From: Engs, Ruth C. [Ed.], "Controversies in the Addition's Field." Chapt. 10: David J. Hanson, "The Drinking Age Should Be Lowered"

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The Drinking Age Should Be Lowered

David J. Hanson, Ph. D.

There is extensive evidence that the consumption of alcoholic beverages has occurred in most societies throughout the world and has probably occurred since the Paleolithic Age and certainly since the Neolithic Age (Knupfer, 1960). The records of all ancient civilizations refer to the use of alcoholic beverages. Such accounts are found on Egyptian carvings, Hebrew script, and Babylonian tablets (Patrick, 1952). The Code of Hammurabi (cir 2225 B.C.) devoted several sections to problems created by the abuse of alcohol and in China, laws that forbade making wine were enacted and repealed forty-one times between 1100 B.C. and 1400 A.D. (Alcoholism and Drug Research Foundation of Ontario, 1961). These and other sources of evidence indicate that concern over alcohol use and abuse are not unique to present societies.

The place of alcohol in American society since the colonial period has clearly been ambivalent. "Drinking has been blessed and cursed, has been held the cause of economic catastrophe and the hope for prosperity, the major cause of crime, disease and military defeat, depravity and a sign of high prestige, mature personality, and a refined civilization" (Straus and Bacon, 1953). This ambivalence is reflected in the changing drinking age laws and drinking ethos as indicated in Table 10.1.

Organized efforts to limit drinking or the role of alcoholic beverages have existed in the United States since the early 1800s. However, alcohol has been the only substance whose proposed prohibition has provoked strong controversy and conflict. On one hand, the prohibition of narcotics has met little organized resistance while the prohibition of cigarette, coffee or cola beverages sales has not attracted significant political support. Gusfield (Gusfield, 1962; 1963) contends that alcohol has been a symbolic issue through which a struggle for primacy in social status has been fought between differing life styles—small town versus city, "old American" versus recent immigrant, the South and Midwest versus the Northeast. An alternate explanation is that while alcohol is clearly associated with numerous personal and social problems (thus motivating the prohibition impulse), its use is widespread and widely accepted (thus motivating its


defense). In either case, the consequence is often intense emotion and struggle.

Following the repeal of the EighteenthAmendment in 1933, prohibition efforts have largely been age-specific. In 1970, Congress passed the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, which grants the right to vote in Federal elections to citizens between the ages of 18 and 21. A movement then began to extend other rights and privileges of adulthood to those aged 18; between 1970 and 1975,29 states reduced their minimum legal drinking age (Wagenaar, 1983). However, by the late 1970s controversy over minimum drinking age laws became widespread and this pattern was reversed. Much of the concern arose over the number of young people involved in automobile accidents, many of which were alcohol-related (Wechsler and Sands, 1980).

A common response to the need to "do something" about a perceived problem has been to seek a legal solution through legislation and it appears that laws in the United States are among the most stringent in the world (Mosher, 1980). Of course, raising the drinking age to reduce drunk driving is an indirect and incomplete way to attack the problem. "No doubt raising the drinking age to 25, 30 or even 50", as one house of the Mississippi legislature recently passed, would also tend to reduce drunk driving. The youngest age group is being chosen as a symbolic gesture because of its political impotence and because...there are no major economic consequences..." (Mosher, 1980, p.31).A more direct end effective approach might be to address the problem of intoxicated drivers regardless of their age or social status.

Mosher has pointed out that

Both up-dating and corroborating Mosher's observation is the fact that following the reduction of drinking age laws in the 1970s, the proportion of collegians who drink has trended downward (Engs and Hanson, 1988)


An unresolved issue underlying minimum drinking age laws is detemmining the age at which young people are mature enough to assume adult responsibilities. The lack of consensus regarding this issue in general is reflected in the diverse and changing minimum ages for other behaviors. These include age of consent for sexual intercourse, to purchase contraceptive devices, to marry without parental approval, to drive a car, to serve on a jury, and to buy and use tobacco (Wechsler and Sands, 1980).

Some studies (Perkins and Berkowitz, 1987; Engs and Hanson, 1986) have found little differences between drinking patterns of young people legally able and not legally able to drink. One reason for this lack of differentiation might be the pervasive informal supply networks and mechanisms whereby underage individuals generally experience little or no difficulty in obtaining alcohol. Another reason may be the ease with which many underage people were able to drive to neighboring states (or provinces) to purchase or consume alcohol. In any case, it would appear that legislation generally has had virtually no impact on alcohol behaviors and problems.

