The Drinking Debate: 18 vs 21, Who’s Got It Right?

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As an international student studying in America, the differences in alcohol legislation and drinking cultures has always been of genuine interest to me. After experiencing both the American and English laws surrounding alcohol, I find myself in the middle of the drinking debate as to what really is the most efficient and effective minimum legal drinking age (MLDA)?

Whilst this discussion will mainly deal with the benefits and drawbacks between having an MLDA of 18 or 21, it’s important to highlight that many countries also have other guidelines. For example, countries such as Greece and Cambodia don’t have an age limit regarding the purchase of alcohol. In Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland or the Netherlands you can buy alcohol from the age of 16. Some countries have an MLDA of 17, such as Cyprus, whereas Canada is 19 in some areas. Iceland, Norway and Japan require a drinking age of 20. The majority of countries apply an MLDA of 18 years old however; America continues to implement a 21 year-old age limit. America is not alone; other countries that apply a 21 MLDA include Fiji, Indonesia and Palau.

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It is clear that there are endless variations of drinking laws around the world, but my main concern is that the laws themselves are ineffective. Whilst every country has their own policies to try and control underage drinking, I find it hard to believe that the laws are enforced effectively or, ultimately, successfully.

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) states that in 2009, within America, over 10.4 million people consumed alcohol underage and by the age of 18 more than 70% of teenagers have drank alcohol. By drinking underage young people are putting themselves at a higher risk of death, injury, impaired judgment, physical/sexual assault and brain development problems.

Regardless of America accompanying the highest MLDA in the world, people are still drinking underage and there are thousands of underage deaths each year. It leaves me wondering, what good is the higher drinking age in America actually achieving?

Most importantly, maintaining a higher MLDA is a responsible decision medically. For a young adult, alcohol consumption can interfere with the brain’s development. This increases the chances of an individual developing greater vulnerability to addiction, reduced decision-making ability, depression and memory loss, the list goes on. Additionally, by allowing higher numbers of young adults into unsafe environments such as nightclubs and bars, increases levels of young people being involved in assault, violent crimes and traffic crashes. These facts cannot be argued or disputed. It is a proven fact that alcohol is a danger and can have fatal consequences. But in contrast to these realities, should we be focusing on the education and knowledge of alcohol rather than trying to prevent and deter minors from alcohol completely?

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At 18 years old you are considered an adult, someone who can make life changing career and financial decisions. Many 18 year olds are forced to support themselves and accept adult responsibilities such as voting, serving on a jury, getting married, driving a vehicle, signing a contract, being prosecuted as an adult and joining the military. Serving on a jury could potential entail your decision as to whether an individual is imprisoned or joining the military includes risking your life. Therefore, it does seem absurd that in the United States an 18 year old is deemed ‘incapable’ of making mature decisions regarding alcohol.

In countries with higher MLDAs, such as America, there is a fascination, desire and law-breaking thrill formed around alcohol, usually creating a binge drinking culture. Frida Lindblom from Stockholm, Sweden studies at the University of Massachusetts and has noticed many differences in the drinking cultures between Sweden and America. “In America so much of the focus is on the alcohol rather than having a good time and the night as a whole,” Frida stated. “Showing up to parties at 11pm in sweatpants, ripping shots and trying to get drunk as quickly as possible would never even cross my mind in Sweden,” she added. Frida explained that in Sweden, she is able to plan a night out with friends, going to bars and nightclubs where a good atmosphere is guaranteed and real dance floors and high quality sound systems always exist, so there is no need to get exceptionally drunk like at the overcrowded house parties in America.

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I’ve found that international students studying in America find it strange adjusting to the culture of a country with a higher drinking age. “I felt like I was being put back into the child category,” said Nick Miller, an English student currently studying at Oklahoma State University. He explained that, “because some people don’t start drinking until they get to college, they are unable to make sensible choices when alcohol is involved.” Sophia Crawshay, an English student who goes to American University, also shared this opinion. She said, “A lot of the freshman drink until they are sick because it’s their first time drinking and they don’t know how to handle alcohol.”

Hearing the opinions and experiences of international students in American colleges proposes interesting ideas as the same themes of observations appear to reoccur; lack of alcohol safety, higher inclination to binge drink and a sense of rebellion and freedom at college. In addition to this, Olivia Godin from Massachusetts, USA also recognized the cultural differences in the approach to alcohol when she travelled to Europe. “I noticed in England and France peoples’ preferences were more sophisticated and inclined more to taste, not the concept of getting drunk,” she explained.

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However, it mustn’t be overlooked that binge drinking is a problem worldwide. Britain is among one of the worlds worst countries for binge drinking, according to The World Health Organization. Consequently, binge drinking usually occurs at a much younger age in Britain, between 14-16 years old when you are less capable of making a mature, responsible decision, compared to binge drinking teens at the age of 18-20 in America. Furthermore, acquiring an MLDA of 18 years old means younger girls are illegally getting into nightclubs, increasing the chances of sexual assault and rape committed by men who assume the women are of legal age.

“Being exposed to drinking at a younger age made me care less about drinking at college because it’s no longer a novelty,” explained Lauren Allymohamed, a student from England at the University of Massachusetts. Following this statement, it would suggest that if American students were to experience alcohol under the guidelines and supervision of their parents, by the time they get to college alcohol wouldn’t be as such of a big deal and therefore potentially improve the academic dedication of students rather than focusing on their freedom to party at college.

“I think the drinking culture is worse in America due to people not learning their limits while living at home, they then come to college and drink irresponsibly.” – UMass student Sarah Hawkshaw from Dublin, Ireland.

There is factual evidence as to why an MLDA of 21 makes sense, however given the statistics of ongoing underage drinking, personal experiences and a range of student’s opinions, it is clear change is needed. Not one person I interviewed had any issue accessing alcohol underage whether they lived in England, Sweden, Ireland or America. Legal obstacles were avoided by friends, siblings or parents being willing to buy alcohol for minors. Maybe a more realistic and logical approach to alcohol needs to be installed. For example, parents invest a lot of time teaching their child to drive, enforcing road safety and providing them with vital practice so when they receive their own driving permit they are capable, experienced, informed and therefore prepared to deal with any situation thrown at them. Maybe the same approach to alcohol would encourage more responsible drinking, rather than rebellious and dangerous binge drinking.

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