Thirty years ago last month then President Ronald Reagan signed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act into law. While it is up to each state to determine what the drinking age for the state will be, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act essentially forced all of the states to set a drinking age of 21 or higher. If a state refused, the federal government would deny the state access to necessary highway funds. The hope, of course, was that decreasing young people’s access to alcohol would decrease the number of car accidents and other personal injuries and deaths.
Statistics Show the Effect of the Act
A report by Fox News indicates that while raising the drinking age decreased drunk driving, it may have increased underage drinking. According to Mothers Against Drunk Driving, before the law was passed, young people between the ages of 16 and 20 were the most common drunk drivers. When the federal government passed the law, the number of fatal crashes involving a young driver plummeted. However, a survey of students from 56 different colleges found that “significantly more underage students drank compared to those of legal age.” One theory for this is that young people are attracted to risky, forbidden behaviors, so forbidding alcohol makes it all that more appealing.
The National Survey on Drug Use and Health and Monitoring the Future indicates that 65 percent of college students drink alcohol in any given month. A Harvard study shows that most of those young people are binge drinking, and that seven out of ten are consuming five or more drinks in a row. This should be particularly concerning because at least some young people’s brains are still developing during these years, and heavy alcohol exposure like binge drinking can permanently affect a still developing brain. It can also affect impulse control, which is already underdeveloped in young people. Lack of impulse control can lead to all sorts of different accidents which result in injury or death.
The results of this underage drinking are severe. Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health provides a detailed list of the consequences of this drinking. Those consequences include:
- Underage drinking plays a significant role in risky sexual behavior, including unwanted, unintended, and unprotected sexual activity, and sex with multiple partners. Such behavior increases the risk for unplanned pregnancy and for contracting sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), including infection with HIV.
- While a young woman’s choice to drink is not a cause of rape or sexual assault, underage drinking does increase the risk of physical and sexual assault.
- Underage drinking is associated with academic failure.
- Underage drinking is associated with illicit drug use.
- Underage drinking is associated with tobacco use, which contributes significantly to most of the leading causes of death in all adult age groups.
- Underage drinking causes a range of physical consequences, from hangovers to death from alcohol poisoning.
- Underage drinking can cause alterations in the structure and function of the developing brain, which continues to mature into the mid- to late 20s, and may have consequences reaching far beyond adolescence.
- Underage drinking creates secondhand effects that can put others at risk. Loud and unruly behavior, property destruction, unintentional injuries, violence, and even death because of underage alcohol use afflict innocent parties. For example, about 45 percent of people who die in crashes involving a drinking driver under the age of 21 are people other than the driver. Such secondhand effects often strike at random, making underage alcohol use truly everybody’s problem.
- In conjunction with pregnancy, underage drinking may result in fetal alcohol spectrum disorders, including fetal alcohol syndrome, which remains a leading cause of mental retardation.
- It is a risk factor for heavy drinking later in life, and continued heavy use of alcohol leads to increased risk across the lifespan for acute consequences and for medical problems such as cancers of the oral cavity, larynx, pharynx, and esophagus; liver cirrhosis; pancreatitis; and hemorrhagic stroke.
Individuals who have not yet reached the age of 21 should be advised not to consume alcohol, and especially not to get behind the wheel while intoxicated. Those who are injured in a car accident by someone who has been drinking should speak with an injury attorney immediately for help.