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Ask a trooper: Older drinking ages saves lives

Q: Why don’t we just let our youth drink at age 18 like we used to? They would have more experience and guidance by adults if we did.

A: The 21st Amendment of the U.S. Constitution repealed Prohibition, thus allowing states to regulate alcohol consumption. When this occurred, in 1933, most states had a 21-year-old minimum legal drinking age (MLDA). By 1982, only 14 states retained a MLDA of 21. In the 1970s and 1980s, the MLDA became a traffic safety problem when it became calculable that youth traffic crashes increased when states lowered the drinking age. In 1984, Congress enacted the National Minimum Purchase Age Act, which prohibited the purchase and possession of alcohol by people younger than 21. Congress also put pressure on the states that did not raise the MLDA to 21; states that did not comply would lose a portion of their federal highway construction money. By 1988 all states had a 21 MLDA. Even before the last states came on board, it was becoming apparent that young lives were being saved nationwide due to a higher drinking age; from 1975-96 there were 17,000 fewer youth deaths with having the higher drinking age across the nation. Alcohol-related crashes involving young drivers have declined 63 percent since 1982. Taking alcohol out of youth’s lives more earnestly than ever before had spectacular side effects: reduced youth suicides, marijuana use, alcohol consumption and crime. Two national studies showed the positives of a 21 MLDA; both high school students and youth after turning 21 drank less if they were from a state with a MLDA of 21. They also found a direct result from lower alcohol consumption was fewer traffic crashes (O’Malley and Wagenaar, 1991 and Voas, Tippets, and Fell, 1999 — FARS DATA). Other related facts:

* The behavior of 18-year-olds directly affects the behavior of 15- to 17-year-olds, reducing drinking behavior for the former also reduces it for the latter.

* A drinking age of 18 is associated with adverse outcomes among births to young mothers.

* There is potential harm alcohol may inflict on the developing brain, which is maturing well into the 20s.

* When teens drink, they tend to drink heavily.

* The later a youth is introduced to alcohol, the less likely he or she is to have problems surrounding drinking: DWIs, school dropout rates, dependency, traffic crashes and violent crimes. Waiting until 21 to consume alcohol gives them the best odds.

* Arguing for 18-year-olds being able to drink legally means permitting doing something harmful to their emotional and physical well-being. Drinking should never be considered a reward or rite of passage.

Facts are from U.S. Department of Transportation, National High Traffic Administration-Underage Drinking Prevention Project; Minnesota Department of Health and Education; Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Office of Traffic Safety. 

Sgt. Curt S. Mowers is a regional public information officer for the Minnesota State Patrol.