The Drinking Age Debate: Pros and Cons of Lowering the Legal Drinking Age

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For decades, ever since the days of Prohibition, in fact, many politicians, academics, and parents alike have engaged in the drinking age debate – the question being whether or not the legal drinking age of 21 should be lowered to 18?

The topic never seems to fully disappear, and New Hampshire and California are two of the latest states to reignite the drinking age debate with political proposals hoping to gain support from voters. The California proposal[1] aims to make the purchase and consumption of alcohol legal for those 18 and up, while the New Hampshire bill[2] would make it legal for those aged 18-20 to drink beer and wine, as long as they are in the presence of 21-and-over adults.

The legal drinking age in our nation, which is dictated on a state-by-state basis, has a varied history. At the repeal of Prohibition, the legal drinking age was accepted nationwide as 21, but when the voting age dropped from 21 to 18 in the early 1970s, many states followed suit by lowering the drinking age as well. However, not long after, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was passed, punishing states that allowed persons under 21 to purchase and publicly possess alcoholic beverages.

Since then, all 50 states have again adopted the age of 21 (with some allowing special permissions, such as Wisconsin’s stipulation that persons under 21 may be served or consume alcohol if they are with a parent, legal guardian, or spouse who is of legal drinking age).

Should We Lower The Legal Drinking Age Again?

A multitude of academic and politically-backed research has been conducted in order to answer the question, “Which age is best for the safety of young people?” No matter which side of the drinking age debate you agree with, it must be recognized that young adults will drink alcohol, no matter what the legal drinking age. According to the 2013 National Survey on Drug Use and Health[3], approximately 35 percent of 15-year-olds state that they have had at least one alcoholic beverage in their lives, and about four out of five college students drink alcohol regularly.

Not sure if you believe the legal drinking age should be lowered to 18? Here are some of the most widely-recognized pros and cons of the drinking age debate.

Pros to Reducing the Drinking Age:

  • •  It would decrease binge drinking: Many believe[4] that if young adults had easier access to alcohol (without the need to obtain fake IDs, etc.), they would not feel the need to drink so excessively when given the opportunity.
  • •   It would create a safer drinking environment:[5] A reduced drinking age would increase the likelihood of young adults calling the police or other authority figures when in need of help, such as when a friend is showing signs of alcohol poisoning or when they need a safe ride home.
  • •   It’s simply unjust: Eighteen is the age we become an adult in the eyes of the law, and also when we are able to vote and serve in the military. The argument[6], “I can serve my country, but I can’t be served a drink?” often comes up.


Cons to Lowering the Drinking Age:

  • • It would increase reckless driving behavior: Eighteen-year-olds are already inexperienced drivers – with the decreased inhibitions and poor judgment associated with just a few drinks, the roads could become even more dangerous. A 2002 meta-study by of the legal drinking age and traffic accidents found that higher legal drinking ages were associated with lower rates of traffic accidents[7].
  • •   Our brains aren’t fully developed at 18: In fact, many experts believe[8] our brains aren’t fully mature until our mid-20s. That means “legal” adults can make serious decisions without a fully-developed brain, often leading to risky behavior. Plus, alcohol consumption in teens can lead to altered brain development[9].
  • •   It could lead to increased high school dropouts: The reduced drinking age of 18 in the 1970s and 80s led to an increased high school dropout rate – specifically, the rate shot up from 4 percent to 13 percent. Many fear that the same will happen again if we decide to reduce the legal drinking age[10].


Whether the legal drinking age is 18 or 21, we must recognize that many young adults and teens will drink alcohol and even engage in binge drinking. And even more importantly, we must recognize that proper education is important for young adults to make safe, smart decisions regarding their own behaviors. While the drinking age debate rages on, we must continue to work hard to monitor and educate young adults about the dangers of alcohol abuse.

[1] Nelson, Steven. “Want to Lower the Drinking Age? You’ll Have to Work for It.” U.S. News. Retrieved from on March 17, 2016.

[2] Boggs, Justin. “N.H. Considering Dropping the Legal Drinking Age.” The E.W. Scripps Company.

[3] “College Drinking.” National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Retrieved from on March 15, 2016.

[4] Ramos, Stephanie. “Study: Lowering Drinking Age May Stop Binge Drinking in College.” ABC News. Retrieved from on March 16, 2016.

[5] Tucker, Jeffery A. “The Drinking Age Should Be Lowered, Fast.” Newsweek. Retrieved from on March 16, 2016

[6] Johnson, Brent. “Lawmaker Wants to Lower N.J. Drinking Age to 18.” New Jersey On-Line LLC. Retrieved from on March 17, 2016.

[7] Alexander C. Wagenaar and Traci L. Toomey, “Effects of Minimum Drinking Age Laws: Review and Analyses of the Literature from 1960 to 2000,” Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 2002.

[8] “Understanding the Teen Brain.” University of Rochester Medical Center. Retrieved from on March 16, 2016.

[9] “Dangers of Teen Drinking.” Federal Trade Commission. Retrieved from March 16, 2016.

[10] “Lower Drinking Age Leads to More High School Dropouts.” Newsmax Media, Inc. Retrieved from on March 17, 2016.

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