In Bars & Clubs

The debate about the 21-year-old drinking age continues.

25 years later, debate about drinking age rages

"Bar Month" at OnMilwaukee.com is back for another round! The whole month of February, we're serving up intoxicatingly fun bars and club articles -- including guides, unique features, drink recipes and more. Grab a designated driver and dive in!

If the national drinking age ever rolls back from 21 to 18, a whole bunch of young adults may feel compelled to buy John McCardell a celebratory beer.

McCardell, a former president at Middlebury College, has been a staunch advocate for reducing the drinking age.

"This law has been an abysmal failure," McCardell told correspondent Lesley Stahl during an episode of "60 Minutes" that aired last Sunday.

"It hasn't reduced or eliminated drinking. It has simply driven it underground, behind closed doors, into the most risky and least manageable of settings ... It's a bad law that is unworkable. It's bad social policy."

Though he has enlisted the aid of more than 100 university presidents and several lawmakers and even some law enforcement agents in his battle, McCardell knows a change isn't going to happen quickly. The movement has met fierce resistance from various public health and safety groups, including Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"The inconvenient truth is that a drinking age at 18 would cause more funerals," MADD executive director Chuck Hurley told "60 Minutes."

"When the United States reduced its drinking age in the '70s it was a public health disaster. Death rates in the states that reduced their drinking age jumped 10 to 40 percent."

The passage of the 26th Amendment in 1971 lowered the voting age for federal elections from 21 to 18. Lawmakers in Wisconsin and other several states responded by dropping the age of majority from 21 to 18.

From 1972 until 1984, it was legal for anyone 18 or older to purchase and drink alcohol. For more than a decade, state legislators tried to boost the age. In 1983, the state passed Wisconsin Act 74, which created a drinking age of 19 and included an "absolute sobriety" provision that made any blood alcohol content illegal for drivers under age 19.

In the summer of 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed a law requiring states to conform to a national minimum drinking age of 21. States not in compliance by Oct. 1, 1986, would lose 5 percent of their highway aid allocation during the first year and 10 percent the second year.

Anthony Earl, then Wisconsin's governor, resisted the measure at the time but he and the legislature reversed their positions and passed a law calling for Wisconsin to raise its drinking age to 21 on Sept. 1, 1986. Anyone who was 19 before that date was "grandfathered," so the state did not really have a uniform age of 21 until Sept. 1, 1988.

Many of the arguments haven't changed.

People in favor of an 18-year-old drinking age point to the fact that 18-year-olds are considered adults in almost every other strata of life. We trust them to live without parental supervision, vote in elections and join the armed forces, advocates say, but we don't trust them to have a glass of beer.

Supporters of the 21-year-old drinking age cite figures that show a reduction of highway deaths and a theory that giving 18-year-olds access to alcohol will lead to a "trickle-down" effect that puts more drinks in the hands of high school students between 13 and 17.

"So what you're saying is 18-year-olds today get 21-year-olds to go get them liquor. You're saying 15 year-olds would get the 18 year-olds to do that?" Stahl asked Hurley.

"Yeah, that is what we're saying," Hurley replied.

"If the age were 18, would it be easier to enforce? Then you'd have 17-year-olds. You'd have to enforce it against them," Stahl said. "Is it your goal to eliminate all drinking among people under 21?"

"Yes," Hurley said.

"Is that realistic?" Stahl asked.

"No," Hurley said.

That's why McCardell says enforcement of the 21-year-old age has been a failure. Rather than drinking openly in an environment where they can get guidance and some supervision from older people, young adults turn to basements, fraternity houses, locked dorm rooms, parking lots and other venues where binge drinking creates dangerous situations and disastrous consequences.

"That number of lives lost to alcohol by 18 to 24 year olds is going up at an alarming rate. It isn't just about lives lost on the highways," McCardell said.

McCardell's proposed solution -- which has drawn heat from people in these tough economic times -- calls for extensive alcohol education in schools and the issuance of a revokable "license" to drink.

"It would never occur to us to say to a young person once they reach driving age, 'Here are the keys. Good luck. Go figure it out.'" he said.

"We have lived through prohibition. We know prohibition doesn't work," he said. "We know that on our college campuses. We know that in our households. We know that in the military. We know that in non-college America as well. Legal age 21 seeks to impose prohibition on young adults. And that's the way, and in my view, the only way to look at this question."

Although there is no tangible proof that drinking among 18- to 21-year-olds has increased in the past 25 years, the debate about the issue is as hot as ever.

Talkbacks

DustyPockets | March 8, 2009 at 11:48 a.m. (report)

If you are an adult you are an adult. 18.

Rate this:
  • Average rating: 0.0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

juligrniis | March 4, 2009 at 2:03 p.m. (report)

I'm of the age that had an 18 year old drinking age. Thus, I started sneaking into The Attic West (o.k....I'm not proud of it, but it was the times!) at 16. I say 18 is fine...drink 'til you puke on your shoes. I did enough of that in the day, and thus I hardly drink at all anymore. Hopefully, enough hangovers and bed spins teach the lesson. My issue is those that get behind the wheel...whether you're 18, 38 or 80. And if you do, and if you get caught, they ought to fine the hell out of you and pull your license for a year. And if you do it again, they ought to toss your ass in jail. And if you hurt someone while you're driving drunk? You should never, ever, under any circumstance get a valid driver's license again. Hop the bus, baby or take a cab.

Rate this:
  • Average rating: 0.0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

dexxter | March 3, 2009 at 9:16 p.m. (report)

I spent the weekend at meetings for college educators and administrators. By and large, the opinion was that the age should be lowered and penalties for DUI/DWI should be made severe. The secondary opinion was that raising the age drove it all underground and CREATED binge drinking. The logic is that when it's legal at a younger age, the PARENTS get to teach the kids how to be responsible. Shifting the age down moves the social education back home where it should be. When you're in college, you'll drink whether you're 21 or not. Just learning to drink AWAY FROM FAMILY SUPERVISION, you will be irresponsible. Couple that with the fact that it's illegal, and you'll drink as much as you can as fast as you can so you can get the desired buzz. Hence, the binge drinking phenomenon. By the way, everyone in Wisconsin is a binge drinker. I believe the generally accepted definition is three or more drinks in one session. That's like the first inning or two for most Wisconsinites I know...

Rate this:
  • Average rating: 0.0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

sas_tarr | March 2, 2009 at 10:56 a.m. (report)

You're old enough to vote, you're old enough to get killed in Iraq or Aganistan, you ought to be old enough to get a beer, or anything else for that matter. I alway tell my child, please come and have a beer with us and we would love to have a beer with your friends at our house as well (if it were legal). It's way much better than to sneak booze in the alleys and look for trouble there.

Rate this:
  • Average rating: 0.0
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

alba | March 2, 2009 at 8:41 a.m. (report)

Plenty of young college students in the UK got wasted 6 days a week when I was there.

Rate this:


Show me the other 9 Talkbacks
14 comments about this article.
Post a comment / write a review.

Facebook Comments

Disclaimer: Please note that Facebook comments are posted through Facebook and cannot be approved, edited or declined by OnMilwaukee.com. The opinions expressed in Facebook comments do not necessarily reflect those of OnMilwaukee.com or its staff.