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Lowering Drinking and Smoking Age in the U.S.


The minimum legal drinking age in the United States remains a highly contested issue. Currently, young adults below the age of 21 years are legally prohibited from purchasing alcohol in America. In most cases, the discourse concerning the allowable drinking period often links one’s ability to access alcohol at a tender age to negative health and social effects. Age restrictions extend to a variety of other things apart from alcohol drinking.

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While individuals below the age of 21 are not allowed to buy alcohol in the United States, teenagers aged 17 years can enlist in the army where they are expected to make crucial decisions and actions regarding their country’s security. Moreover, young people in the U.S. can watch movies meant for adults provided they are aged seventeen years and above. It is ironical to regard the same people as immature when discussing the subject of drinking and smoking age.

As suggested in this paper, although several studies have examined the positive effects of age restriction on alcohol consumption in the U.S., other scholars indicate that lowering the figure from 21 to 17 years will help to limit the number of negative consequences faced by young adults. These counterproductive outcomes range from inequality issues, road accidents, and alcohol and cigarette abuse to irresponsibility among youths and parents.

Measures for controlling alcohol and cigarette abuse have a long history in the United States. The repealing of the National Prohibition Act in 1933 passed the responsibility for regulating the distribution and sale of alcohol to states, which, in turn, set up the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) at 21 years (DeJong & Blanchette, 2014). During the Vietnam War, the national voting age was lowered to 18 years, thus necessitating over 29 states to reduce their MLDA to between 18 and 20 years, which saw a sharp increase in alcohol-related fatalities (DeJong & Blanchette, 2014).

Multiple groups such as the National Parent Teacher Association then lobbied the Congress to pass a law preventing any person below 21 years from purchasing or possessing alcohol in public. According to DeJong and Blanchette (2014), President Ronald Regan signed the MLDA legislation into law in 1984 as the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. By 1987, all states had adopted the MLDA provisions. According to this Act, any region that did not comply with the stated provisions was punished by having 10% of the amount they were required to receive from the Federal government retained.

In the United States, the need for reducing alcohol consumption and harm to young people informed the decision to implement the MLDA framework. Currently, this tool helps to restrict the purchase, consumption, or possession of alcoholic substances for individuals below a particular age (Canadian Center for Substance Abuse, 2017). The age restriction in the U.S. is much higher when compared to most European countries. As a result, the United Kingdom and Norway have set it at 18 while Germany and Italy regard teenagers aged 16 years as legally allowed to consume alcohol and cigarettes (Juliff, 2018). In Belgium, young adults of 15 years and above can drink and smoke as provided for by the law.

The Substance and Mental Health Administration report shows that alcohol is among the commonly abused substances by American young adults (Keyes, Brady, & Li, 2015). Today, the use of alcohol in America has been associated with the observed cases of morbidity and mortality. For example, in 2012, about 35,500 U.S. people died in motor accidents under the influence of alcohol and other substances (Keyes et al., 2015).

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According to Carpenter and Dobkin (2015), alcohol-related cases cost America over $50 billion each year. In addition, research indicates that the consumption of alcohol may have negative effects on the physical and mental development of individuals, especially those in their early adulthood (Canadian Center for Substance Abuse, 2017). Thus, the effort to delay the drinking age in America has been a historical policy for controlling alcohol and smoking use.

The Implications of the MLDA

A growing body of literature supports the reduction of the minimum age of drinking in the U.S. Other scholars oppose this move. For instance, a poll conducted in 2007 by Gallup indicates that 77% of adults aged 18 years and above are against the idea of lowering the age restriction for alcohol (DeJong & Blanchette, 2014). Thus, public support for the current age restriction appears to be strong. Nevertheless, it is crucial to point out that lowering the drinking age has various benefits. For example, the Amethyst Institute that constitutes over 130 university presidents in the U.S. has been calling for the reduction of the minimum drinking age to eighteen years (Keyes et al., 2015). Consequently, cases of illegal access to alcohol will decline.

The idea of setting a high minimum age for alcohol and cigarette use is invalidated by the availability of other complimentary drugs and substances. In the recent past, efforts were made to increase access to marijuana and cigarettes. Previous studies have shown that if one uses alcohol, then they are two to three more times likely to abuse marijuana (Keyes et al., 2015). According to this scholar, 23 states have so far approved the therapeutic consumption of marijuana in any form (Keyes et al., 2015). In places such as California and Washington, it is legal to use it for recreation purposes.

Furthermore, studies show that almost 90% of smokers in the United States started this habit before reaching the legal smoking age of 18 years (Keyes et al., 2015). Thus, compared to alcohol, young people in the country can access nicotine products at a younger age compared to alcohol. Therefore, since marijuana and tobacco drugs complement alcohol use, their access will only serve to increase the illegal demand and use of alcohol among young people aged 21 years. Thus, it is counterproductive to place a caveat on alcohol consumption among people who have attained the age of 17 years in an environment that encourages the use of other drugs taken with beer.

