Certain rights and privileges come with age. The right to vote, for instance, does not come until a person reaches the age of majority. The privilege to drive an automobile is likewise granted only after a person reaches a certain age, in most cases the age of 16 or 17 years. Even the purchase of cigarettes is allowed for people of a certain age, given the harmful effects of smoking. While the age requirements for these rights and privileges are more or less accepted, the legal drinking age remains a contentious issue in the United States. According to the law titled the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, people below the age of 21 years are not allowed to purchase or publicly possess alcohol. The provisions of this law, however, have been contested for decades. Indeed, the discussion has become so heated it should be considered as among the best political debates. On one side of the debate are those who want to maintain the current minimum legal drinking age at 21 years; on the other side of the debate are those who want to lower it to 18 years. Lowering the minimum legal drinking age may come across as problematic at first, but is actually a sound policy and counterintuitive solution to some issues related to drinking among the youth.
Firstly, setting the minimum legal drinking age at 21 years is incongruent with the age of majority set for other rights and privileges. The main reason why the drinking age exists is the belief that young people do not have the maturity it takes to responsibly handle alcohol. While this general principle in itself is true, at least as far as children and younger teenagers are concerned, it nonetheless does not make sense that the drinking age is set at 21 while many other rights and privileges require a far lower age. The minimum legal age for driving, for instance, widely varies among the states. Some states such as Alaska, Arkansas, and Kansas allow teenagers as young as 14 years to drive, while the maximum age for the other states is 16 years (Witmer, 2019). Meanwhile, the minimum age to vote in the general elections is set at 18 years while some states even allow voting at 17 years for primaries (USA.gov, 2020). The right to vote and the privilege to drive have minimum age requirements for the same reason that there is an age requirement for purchasing alcohol—that is, the belief that people younger than those ages lack the maturity and responsibility entailed in driving and voting. Examination of the differences in age requirements, however, reveals how flawed the drinking age is. It simply does not make sense how a person 14 years of age can be considered as having the maturity and responsibility to drive yet still be regarded as immature and irresponsible to handle alcohol. It also does not make sense how a person can be expected to choose the nation’s leaders at the age of 18 years yet still be considered as lacking accountability in handling alcohol. If adulthood is requisite to drinking, then 18 years should be set as the drinking age rather than 21 years for the same reason that this is the age when a person is considered an adult and therefore entitled to vote.
Another reason why the drinking age should be lowered to 18 years is because it demystifies drinking and therefore may help lower the number of teenagers who drink alcohol. According to studies, one of the primary reasons why the youth drinks alcohol is the desire to project maturity and independence (National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism [NIAAA], 2020). Because alcohol is not allowed for people younger than 21 years, drinking becomes a symbol of maturity and independence. As a result, young people turn to purchasing and consuming alcohol in secret. Lowering the drinking age to 18, on the other hand, will help demystify alcohol. When it becomes more accessible to people 18 years of age, it loses its symbolic value. Hence, lowering the drinking age has the potential to discourage young people from drinking alcohol, seeing how it is no longer restricted to a higher age group and therefore no longer as appealing to younger people.
Lowering the minimum legal drinking age also encourages regulation of alcohol consumption among younger people. It must be noted that alcohol consumption is already rampant among young people despite the existence of laws prohibiting its sale and possession in public. Studies show that almost 30% of teenagers have had alcohol by the time they reach 15 years. This number jumps to 58% by the time teenagers reach 18 years (NIAAA, 2020). Since alcohol is not allowed among the 18-20 year old age group, these youngsters tend to consume alcohol in secret, thus creating spaces where alcohol consumption is illicit, unregulated, and unsupervised. Setting the drinking age at 18 years offers the opportunity to have younger people drinking alcohol in spaces where it can be regulated and supervised. For example, instead of having young people drink in secret, they can instead drink in establishments where business owners and authorities can keep a better eye on them. Young people will keep looking for and drinking alcohol; there is not much that can be done about that. So rather than leave them on their own, lowering the drinking age can help create safer spaces for them. This is quite similar to teaching sex education to young people as it encourages responsible drinking instead of merely forbidding it.
Finally, lowering the drinking age to 18 years is likely to affect the issue of drunk driving. One of the reasons why the drinking age is set at 21 years is the belief that it will discourage young people from driving under the influence of alcohol. The basic premise is that young people 18-20 years of age cannot drink and therefore will not be able to drive drunk. The statistics from around the world, however, shows that a lower drinking age is not behind high rates of drunk driving. Despite the higher drinking age in this country, the United States has more cases of alcohol-related accidents than many countries with lower drinking age. According to data compiled by Statista, 31% of accidents in the US involve alcohol. But developed countries such as Italy, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Russia, which all set the drinking age at 18 years, have lower rates of alcohol-related accidents at 25%, 16%, 9%, and 9%, respectively (McCarthy, 2016). Even India and China have lower rates despite these countries having no age restrictions on alcohol consumption. Controlling alcohol-related accidents by focusing on the drinking age only takes away attention that should be given to the real reasons behind the high rates of drunk driving in the country.
Taking into account what has been discussed, it is clear that lowering the minimum legal drinking age from 21 years to 18 years is sound step. Not only is the current drinking age incongruent with age requirements for driving and voting, but it also makes alcohol all the more attractive to young people due to connotations of maturity and responsibility it represents. Lowering the drinking age, on the other hand, will help demystify alcohol as well as allow the creation of safe spaces where alcohol consumption can be regulated and supervised. Statistics from around the world also shows that prohibiting alcohol among 18-20 year old individuals is not the answer to drunk driving. Changing the drinking age may turn out to be the right step towards truly recognizing the problems that have gone undetected or unheeded for so long.
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McCarthy, N. (2016). The worst countries in the world for drunk driving. Statista. https://www.statista.com/chart/5504/the-worst-countries-in-the-world-for-drunk-driving/
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2020). Underage drinking. https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/publications/brochures-and-fact-sheets/underage-drinking
USA.gov. (2020). Voter registration age requirements by state. https://www.usa.gov/voter-registration-age-requirements
Witmer, D. (2019). Driving age by state: What you need to know for your teen to safely and legally drive. Very Well Family. https://www.verywellfamily.com/driving-age-by-state-2611172