Drinking patterns are governed by the common fabric of values, symbols, and meanings shared by a group (Globetti, 1976). Legislation designed to prohibit customs embedded in a group risk failure, as did national prohibition in such countries as Iceland (1915-1922), Russia (1916-1917), Finland (1919-1932) and the United States (1920-1933) (Ewing and Rouse, 1976). National prohibition does not seem to be attainable except in those countries in which, by far, the large majority of inhabitants practice a religion prohibiting the use of alcohol (Tongue, 1976).

Underlying minimum age legislation are the assumptions of American prohibitionism: alcohol consumption is sinful and dangerous; it results in problem behavior; and drinking in any degree is equally undesirable because moderate social drinking is the forerunner of chronic inebriation (Sterne et al., 1967). Naturally, young people, if not everyone, should be protected from alcohol, according to this view.

Attempts to legislate behavior often lead to unintended and undesirable consequences. For example, Australian laws closing bars at six o'clock got the working men out of the establishments and possibly home to their families in time for dinner. However, they also produced the undesirable custom known as the six o'clock swill, which involves consuming as much beer as possible between the end of work and the six o'clock closing time (Room, 1976). Sterne and her colleagues (1967) concluded that minimum age laws not only fail in their intent but also produce very questionable consequences:


Alcohol legislation is open passed with less concern for the law's actual impact (or lack thereof) on drinking behavior than with its political value for the legislators; that is, with how their constituents will perceive their votes and how future opponents might be able to attack their voting records' (Room, 1976, p. 269). Furthermore, with over two-thirds of the adult American population being drinkers, rigorous enforcement of restrictive legislation is not viewed as a priority by the general population, by the police, or by the courts.

Even if enforcement of prohibitive legislation were vigorously pursued, there is little evidence that it would be successful. The widespread demand for alcohol and the ease with which a large variety of products can be converted into alcoholic beverages easily lead to "home brew" and other illicit manufacture. Ease of distribution gives natural rise to bootlegging and smuggling under such circumstances.

Not surprisingly, age-specific prohibition does not appear to be effective in reducing either the proportion of drinkers or their drinking problems. A study of a large sample of young people between the ages of 16 and 19 in Massachusetts and New York after Massachusetts raised its drinking age revealed that the average, self-reported daily alcohol consumption in Massachusetts did not decline in comparison with New York (Hingson et al., 1983). Comparison of college students attending schools in states that had maintained for a period of at least ten years a minimum drinking age of 21 with those in states that had similarly maintained minimum drinking ages below 21 revealed few differences in drinking problems (Engs and Hanson, 1986).

Comparison of drinking before and after the passage of raised minimum age legislation have generally revealed little impact upon behavior (Perkins and Berkowitz, 1985; Hanson and Hattauer, n.d.). For example, a study that examined college students' drinking behavior before and after


an increase in the minimum legal drinking age from 18 to 19 in New York State found the law to have no impact on under-age students" consumption rates, intoxication, drinking attitudes, or drinking problems (Perkins and Berkowitz, 1985). These findings were corroborated by other researchers at a different college in the same state (Hanson and Hattauer, n.d.). A similar study at Texas A & M examined the impact of an increase of the minimum drinking age from 19 to 21. There was no increase in consumption or alcohol problems among under-age students. However, there was a significant increase among such students in attendance at events where alcohol was present. There were also significant increases in the frequency of their requests to legal-age students to provide alcohol and intheir receipt of illicit alcohol from legal-age students (Mason et al., 1988).

A longitudinal study of the effect of a one-year increase of the drinking age in the province of Ontario found that it had a minimum effect on consumption among 18 and 19 year-old high school students and none among those who drank once a week or more (Vingilis and Smart, 1981). A similar study was conducted among college students in the State University System of Florida to examine their behavior before and after an increase in the drinking age from 19 to 21. While there was a general trend toward reduced consumption of alcohol after the change in law, alcohol related problems increased significantly. Finally, an examination of East Carolina University students' intentions regarding their behavior following passage of a new 21-year age drinking law revealed that only 6% intended to stop drinking, 70% planned to change their drinking location, 21% expected to use a false or borrowed identification to obtain alcohol, and 22% intended to use other drugs. Anecdotal statements by students indicated the belief of some that it "might be easier to hide a little pot in my room than a six pack of beer." (Lotterhos et al., 1988, p. 644).

