’s inflammatory comments (equating binge drinking with a non-existent “binge driving” trend and calling alcohol abuse prevention programs “hysterical pronouncements”) are not based on fact, but rather on the author’s own opinions and self-serving propaganda. He makes unconnected leaps between issues and includes no data to back up his claims. The national drinking age was set at 21 for a reason—and unfortunately, McCardell simply hasn’t done his research.

McCardell supports the creation of a sort of “drinking learner’s permit” for teens, much like a driver’s permit. He applauds the efficacy of driver’s education and graduated learner’s permits, and insists that this type of program/permit would also help make teen drinking safer. But has the learner’s permit really helped with teen driving, when motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in U.S. teens? With car crashes causing one in three teen deaths today, we can hardly sit back and celebrate the success of learner’s permits.

But sure, for argument’s sake, let’s say the driving learner’s permit were a tremendous success. That still doesn’t mean it would be remotely applicable to teen drinking. Why? Because driving, unlike drinking, does not alter the chemistry of the brain, nor does it affect one’s ability to respond to a situation with accuracy. Driving doesn’t affect the frontal lobe—the part of the brain responsible for decision-making. I understand that McCardell is trying to be witty by comparing binge drinking and “binge driving,” but the argument simply doesn’t hold water.

I also have to question McCardell’s motivations. Perhaps he realizes that if drinking were legal at 18, he would have fewer litigious issues to deal with at the University of the South, where he is vice-chancellor and president. If drinking were legal even for college freshmen, McCardell and other administrators would be off the hook as enforcers. They would certainly get fewer complaints from parents, and they’d also avoid getting sued. Perhaps McCardell’s judgment on this particular issue is clouded by self-interest.

And then there’s his simple misrepresentation of the facts. While he concedes that underage alcohol use is lower than it was before the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act was issued in 1984, he insists that the binge drinking rates haven’t changed. In reality, binge drinking among 12th-graders peaked in the early 1980s at 41 percent and fell sharply throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s. The rate hit 32 percent in 1998 and continued to decline during the following decade, reaching an historic low of 21.6 percent in 2011—all signs point to success of the age-21

minimum. Plus, research shows that when the minimum legal drinking age is 21, kids under 21 drink less overall and continue to do so even after they reach and surpass the legal drinking age. This is particularly important since we know that people who reach age 21 without developing a drinking problem are unlikely to develop one later on in life.

“What do we do to prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol?” McCardell asks, and then answers his own question: “Beyond sometimes hysterical pronouncements about the evils of drink, not much.” Well, speak for yourself—maybe the folks at the University of the South aren’t doing much, but there are plenty of prevention and education resources and programs for young people and parents across the country, offered by universities and community organizations alike. Here at Phoenix House, we pride ourselves on offering this exact type of programming in order to educate kids and families before substance abuse starts.

I do agree with one of McCardell’s points: prohibition is not the answer. But neither is lowering the minimum legal drinking age. The government makes decisions and sets national guidelines based on findings that research and data have shown are of significant importance to public health. This is true in regards to the drinking age. Sure, it used to be 18, but look at those statistics I mentioned; the age was changed for a reason, and it has helped. The same goes for the legal limit to qualify as intoxicated; it used to be .1 and is now .08—that’s the equivalent of one less drink over an hour. These are small changes, but they were made for a reason and have proven to be effective. We’re all on the same learning curve here; let’s not take an unnecessary step backwards.

Deni Carise, Ph.D.
Chief Clinical Officer
Phoenix House

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  • Denise Miller

    Thank you for this awesome response to McCardell’s ridiculous piece in the New York Times. I thought he’d learn his lesson when his beloved Amethyst Initiative died on the vine with less than 4% of college presidents signing it! Proactive prevention is the key to optimal safety, health and well being!

  • Julia

    I don’t have strong feelings one way or the other on the minimum drinking age being 18 or 21, but I recently graduated college and witnessed a friend getting alcohol poisoning. Honestly I’m surprised and confused that a rehab center would say “all signs point to success of the age-21” by citing a study of 12th graders. Why look at the trends of 12th graders when you’re assessing a law effecting 18-20 year olds? I turned 18 the week before I graduated high school. Depending on what time of the year the survey was given, it could be that nearly all of the students were 17. A more accurate population to look at for the minimum drinking age is college students.

    I just wouldn’t characterize any current laws or policies as pointing to success for reducing college binge drinking. When my friend passed out and became unresponsive after drinking vodka, the kids I was with tried to talk me out of calling 911 because they didn’t want to get in trouble for drinking underage on campus. I did of course call 911, which I knew wasn’t that unusual because I heard the sirens of alcohol transports late at night happening at least once every weekend when I lived in the dorms.

    After my friend was transported by ambulance for alcohol poisoning, my mom and I started talking about drinking and comparing our college experiences. She was in college when the legal age was 18. She remembered keg parties in the dorms on the weekends, but she said she doesn’t remember there ever being hard alcohol around, which was what my friend had been drinking. We drank liquor because it was easier to sneak into the dorms. Either that or we drove to parties off campus, which always brought up the issue of getting home….

    Everyone knows that college students drink, and maybe they would drink more if it were legal for them too. But I’m not convinced that keeping it illegal for them to do so helps in the important ways, or if it just drives it underground away from help and responsibility.

  • Deni Carise

    Thanks for your comment, Julia, and we’re so sorry to hear about your friend. It’s true that college binge drinking remains a major problem and that more college-specific studies need to be done in this area. However, we’re also concerned that the push from college administrators to shift the drinking age down to 18 may be selfishly motivated; if all college students could drink legally, college administrators would no longer be responsible for curtailing their students’ drinking. Yes, this would be easier for them, but it would be much more dangerous for students. Plus, the research we do have access to shows that the legal minimum of 21 has indeed had a positive overall effect: as mentioned in the blog, kids under 21 drink less overall when the minimum age is 21. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration calculated that the age-21 policy prevented a total of 17,359 deaths from 1975-1998 ( We included that study of 12th graders as an example that shows the correlation between an age 21 legal drinking age and decreased underage (in this case, 17- and 18-year-old) drinking. As for college binge drinking, the answer is in education and prevention—not in lowering the legal drinking age.