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1. furnneene - November 28, 2013

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2. incognito4peace - May 18, 2009

A Broken Law

Picture an image of a teen sprawled out over a grimy toilet, his hands gripping on to the sides of the porcelain lid, and sweat soaking his shirt. Beside his twisted legs lies a pair of mangled eyeglasses. The most frightening part of this image is the caption, “Best. Weekend. Ever.” It is hard to believe that this upsetting image is in fact the cover for the recently released movie titled College, a 94-minute glorification of underage binge drinking. This is a common scene in the college lifestyle for many under the age of 21 – but it doesn’t have to be this way.

In 1984, the United States government ordered each state to raise their age for purchase and possession of alcoholic beverages or they would revoke a significant percentage of the funding for their highways. The threat of this Federal Aid Highway Act gave the states no alternative, and by 1988, every state had set their minimum drinking age to 21 (23 U.S.C. § 158). Today, this highly controversial topic has once again become a much-discussed subject, as many important figures such as doctors, teachers, and college presidents have urged reconsideration for revision of this law. Because the current drinking age pushes students into hiding, encourages dangerous binge drinking habits, and elevates the risks taken by minors, the drinking age should be lowered from 21 years of age to 18.

One of the most noticeable effects of the current drinking age is that minors are forced into secretive environments to avoid being caught. This results in a popular consumption style of “drinking to get drunk,” or binge drinking. The Center for Disease Control defines binge drinking as a “common pattern of excessive alcohol use,” in which 5 or more drinks are consumed in a two-hour time frame (NIAAA Newsletter, 2004). Due to the emphasis that society places on the illegality of underage drinking, those who wish to consume alcohol in a moderate way are forced to drink in an irresponsible, unhealthy manner. For high school students, binge drinking occurs more often than any other drinking pattern. In fact, 90% of the alcohol that minors consume is in the form of binge drinks (Gary and Roget 125). When this dangerous habit is formed early, dependencies begin to form. Unfortunately, alcohol use often continues throughout college and becomes elevated.

Why is this a common pattern? Two college professors from Pennsylvania performed a study on the subject. They wanted to understand the underage-drinking phenomenon called “pre-loading” or “pre-gaming.” “Pre-gaming,” or “the practice of drinking alcohol in a private setting prior to attending an organized event/social activity where alcohol might or might not be served” is a perfect example of how minors are pressured into secretive drinking styles (DeJong and DeRicco). Students often drink too much too fast during these settings. “They are more likely to drink heavily when they expect to drink less alcohol later,” since there is a much higher chance they will be caught if they drink in public. Last year, half of all college students reported frequent “hangovers, nausea, and vomiting as a result of drinking,” (DeJong and DeRicco) A quarter of these students reported experiencing blackouts, or “chemically induced periods of amnesia[. . . .]caused by blood alcohol levels high enough to interfere with normal brain function.” (DeJong and DeRicco) It is apparent that these dangerous drinking behaviors are physically destructive.

Another major flaw with the current drinking age is that it doesn’t allow schools to address drinking as a responsible choice. If taught in high school, the subject would become a lighting rod of criticism because it directly addresses a controversial issue. There is a strong parallel to President George W. Bush’s decision in 2004 to promote abstinence instead of sex education in order to reduce the incidence of sexual activity among high school students. According to a long-awaited study mandated by Congress, “high school students who participated in sexual abstinence programs were just as likely to have sex within a few years as those who did not” (U.S. Congress 1997). The very same problem exists with alcohol education: when it comes to alcohol use, schools attempt to promote abstinence but fail to acknowledge the fact that three quarters of their audience already illegally drink (Ponkshe 2007). Thus, by denying use among adolescents and demonizing alcohol, the current drinking age hinders school administrations from addressing both the dangers of alcohol use and from promoting responsibility, maturity, and safety among adolescents on the path to adulthood.

Beyond that, the mishandling of alcohol education in schools leads to the deterioration of parent-child relationships within households. As teenagers begin to experiment with alcohol, communication with their parents quickly breaks down and dishonesty and rebellion become unfortunate themes in households. Teenagers become dishonest with their parents because they fear punishment or being a disappointment. Serious family problems often revolve around alcohol use in teens’ lives. As they become more withdrawn from their parents, adolescents are forced to turn to their peers. They begin to adopt the lifestyles of “irresponsible, rebellious, troublemakers” (PHAC 2005). While rebellion is a common trait among all youths, this particular alcohol driven withdrawal is fairly unique to our country.
To notice this, one needs to compare our society with others around the world. Along with the United States, there are only three other countries in the world, Ukraine, South Korea, and Malaysia that share the drinking age of 21 (WHO 27). In countries like France where the drinking age is 16, adolescents are exposed to drinking at an early age. Instead of being treated as a “forbidden fruit,” alcohol is viewed as a privilege that comes with age. Parents are able to teach their children how to drink responsibly, moderately, and monitor their children’s alcohol consumption. Contrastingly, in America, adolescents are forced to learn about alcohol on their own or from their peers. Such a serious drug should never be experimented with unless authoritative figures are present.