Over the past four decades it has been demonstrated that the proportion of collegiate drinkers increases with age (Straus and Bacon, 1953; Wechsler and McFadden, 1979; Perkins and Berkowitz, 1987). However, in July of 1987 the minimum purchase age became 21 in all states. Because drinking tends to be highly valued among collegians, because it is now illegal for those under 21 to purchase alcohol, Engs and Hanson (1989) hypothesized that reactance motivation (Brehm and Brehm,1981) would be stimulated among such students, leading more of them to drink. Their data from 3,375 students at 56 colleges across the country revealed that, after the legislation, significantly more under-age students drank compared to those of legal age. Thus, the increase in purchase age appears to have been not only ineffective but actually counter-productive, at least in the short run.

There is extensive evidence that while an abstinence religious environment


is associated with a lower proportion of people drinking, alcohol related problems are much more common among those in such milieu who do drink (Hanson, 1972). This appears to result from several factors. First, such individuals have typically not learned how to drink. Thus, they have not learned how to use alcohol in moderation. Secondly, they are more likely to drink in a secretive manner or in environments free of moderating or restraining social control over their drinking. Thirdly, abstinence groups often portray the person who drinks as one who misuses alcohol. Thus, they inadvertently present a negative role model which can guide behavior of those who do drink (Globetti, 1976, p. l 66). Fourthly, for young people, abstinence teaching may encourage rather than deter use by making alcohol use a symbol or tool of rebellion against authority. The nature of the rebellion can gain further strength and intensity from disapproval and repression (Globetti, 1976, p. 167).

Conversely, most Jews, Chinese, and Italians drink, yet those groups have low rates of drunkenness and other forms of problem drinking. In all three groups, children begin drinking at an early age in the home and they observe alcohol being used in an unemotional and controlled manner. They learn that alcohol is a natural and normal part of life, do not view its use as a sign or symbol of adulthood, nor associate it with intoxication. To the contrary, they learn that alcohol abuse is taboo. Importantly, they are provided with role models for the appropriate use of alcohol (Plaut, 1967; Wilkinson, 1970; Hanson, 1972).

It is clear that much formal alcohol education is unrealistic, alienates young people, and tends to be ineffective if not counterproductive (Hanson, 1982). Cisin has stated the problem very well:


In a major publication generated by the work of the Cooperative Commission on the Study of Alcoholism, Wilkinson (1970) proposed that the minimum age for the purchase or consumption of alcohol on commercial premises, or to have them in public possession, should be eighteen rather than twenty-one. However, with meals in bona fide restaurants serving alcohol, those under eighteen should be permitted to order alcoholic drinks, provided they are accompanied by their parents or guardians who approve. Unless a college has a specific ethos against drinking, it should provide supervised places enabling students to drink wine or beer with their meals. On the otherhand, drinking at home should be free of any minimum legal age restriction (Wilkinson, 1970).

Clearly, the basic assumption underlying the above proposals is that most people who are going to drink as adults should learn to manage alcohol at an early age and with their families. Retrospective studies of the early drinking experiences of problem and non-problem drinkers support the hypothesis that early drinking experiences may influence subsequent drinking behavior. Problem drinkers appear to begin their drinking at a later age than others, to have their first drinking experience outside the home, to become intoxicated the first time they drink, and to drink as an act of rebellion (open or secret) against parental authority (Plaut, 1967). It has been said that if there is one universal characteristic that pervades humanity, it may be the urge to manipulate and control the behavior of others (Cisin, 1978) and nowhere is this more apparent than in the effort to control drinking behavior through legislative edict. The minimum drinking age laws in the United States have undergone over 100 modifications since their introduction in the 1930s (Wechsler and Sands, 1980, p. 2). The most recent series of increases in the minimum age will be no more successful than were those of the past. What we need are not more laws but the wisdom and courage to move beyond such simplistic answers to a complex social problem.



'Forexample, as governor of Massachusetts, Michael Dukakis vetoed two bills to lower the drinking age. His vetoes became a campaign issue that apparently contributed to an unexpected defeat in his bid for reelection in 1978 (Mosher, 1980).


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