Carla Main believes the drinking age should remain at 21, and she bases the first part of her discussion on a project called "The Amethyst Initiative," which has issued a statement calling for an official probe into the drinking laws as they now stand. The aim of the Amethyst Initiative is to have the drinking age of 21 lowered because the current laws are simply not working. Main is in agreement with the Amethyst Initiative on this point: the current laws are not working, and they should be reexamined. However, Main does not agree with the objectives of the Initiative beyond this. She explains why by laying out the history of the 21 Laws and the changes in society that have occurred since they have been in place (Main, pp. 58-59).
Main's primary issue with the arguments put forth by the Amethyst Initiative and similar groups is the focus that is placed on driving accidents that are the result of underage drinking. While this is a serious issue, she believes there is much more at stake: "While drunk driving among underage drinkers remains a problem, unfortunately it is only one of several ways that underage drinking threatens young people" (p. 60). She then goes on to discuss several other serious consequences that are the result of underage drinking, including binge drinking, excessive drinking in the U.S. Military, and irresponsible sexual behavior.
In her discussion of binge drinking, Main draws on the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study (CAS), which collected data on drinking habits of college students during a nine-year span, from 1992 to 2001 (p. 60). She also uses information and statistics from a number of other reputable sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse (p. 61). What she concludes from these findings is, first, that binge drinking is a big problem with young people in the 18-to-20-year-old range; and second, that raising the legal drinking age will have no impact on curbing this tendency to binge.
Binge drinking is also a serious problem in the U.S. Military, where, according to Main, "heavy alcohol use is regarded as a drain on morale and productivity and a potential threat to unit readiness" (p. 62). She also points out that some members of the military may be stationed in places where drinking under the age of 21 is not illegal. When this is the case, U.S. Department of Defense has found that soldiers "drink more when it is legal" (p. 62). Apparently, the lure of obtaining an illegal substance is not at work here, and making the consumption of alcohol legally acceptable seems to only worsen the problem. Based on this, Main feels that lowering the legal age may in fact have a negative effect on the drinking habits of young people in the 18-to-21 age range.
No: Judith G. McMullen
Judith McMullen discusses this issue from a different angle, arguing that the current laws do not have an impact on underage drinking and that there is no compelling reason to keep the drinking age at 21. She also strongly believes that the issue needs to be addressed in different age increments, explaining that "there are in fact two distinct groups of underage drinkers who present different issues" (p. 72). Therefore, she divides her argument into a discussion of young people under age 18 (minors) and those in the 18-to-21 range. Regarding those at the younger end of the spectrum, McMullen writes that "banning alcohol consumption for the under-18 crowd is consistent with other child protective policies advanced by state laws" (p. 69). Because of this consistency, she believes that banning alcohol consumption makes sense for this age group. In contrast, for the 18-to-21 age group, whose members have a number of other "adult" privileges (such as voting and enlisting in the military), these legal restrictions do not make sense, making them even more unenforceable. Thus, while she concedes that it might be better for all young people under age 21 to abstain from alcohol consumption, the legal age restrictions currently in place are clearly ineffective on a broad scale, and that this is particularly true for those in the18-to-21 bracket.
In her discussion of underage drinking by minors, McMullen cites a number of reputable sources to support her assertion that adults, usually parents, are often in some way responsible for this behavior, whether indirectly or directly. Lack of proper or sufficient parental supervision is one way that adults fail minors; setting poor examples and giving mixed messages about drinking are others. In terms of direct responsibility, there are parents who provide alcohol for their under-age children to drink at home; in cases like this, both the action and the attitude it implies send the message that drinking alcohol is acceptable. In fact, McMullen says, "some parents think drinking is a normal rite of passage for teenagers" (p. 73). Enforcing a law that parents do not respect becomes even more problematical in cases like this.
Issues of parental supervision are less important in the 18-to-21 age group; at this age, young people often move out of the parental home, either to their own apartments or to college housing. Now on their own, they are considered "adults" in many ways: they can vote, they can drive, and they can be drafted for military service. However, when it comes to alcohol consumption, they are still under the legal age limit. According to McMullen, this is key: "It is this legal autonomy in other areas, I think, that makes enforcement of a 21 drinking age impossible" (p. 76).
In addition to the mixed messages teens and young adults receive from their own parents, there is the bombardment of advertisements they are constantly exposed to. This is particularly true in sporting events, McMullen points out, explaining that these events are frequently attended by people in this under-age bracket. Attempts to regulate drinking and enforce drinking laws in a society that frequently glorifies alcohol seem pointless in view of this.
Part 2: Critical Discussion of Arguments
Main does a good job of arguing her points; she includes some strong statistics to support her ideas, and she calls upon specific incidents that bring her theoretical position into perspective. One of the most dramatic points Main makes is in her discussion of the brief period in the 1970s when the drinking age was lowered as part of a reaction to the Vietnam War. According to Main, what happened next was "catastrophic," with a drastic increase in deaths of young people in highway accidents (59). After this, states immediately went into action to return the drinking age to 21. This example is a very effective argument for keeping the drinking age at 21.
Main's discussion of highway fatalities is further strengthened by her discussion of the group Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), which came into existence shortly after the death of 13-year-old Cari Lightner at the hands of a drunk driver (p. 60). This appeal to our humanity and compassion is a strong one; the tragic death of a loved one at the hands of an intoxicated driver is appalling. When that driver happens to be underage as well, another young life is ruined.
Another point made by Main is about sexual conduct and how it may be influenced by drinking. Irresponsible sexual behavior, consensual or not, is another likely outcome of alcohol consumption by young people in this age group, and it can have unfortunate and tragic results, including sexual assault cases. On this point, however, her argument is less persuasive. While Main does cover this aspect of the drinking issue, she does not make strong connections between the effect lowering the drinking age would have in this regard.
In fact, she weakens her point by introducing a scenario which is not representative of all underage drinking experiences. She discusses a hypothetical college-campus scenario which she believes to be typical of "hookup culture," involving a 19-year-old male who has heard lectures about safe drinking, but also knows that he is likely to hook up with one of his female friends by supplying liquor. Main notes that the bar is selling beer for 25 cents a pitcher, then closes the scenario with the question, "Care to wager how that night will turn out?" (p. 63). The assumption that the male will clearly choose to drink and "hook up" is clear; however, this does not seem to be a fair or rational assumption, and it weakens her argument.
Like Main's assertions, McMullen's arguments are presented in a clear and persuasive manner, and she uses reputable sources to support her ideas. However, her conclusion is not as compelling. She does make the case that the policy that is now in place "is neither currently effective, nor likely to be effective in the future" (p. 79). Unfortunately, this lack of effectiveness does not come across as sufficient reason to lower the drinking age. In addition, placing blame on…