To fully understand why the drinking age should be lowered, one has to study why young adults choose to drink in the first place. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism believes there are six main criteria to account for teen drinking: “risk-taking, expectancies, sensitivity and tolerance to alcohol, personality-characteristics, heredity factors, and environmental aspects” (NIAAA 4). Some of these criteria directly correlate with the drinking age. It is a common tendency for youth to defy leadership and authority, which can ultimately lead to choices that may be perceived as risky and dangerous. “Risk-taking” is a huge component of teen drinking because drinking becomes an act of defiance. Another criteria, “expectancies,” or “how people view alcohol and its effects…..whether they begin to drink and how much,” once again can be traced back to the current drinking age of 21 (8). In most cultures, alcohol is portrayed as a way to experience pleasure. Because minors are denied this privilege in the United States, a sense of unfairness spreads throughout the youth culture.

Besides the six criteria mentioned above, there is one looming, omnipresent factor in teen drinking that has attracted billions of dollars: the media. The media plays a huge role in conveying the appeals of alcohol. We’ve all watched Captain Morgan television commercials, seen Bud Light sports banners, and admired sexy supermodels advertising alcohol in magazines. Daniel Jernigan and Jeremy Ostroff published a study they conducted in the article, “Youth Exposure to Alcohol Advertising in Magazines.” The study focused on 250 magazines that were distributed in 2007. Of those 250, 143 magazines contained advertisements for alcohol products. Of those 143 magazines, 51 had more than a 15% reader population between the ages of 12 and 20. 9 of the magazines had more than a 30% reader population between the ages of 12 and 20.
This study provides conclusive evidence that many magazines target youth with alcohol advertisements (Jernigan and Ostroff 2). How can the government expect the youth to wait until they are 21 to consume alcohol when advertisements depict alcohol to be a sophisticated, wealthy man’s drink? Because of the images portrayed in these magazines, adolescents are choosing to drink with the idea that the more alcohol consumed, the more success and wealth they will acquire. Advertising and sale of alcoholic beverages on or near campuses glorifies the role that alcohol provides in college life into being a way to have fun and experience promiscuous encounters. “[The] combination of social and environmental influences creates a culture of drinking that passively or actively promotes the use of alcohol” in the college realm (5).

Underage drinking can become a gateway to other addiction related crimes. For instance, the use of fake IDs is a rampant problem among youth. It wasn’t until the establishment of the drinking age in 1984 that the production of fake IDs skyrocketed. Young adults who purchase or produce these false forms of identification acquire the high and mighty but hollow sense of adulthood. In many states, getting caught with a fake ID can result in a felony conviction. Felonies can lead to extended jail times, enormous fees, and permanent felony records. So why do underage drinkers continue to take such risks? A 2002 National Institute of Health study found that “alcohol consumption on many campuses has evolved into a rite of passage. Traditions and beliefs handed down through generations of college drinkers serve to reinforce students’ expectations that alcohol is a necessary component of social success” (NIH 12). Because many cannot resist the allure of clubs, bars, parties, and liquor stores, the drinking age is causing more and more naive adolescents to compromise their innocence.

The current drinking age also elevates the risk of physical and psychological health problems for minors as a result of dangerous binge drinking habits. In 2007, Preventative Chronic Disorders published an article called “Binge Drinking and Occupation.” In this article, authors DW Jarman and SP Pickard state that, “[b]inge drinking is a leading cause of preventable death” (Jarman and Pickard 2). Due to the current drinking age, teens fail to recognize the ominous health effects that await them because societal pressures veil their logic. High alcohol use can jeopardize brain development and lead to many psychological problems and dependencies. The health problems that arise from teen drinking dramatically metastasize throughout adulthood (14). Statistically, “[t]hose who binge drink before they are 21 are 75% more likely to retain binge-drinking habits later in life” (14). Many of those that were unable to learn to drink responsibly eventually develop alcoholism, a common disease in which “a person drinks alcohol even though drinking hurts his or her life” (CC, 2008). Consequences of alcoholism are severe: Beside the social effects, marital problems, legal issues, and vocational failures, serious physical health problems arise. Alcohol liver disease, brain damage, cancer, and diabetes are just a few potential health consequences of alcohol abuse (15).

