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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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The fallacies of the 21-year-old drinking age

The fact that the drinking age is 21 years old in the United States has always bothered me. The reasoning for this arbitrary number of birthdays has never made logical sense, as many underage University of Wisconsin-Madison students, Wisconsin residents and other college students indulge early in their non-sober lives. 

Let us be realistic for a moment. Is anyone truly convinced that a majority of American teenagers are law-abiding citizens of the United States and wait until 21 years of age to take their first sips of alcohol? I seem to think not. However, there are many scenarios and explanations as to why these teenagers choose to drink or remain sober until they are out of their parents’ houses. 

Many parents in religious households, predominantly Protestant Christians as well as Muslims, are sober because of reasons in their respective religious scriptures. 

Ephesians 5:18 strikes down on any level of “drunkness” portrayed by a member of the church, but does not explicitly prohibit the consumption of alcohol. Yet, many members of the faith infer this sentiment as a call to prohibitionism, whereas alcohol will inherently incur a sense of “drunkness.” For Muslims, this is far more restricted, with alcohol being explicitly forbidden in the Quran because of the effects it has on the body and mind. 

Logically, if the parents of a household are sober for religious reasons, or for moral reasons, their children are likely to abide by similar principles while living at home. This also means these children are usually not exposed to drinking in any form during their adolescence, thus creating a lack of education about how to drink alcohol later on in their lives. 

This does not mean these teens will necessarily feel so inclined to drink alcohol the moment they leave their childhood households. However, the freedom associated with this nuanced adulthood can bring uneducated decisions about their consumption.

Education surrounding the consumption of alcohol is extremely important for adolescents around the world – regardless of how mundane it may seem. Yet, who is left to teach them if parents choose to not expose their children to these lessons? Rather than having access to necessary education about how to enjoy alcohol safely, many young Americans are left stranded. 

Across the Atlantic, Europeans are doing a far better job educating their youth about safe consumption practices. France has been anecdotally known for its great acceptance of alcohol through the rich culture of French wine. 

When I visited my French-exchange student in Reims, about 90 minutes Northeast of Paris, his parents supplied a mere fluid ounce of wine for us to enjoy with our lunch. This is somewhat customary, as this amount of wine is not enough for individuals to feel any level of intoxication but instead allows for French teens to grow accustomed to the national wine culture. 

Since the French youth are usually exposed to alcohol at earlier ages than their American counterparts, they better understand risks associated with the poisonous drink and learn to manage their alcohol without parental supervision. 

In fact, 2015 data showed France had less alcohol-related car deaths than the US. With the lowered drinking age to 18, the French are able to educate their youth about drinking and driving early, thus causing a nationally lower number of alcohol-related car deaths. 

American teenagers who lack this prior exposure in the U.S. are thrown into the binge-drinking communities of many American universities and are forced to quickly learn how to manage their alcohol on their own.

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Yet, some states have taken steps that allow parents to choose when and how they educate their children about alcohol. Wisconsin state law allows the consumption of alcohol by anyone under the age of 21 if a parent or guardian is present, making this a private decision. Parents can determine when their children are mature enough to learn about alcohol, instead of leaving the choice to restrict consumption until 21 years old up to the government. 

Why 21 years old?

Regulation in America and other countries around the world makes complete sense. A minimum age of 18 to legally enjoy an alcoholic beverage is necessary for the safety of our communities. But, how much of this regulation should be allowed, and who should make the decision to regulate?

Before 1984, the federal drinking age in America was 18 years old. The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 officially changed the federal age to 21 years old, but the reasons for this modification were quite baffling. Forgoing the science that may be involved, a classic political trade-off was the major reason in getting this bill passed. The federal government threatened to withhold highway funding if states did not raise their drinking age. The result? Every state changed their laws to receive this federal funding. 

After this law was passed, the classic sound bite surrounding the high drinking age was introduced to American media. The, “why should we be allowed to serve in the military, possibly giving the ultimate sacrifice, but not legally be allowed to enjoy a beer?” has exponentially gained attraction with many journalists. While this sound bite is completely correct in that this law is extremely illogical, concrete steps must be taken to revert the drinking age back to 18. 

However, moving toward this change would be extremely difficult. Lowering the drinking age lacks importance relative to other issues plaguing our nation. Similarly, a change to this law would barely matter for the constituents of these elected officials. Since only a small portion of these constituents would fall in the three year lame-duck ages of not being able to legally indulge from 18-21, why would other of-age constituents even care about this issue?

Widespread underage drinking on American college campuses should signal that the enforcement of these state and federal laws do little to nothing to prevent underage consumption. Would a college student really be dissuaded from drinking again if they got a couple-hundred-dollar drinking ticket? If these prosecutions are doing nothing, why even prosecute? 

The alternate point of view – 18-21 year olds drinking alcohol are more likely to commit acts of sexual and physical violence – is always brought up. Yes, we must acknowledge this is the case currently. But, if American culture were to insist on an 18 year old drinking age, American households would naturally be more inclined to expose their youth to alcohol at early ages. Early exposure would better teach the correct ways to drink and manage intoxication levels, so college students can be more aware of violence on campus. 

So, America, we need a change. Let us return back to the normalcy the rest of the world has retained for years and allow 18 year olds to drink – not only from a cultural standpoint, but an educational one as well. 

Ethan Wollins is a current editor of the Opinion section and serves on the editorial board. He is a junior studying Political Science and Journalism. Do you believe the drinking age should be younger than 21 years of age? Send all comments to

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