The failure to lower the minimum age of alcohol access will continue to encourage secret drinking among underage citizens. The Amethyst Initiative argues that the act of making alcohol illegal for persons below that age of 21 makes it even more appealing (National Institute of Health, 2017). As a result, those who prefer to drink before reaching the allowable age of 21 years are tempted to secretly abuse the same drugs.

A national survey revealed that binge drinking in colleges is a major health challenge (Sa, Seo, Nelson, Lohrmann, & Ellis, 2015). Results from this study indicate that two out of every five students had engaged in binge drinking in a concealed place in the course of two weeks (Sa et al., 2015). Hence, it can be argued that alcohol and cigarette use in college environments happens under less supervision compared to formal settings.

Despite the age restriction, excessive alcohol use, especially among those who do it in hidden places, results in negative consequences for young students in particular. For example, while 1,700 learners die annually due to alcohol-related injuries, assaults triggered by drunk underage children are over 669,000 every year (Iconis, 2014). Further, those advocating for the repeal of the age restriction perceive this move as a barrier to having honest conversations about alcohol abuses, thereby preventing responsible drinking. Thus, it becomes difficult to offer counsel to young people since their indulgence is secretive. Moreover, they are still regarded as minors. Accordingly, if the minimum alcohol access age is not lowered to 17 years, more young people are likely to continue engaging in binge drinking in secret.

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The high age limit for alcohol use is likely to increase delinquent behaviors among young people. Child Rights International Network (2016) offers two justifications that explain the concept of setting a minimum age for particular behaviors (1). A minimum age is understood to protect minors from possible harm (Child Rights International Network, 2016). However, in the case of prescribing minimum age for alcohol and cigarette consumption, the investigation indicates that the act may be detrimental to young adolescents, especially if they are forcefully denied access due to their age.

For instance, they are more likely to rebel because of the pressure of abiding by what they view as unfriendly laws. Inquiries show that young people rebelling from social controls are more likely to engage in delinquent behaviors such as violence due to risk or protective factors (Lei, 2017). Risk factors may include hopelessness, exposure to violence, and the use of more drugs.

Increasing social controls such as the high age of alcohol consumption among young people already experiencing strain is likely to lead them into self-destructive behaviors such as suicides. Furthermore, parents may experience challenges trying to control their children from engaging in alcohol, a situation that triggers conflicts and attempted recklessness. According to the World Health Organization, about 800, 000 people commit suicide globally, with young people experiencing suicidal thoughts (Cha et al., 2018). Currently, suicide is the largest cause of death among young people (Cha et al., 2018).

In the United States, 13% of youths aged between 15-29 years commit suicide per every 100, 000 individuals (Cha et al., 2018). As such, it is crucial to point out that such instances are triggered by the prevailing pressure, including forcing children below 21 years to abide by laws, which require them to shun alcohol consumption, contrary to their age mate counterparts in the army who are seen as mature enough to secure their country.

My Position

My position in this research paper is that lowering the minimum drinking and smoking age from 21 to 17 years is bound to make a beneficial difference. The available literature suggests that such a move will not only enhance fairness but also reduce dangerous habits among teens who may be tempted to abuse alcohol and cigarettes secretly for fear of being caught. In the United States, the MLDA has been set at 21 since the 1930s. Concerned stakeholders such as the police and parents consider the MLDA unjustified due to the existence of other provisions in the U.S., which allow an individual to be deployed to military service at a young age of 17 years.

The study by Anderson (2016) supports my position because it reveals at least 29 states, which have lowered the MLDA with a view to promoting fairness. Initially, the legal smoking age in the U.S. was 18 years in many parts of this country, including Washington, DC, before some regions such as Virginia, Maryland, and Louisiana raised it to 21 years (Kalmbacher, 2018). Currently, around six states in the U.S., including Massachusetts, have elevated the legal smoking age from 18 to 21 at a time when others are contemplating adopting similar regulations (Myers, 2018). This move is contradictory.

For instance, it raises concerns regarding why some citizens in the U.S. are deemed old enough to enter the military at 17 years while others of the same age cannot be allowed to engage in smoking or drinking. If the former category of people who join the army has been proved to make effective decisions at 17 years, I believe that it can only be fair if the American government lowers the drinking and smoking age.

Moreover, in my view, lowering the drinking and smoking age will result in minimal cases of alcohol and cigarette abuse among teens aged between 17 and 21 years. This claim implies that a minimum legal drinking age of 21 is attributed to dangerous drinking habits, which make it an ineffective tool for moderating potentially risky behaviors among youths below this allowable limit. In line with my position, the article by Sliman (2013) presents at least 44% of college students who engage in binge drinking amid the MLDA of 21, a situation results in an estimated 1900 deaths from injuries associated with dangerous drinking. Furthermore, approximately 700,000 and 100,000 cases of physical assaults and sexual harassment respectively have been attributed to dangerous drinking among underage youth in the U.S. (Sliman, 2013).