When comparing the consumption of alcohol in the United States to that of France, an interesting term is often used: the “French Paradox.” This term refers to countries such as France that “have high per capita alcohol consumption but appear to have low rates of coronary heart disease relative to their level of consumption of animal fat” (WHO 1999). This paradox results from the fact that the French consume alcohol more frequently but in much lower quantities. Their moderate drinking habits correlate with a low number of alcohol-related health problems. In French society, a heavy drinker is commonly frowned upon and “alcohol-related problems become taboos in families [and] work places” (Pekka 1). This evidence leads back to the national drinking age within each country. The French are taught at an early age (16 or earlier) how to act responsibly, while simultaneously being introduced to alcohol. This ultimately molds people into more responsible and moderate drinkers. Some of the most convincing proof of this lies in the statistic that “80% of ‘drinking occasions’ in France is with lunch and dinner” (3).

There is one main obstacle that has prevented the drinking age from being lowered. MADD or Mothers Against Drunk Driving is an organization that has remained a firm advocate for keeping the current drinking age. In fact, the organization’s voice was a huge factor for enacting the National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984. MADD’s main argument for keeping the drinking age at 21, lies in the fact that the number of DUI related deaths between the ages of 15 and 20 has dropped since 1984. While this shows the effectiveness of the policy twenty years ago, there are a few possible explanations for this. Rather than attributing the drop in DUI’s to the drinking age, Professor David J. Hansen Ph.D at the State University of New York states, “[t]ougher DUI laws, increased enforcement, mandatory sentencing, mandatory seat belt usage, .08 legal BAC limit, and a massive public information campaign-have been extremely successful in both reducing the instance of driving under the influence and alcohol-related deaths on the road” (Choose Responsibility 1).
Another interesting fact to note is that in 1984, when the National Minimum Drinking Act was established, traffic fatalities were already decreasing significantly. In fact, the decline of DUI’s started twenty years before the law was enacted. Furthermore, cars have since become substantially safer as a result of design and the adoption of seat belts and air bags. Many overlook the fact that while the number of DUI related deaths did indeed decrease for the age group of 15-21, it actually increased in the age group between 21-24. Therefore, a number of DUI deaths were merely displaced to an older age group.

Though MADD has influenced political decisions, the government is ultimately responsible for setting the age limit, and should be blamed for its stubborn and conservative ways. The government is constantly trying to fix the problems of alcohol use and abuse with legislation. In January of 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment was passed, prohibiting all sales and consumption of alcoholic beverages within the United States. Just like the National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984, the Eighteenth Amendment provided a few benefits. Unfortunately, a long list of disadvantages also surfaced. There are close parallels drawn between the Prohibition Act of 1919 and the National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984 (US Const., art. 5, sec. 4). First, both laws proved to be very difficult to enforce. During the thirteen years of prohibition, it is estimated that only 5% of smuggled alcohol was intercepted (Madison 5). Before prohibition was finally disbanded, alcohol-consumption rates had skyrocketed to more than 60% higher its pre-prohibition level (5). Today, 86% of minors illegally consume alcohol, announcing the fact that both laws have failed (NIH 9). However, enforcement wasn’t the only issue that arose from the two laws. As a result of Prohibition, crime in the 1920s exploded. In fact, “Prohibition became so ineffective that arrests for drunkenness and disorderly conduct increased 41%, while arrests for drunk driving increased 81%, which defeated the whole purpose of Prohibition” (Madison 6). Once again, a similarity between the two laws arose. Since 1984, “alcohol-related arrests outnumber arrests for any other type of crime” (NIH 9). Taking a close look at the two laws, one can draw similarities between the failed policies of the government from the two eras. From this analysis, it is important to realize the need for reopening the discussion on underage drinking in order to pursue new avenues, one of which is lowering the drinking age.

While people often attempt to define adulthood, there is of course no set age when an adolescent becomes an adult. Instead, society strives to structure a gradual maturity process that requires time and heightened knowledge. These structural guidelines are provided to keep people “on track” and encourage responsible and mature behavior. We are encouraged to attend elementary school, and later move on to high school. At the age of 18, teenagers are forced to make some important life decisions propelling them further on the track to adulthood. The opportunity to pursue further education, the ability to vote in elections, enlist in the army, legally claim oneself as independent, the right to marry, purchase firearms, purchase cigarettes, adopt a child, and serve on a jury all become available at this age (Solomon and Hansen 54). This first crossroad begins to distinguish many children from adults. While all of these opportunities are significant, there is one important badge of responsibility missing – the right to purchase, possess and consume alcohol. As a result, there is an enormous gap in responsibility between the ages of 18 and 21. This gap allows people to put off maturity and adulthood until they reach the age of 21. The government attempts to promote responsibly and maturity, yet they don’t provide the opportunity for these young adults to prove that they have attained these traits. As many fail to adopt responsible roles, “the proportion of current drinkers that binge [becomes the highest] in the 18- to 20-year-old group” (CDC 2). By granting these individuals a long list of rights, and yet depriving them of one important social right, the law creates a harmful discrepancy. This leads to a mindset of, “If I’m not an adult, I don’t have responsibility for the rest of my duties.” Thus, the higher drinking age is a disservice to kids; it gives them an argument to be irresponsible.

