One would hardly know it given the omnipresence of advertising that depicts alcohol as the ultimate social elixir, but America is in the midst of a new era of temperance. The national alcoholic binge triggered by the end of Prohibition 75 years ago this December peaked in 1980 and per capita alcoholic consumption has declined by 15 percent in the years since. Meanwhile tensions over the role government should play in the regulation of alcohol have bubbled to the surface in a long-simmering dispute over the legal drinking age.
The passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 granted 18-year-olds the right to vote and many states followed suit by making 18 the legal drinking age as well. The subsequent emergence of a new temperance movement led by Remove Intoxicated Drivers (RID) and Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) not only led to a general strengthening of drunk-driving laws nationwide, but in 1984 prompted Congress to threaten to withhold federal highway funds from any state that did not establish a minimum drinking age of 21. All 50 states and the District of Columbia complied.
This year more than 100 college presidents signed a petition calling for renewed debate about the drinking age. They echo the argument raised against Prohibition that trying to outlaw drinking merely drives it underground. Clandestine binge drinking by college students now results in more than 1,700 deaths a year from traffic accidents, falls, suffocation, drowning and alcohol poisoning. Lowering the legal age to 18, the college presidents contend, would lead to safer drinking in settings where adults and peers could exert a moderating influence and help prevent drunks from driving. In rebuttal, advocates of the status quo point to statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that indicate traffic fatalities among 18-to-20-year-old drivers have fallen by 13 percent since 21 was adopted as the legal drinking age.
The hard truth is that when it comes to dealing with alcohol, America is prone to extremes, the long and colorful history of which is chronicled in our cover story “Uneasy About Alcohol,” p. 32. MADD and other architects of modern temperance have done a great public service by highlighting the deadly dangers of excessive drinking and shaming lawmakers into strengthening the penalties for drunk driving. But expecting college students to totally abstain from alcohol is unrealistic. Unfortunately, so is expecting them to automatically behave more responsibly if the legal age is lowered, especially when drinking to get drunk is still viewed by all too many young people and adults as harmless fun.