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Such incidents can be prevented by lowering the drinking age to accommodate this group of people, including parents, who will then engage in alcohol consumption responsibly with their children without fearing any possible victimization by police. According to a study by Kristman-Valente, Brown, and Herrenkohl (2013), the subjection of children in the age of 12-17 years to physical abuse, for instance, by police, increases their chances of smoking by 50%. Therefore, reducing the minimum drinking and smoking age will allow parents and youths aged 17 years and above to learn about behaving responsibly from an early age, thus reducing their chances of developing dangerous habits.

From my perspective, lowering the drinking age to 21 years is bound to reduce road accidents caused by youths below this age limit. For instance, when they are left to drive under the influence of alcohol, they may not concentrate fully on the wheel after realizing their faults of drunk driving and having not attained the recommended drinking age. The establishment of the National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984 primarily sought to protect Americans from traffic accidents, which were attributed to significant fatalities and injuries (Anderson, 2016).

Similarly, Juliff (2018) concurs with my view based on his findings regarding European countries such as France and Spain that have implemented a minimum legal drinking age of 18 years to the extent of recording reduced accident levels compared to the case of the U.S. where the legal drinking age is 21 years. As such, stiffer penalties and campaigns against drunk driving prove more effective in terms of the observed reduction of accident rates when compared to rising the legal drinking and smoking age.

According to Anderson (2016), 17% of alcohol sold in the U.S. is consumed by underage individuals. The inadequacy of resources allocated to law enforcement agencies such as the police undermines the enforcement of drinking and smoking age laws in this country. The article by Igarashi et al. (2018) reveals the absence of any association between cigarette smoking and traffic accidents. This researcher did a 20-year follow-up on drunk drivers. As a result, findings by Igarashi et al. (2018) concur with my view that the traffic accidents menace in the U.S. should not be associated with the age of individuals engaging in drinking or smoking habits.

Conclusion: The Future

Regarding the future of the MLDA, the United States risks experiencing an increase in related drugs use, secretive abuse of substances, and delinquent behaviors if it continues to retain the allowable drinking and smoking age at 21 years. The idea of setting the minimum drinking age at 21 years has not had any significant benefits to the U.S. The American police have inadequately enforced laws regarding the allowable drinking and smoking age, a situation that has made this regulation meaningless. Thus, in my view, reducing the legal age should be considered an alternative strategy.

Overall, lowering the drinking and smoking age from 21 to 17 would help younger people to understand that underage behaviors are illegal and punishable by law. As a result, the enforcement of regulations on drinking and smoking ages will be efficient, thanks to young people’s commitment to abiding by policies.


Anderson, D. (2016). Top 10 reasons the drinking age should be lowered to 18. 

Canadian Center for Substance Abuse. (2017). The impact and effectiveness of minimum legal drinking age legislation in Canada. 

Carpenter, C., & Dobkin, C. (2015). The minimum legal drinking age and crime. Review of Economics and Statistics, 97(2), 521-524.

Cha, C. B., Franz, P. J. Guzmán, E., Glenn, C. R., Kleiman, E. M., & Nock, M. K. (2018). Annual research review: Suicide among youth–epidemiology, (potential) etiology, and treatment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59(4), 460-482. Web.

Child Rights International Network. (2016). Age is arbitrary: Setting minimum ages. Web.

DeJong, W., & Blanchette, J. (2014). 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, 75(17), 108-115.

Iconis, R. (2014). Understanding alcohol abuse among college students: Contributing factors and strategies for intervention. Contemporary Issues In Education Research, 7(3), 243-248.

Igarashi, A., Aida, J., Sairenchi, T., Tsuboya, T., Sugiyama, K., Koyama, S., … Ota, H. (2018). Does cigarette smoking increase traffic accident death during 20 years follow-up in Japan?: The Ibaraki prefectural health study. Journal of Epidemiology. Web.

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Kristman-Valente, A. N., Brown, E. C., & Herrenkohl, T. I. (2013). Child physical and sexual abuse and cigarette smoking in adolescence and adulthood. Journal of Adolescent Health, 53(4), 533-538. Web.

Lei, T. (2017). Juvenile delinquency and cause of death for adolescents between 13 and 17 years in Detroit in 2015. Web.

Myers, M. L. (2018). Massachusetts becomes sixth state to raise tobacco age to 21

National Institute of Health. (2017). Should the drinking age be lowered from 21 to a younger age? Web.

Sa, J., Seo, D-C., Nelson, T. F., Lohrmann, D. K., & Ellis, N. T. (2015). Binge drinking and drinking and driving among South Korean international college students in the USA. Health Education Journal, 74(1), 84-95.

Sliman, K. (2013). Probing question: How serious is the binge drinking problem on college campuses? 

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