I realize this is a controversial issue that many people are deeply concerned about. When I was considering writing about this topic, one organization in particular caught my interest. The credibility of this institution motivated me to choose this topic for my paper. The sole purpose of this organization called the Amethyst Initiative is to facilitate discussion on an issue that needs to be addressed and kept in the public eye: lowering the drinking age. This organization consists of 134 signatories like President Ronald Liebowitz of Middlebury College, who is a strong advocate for lowering the drinking age. Founded in July 2008, the Amethyst Initiative recruits presidents and chancellors from prestigious universities across the country including Duke University, Johns Hopkins University, and Dartmouth College (AI 1). By using the credibility of this organization to aid my argument, I knew that I could provide substantial elements of ethos to my essay. My argument contains a great deal of merit since esteemed college presidents are questioning whether the current drinking age is appropriate.
Roderic Park, a former chancellor of the University of Colorado at Boulder and a current signatory of the Amethyst Initiative, presented an interesting solution to help battle the dangerous drinking habits of young adults. In addition to lowering the drinking age to 18, he proposed to “allow 18-20 year olds who complete an alcohol education program to obtain a drinking license” (AI 6). Park’s tactic would force every 18-20 year old to complete a course that could finally address the issues of responsibility involved with drinking. Just as schools teach sex education, they need to play a leading role in alcohol education as well. This means teaching moderate, healthy, and responsible alcohol consumption-choices to every American.

I have seen the effects of alcohol education first hand. As a teenager, there were never any authority figures that taught me what responsible drinking meant. The typical response in my environment of parents and teachers was to plainly teach abstinence from alcohol. Until I received a ticket for the underage possession of alcohol just six months before my 21st birthday, I had never received any relevant information on the subject of alcohol use or abuse. Along with 24 hours of community service, the court mandated me to take an alcohol education class. This class spanned over four days for a total of 20 hours. In less than a week, I learned more about alcohol use than anyone had ever taught me before. Because the teacher understood that most of the students already consumed alcohol, she was able to effectively relate facts and information to the individualized behaviors of the students. The class encouraged students to look at their own drinking habits and identity behaviors that were harmful or potentially harmful. If I had taken this class four years earlier, I would have made more responsible and healthy choices.

The alcohol education system, or the lack thereof, doesn’t allow people to understand health, social, financial, and legal outcomes of alcohol misuse until its too late. Alcohol becomes a “forbidden fruit” that minors cannot have, and thus creates a natural tendency for them to want it. Children show the same tendency well before they are aware of the existence of alcohol. A recent study found that “restricting children’s access to foods they want may lead to over-indulgence when they are free to make their own choices” (Fisher 25). Once minors begin to drink to obtain what they cannot have, studies show that the illegality factor of underage drinking leads them to make other illegal choices (Rosko 1). Since these adolescents are already breaking the law, they begin to feel a loss of innocence. This leads them to make more serious choices that often involve drugs and crime in order to seek the thrills of attaining that which is forbidden.

The current drinking age of 21 contains many flaws. The damaging ramifications are outweighing the few benefits of the 1984 law. Lowering of the drinking age, accompanied by careful parenting, and alcohol education programs would encourage responsible drinking, not secretive, dangerous binge drinking. As many fight to bring these issues to light, the government continues to turn their backs. People like Vermont State Senator Hinda Miller are deeply concerned with the current law. ”Our laws aren’t working. They’re not preventing underage drinking. What they’re doing is putting it outside the public eye,” she states. ”So you have a lot of kids binge drinking. They get sick, they get scared and they get into trouble and they can’t call because they know it’s illegal” (Miller 29). In order for adolescents to learn true responsibility, they need to be given the chance to prove themselves. Also, they need to be given the opportunity to fail in a controlled environment where they are protected by a safety net. If you treat an adolescent like a kid, they will most likely act like a kid. If the drinking age were to be lowered, there would ultimately be less long-term health issues among growing young adults, and a societal readjustment of attitude towards the maturity level reached at the age of 18 would occur.


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