Vermont Thinks Outside the Bottle

The state of Vermont has a crazy idea: that the Federal Government might not know what the best drinking age is for every man, woman, state, and district in the entire United States. Since 1984, when Congress passed the National Drinking Age Act, states have been essentially forced to walk the party line that 21 is the “right” drinking age; failure to comply with Congressional wisdom on this subject results in the loss of Federal highway funds that states need to keep their road systems working.

Republican Richard Marron has created legislation that would change Vermont’s drinking age to 18- where it was in many states prior to 1984. Marron was inspired to consider lowering Vermont’s drinking age after reading former Middlebury College president John M. McCardell’s remarks on the negative effects of setting the drinking age at 21. McCardell is in an excellent position to judge the effects of the heightened drinking age; unlike parents and family, college staff are quite likely to be around for a young person’s first experiences with legal alcohol consumption.

Away from home for the first time, many 21-year olds carry with them the bad habits learned in high school: binge drinking. High schoolers drink with an enthusiasm and heedlessness born of the knowledge that it may be a long time before they get another drink. Like a chocolate-lover scarfing a last Hershey bar in the Weight Watcher’s parking lot, teenagers drink with a verve and desperation that overcomes the fact that most of them won’t learn to like the actual taste of alcohol for another 10 years. Most college students arrive with this same attitude, untempered by any more sophisticated appreciation of alcohol. Late-night emergency room visits are the inevitable result. A year or two of drinking moderately alongside family members- in public- rather than shotgunning cheap beers before someone’s mom and dad arrive home from Florida wouldn’t solve the problem entirely, but could help build better habits among teenagers. Finally, lowering the drinking age does away with the bizarre situation where a person is considered fit to make decisions about every aspect of their life at 18 except alcohol. At 18, you can own your own home, enlist in the military, go to prison, vote for any office in the nation, but you can’t have a beer after work or legally buy a bottle of champagne to celebrate your marriage.

Supporters of the current law maintain that raising the drinking age has prevented alcohol-related driving deaths. There’s certainly a likely possibility. However, while driving-related deaths have declined since the introduction of the nation-wide drinking age, enforcement of existing drunk-driving laws and the use of education and prevention programs has also increased during the same period. It also bears consideration that alcohol-related deaths not due to drunk driving are usually not considered as part of the drinking-age equation. Little is gained by preventing the death of an 18-year-old due to drunk driving if it’s offset by the binge-drinking death of a 20- or 21-year-old.

Even if the higher drinking age is effective in many parts of the country, the current Federal legislation is needlessly heavy-handed; it treats all areas of the United States as identical, and denies local officials the ability to tweak basic drinking laws to adapt to local conditions. In rural areas- where traveling to and from bars requires driving- the higher drinking age may be preventing drunk driving. In urban areas- where crack and other drugs have been found to be more accessible to high schoolers than cigarettes and alcohol- public transportation can reduce the risk of drunk driving, and access to bars and clubs that serve alcohol can provide a social outlet that is, in many cases, safer than the un-supervised houses and apartments where most teen drinking currently occurs.

The question is not whether the higher drinking age prevents any deaths, but whether a Federally mandated minimum age really prevents the most deaths, and does so in the least restrictive, least intrusive way available. But beyond the possibly needless restriction on the rights of young Americans, the current Federal system prevents the states from even learning if better solutions are possible. For example, a lowered drinking age combined with tightened drunk driving laws for young drivers could save as many lives as keeping the drinking age at 21, but reduce the burden placed on the rights of young adults. It could ultimately save more lives, but without the freedom to experiment at the local level, states have no way of knowing what works and what doesn’t, or even if the higher drinking age achieves sufficient results to justify restricting individuals who are otherwise considered adults.

Unfortunately, with the Federal government holding $9.7 million in highway funds hostage, it’s unlikely that Vermont’s drinking-age legislation will pass. Still, Richard Marron deserves praise for his effort to kindle debate over the national drinking age, and for questioning what clearly seems to be a case of well-intentioned Federal overreach.

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