A new review finds that the current legal drinking age of 21 saves lives — but critics say the benefits may come at the expense of a sensible alcohol culture.

Dr. William DeJong, a professor at the Boston University School of Public Health and lead author of the new paper, said in a press release that the research comes in response to numerous attempts to lower the drinking age to 18. "The evidence is clear that there would be consequences if we lowered the legal drinking age," he said.

The current drinking law, enshrined in the National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984, cuts the annual federal highway appointment for states that allow people under 21 to buy and consume alcohol. The rule makes the U.S. one of only four developed countries enforcing a nationwide drinking age exceeding 18. For some, this raises the question:  If you can drive a car at 16 and vote, marry, and do your taxes at 18, why should you wait until 21 to have your first beer?

DeJong and his colleagues’ study, which is published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, charges that there are many reasons. For example, when the drinking age was lowered to 18 in the 1970s, several states saw an alarming spike in alcohol-related injuries and drunk driving accidents. Public health records show that these episodes are much less common today.

Still, movements like Choose Responsibly and the Amethyst Initiative retort that, while the law may rein in accidents and injuries, it inadvertently fosters a “clandestine” culture of drinking and substance abuse. Instead of drinking until they’re thrown out of the bar, many college students and high school seniors now drink until they pass out. And with so many adults ignoring the rule and carrying fake IDs, younger people may get the impression that some laws are meant to be broken.

Although the drinking age may be subject to debate, these are not very strong arguments against the current rule. The fact that something may prevent a certain drinking culture does not necessarily mean that it will be able to extirpate it once it takes root. Similarly, changing a law is rarely the answer to public noncompliance.

"Just because a law is commonly disobeyed doesn't mean we should eliminate it," DeJong told reporters. "There are many young people who do wait until they're 21 to drink."

Instead of repealing the National Minimum Drinking Act, DeJong and colleagues recommend better enforcement. After all, injuries, accidents, and binge drinking have become significantly less common since President Reagan signed it into law. "Some people assume that students are so hell-bent on drinking, nothing can stop them," DeJong said. "But it really is the case that enforcement works."

 

Source: DeJong W, Blanchette J. Case Closed: Research evidence on the positive public health impact of the age 21 minimum legal drinking age in the United States. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs. 2014.