Human beings are a composite of body, mind and spirit, or soul. Although we share sensory perception – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell – with other animals, the basic philosophy that remains distinctive of human beings is the ability to use reasoning while thinking and acting in the world. We also have a unique ability to reflect on our own situation and transcend ourselves, in some sense, both individually and in communion with others. The majority of people have a unique and personal understanding about the meaning and purpose of life. This understanding may include direct guidance in the form of values and principles or an indirect guidance about how to live life in a meaningful manner according to specific rules and laws of the state and land.
Every state sets its own rules of welfare for its inhabitants as per the age of majority that often corresponds with the age at which one can vote, join the military, serve in jury duty, sign contracts, marry, apply for loans, make decisions regarding medical treatments and be prosecuted as an adult. Many rights have different ages of initiation and the minimum age for initiation is based on the specific behaviours involved, taking into account the dangers and benefits of that behaviour at a given age. The age policy for alcohol also takes into account this very fact and there have been alterations in the minimum age of drinking from time to time varying from state to state.
The recent lowering of the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) from 25 to 21 years has fuelled a debate on to whether or not setting the MLDA at 21 is fair, smart and effective. The proponents are opinionated that it would put an end to the perverse culture of secretiveness and abuse that has grown up around underage drinking. It would also allow bars and restaurants to become ‘safe spaces’ for college-age students to drink, create a safer drinking environment and would decrease the binge drinking. It will also undoubtedly emphasize the revenue gains for the state that would come from legalization.
The discrepancy, however, between the MLDA and the age of maturity, and its many responsibilities and authorities, along with the continued incidents of car crashes, suicide, homicide, assault, drowning, recreational injuries etc. reported from college campuses, makes it evident that underage drinking and alcohol abuse is related to numerous serious health problems. According to World Health Organisation (WHO), 13.5% of all deaths among people aged 20–39 years are attributable to alcohol as also three million deaths annually (5.3% of all deaths). In fact, the leading cause of death among teens is car crashes, and alcohol is involved in approximately one-third of these deaths.
In a review of more than 50 studies from states and countries that changed their drinking ages, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention found that increasing the drinking age decreases fatalities and crashes by 16 percent and lowering the drinking age increases fatalities and crashes by 10 percent. A peer-reviewed study from the Journal of Studies of Alcohol and Drugs found that the younger a person begins to drink alcohol the more likely it is that they will use other illicit drugs. Therefore, lowering the drinking age will not only increase the number of youngsters who drink but also will invite more use of illicit drugs among the underage group. Young people also have a propensity to combine high-risk drinking with other high-risk activities, increasing the potential for accidental injury both to themselves and to others.
Lowering the drinking age will not only make the young people to have greater access to alcohol but also lead to lowered perception of risk. When the perception of risk from a particular substance decreases, prevalence rates tend to increase. The teens get drunk twice as fast as adults, binge more often than adults and have more trouble knowing when to stop. In fact, the earlier someone begins drinking, the more likely they are to be alcohol dependent in later life. More than 40 percent of individuals who start drinking at young age will develop alcohol abuse or alcohol dependence at some point in their lives resulting in domestic violence, poor cognitive function, dementia and increased incidence of cancers.
Alcohol’s two-faced nature shouldn’t come as a surprise as it is safe to say that alcohol is both a tonic and a poison and the difference lies mostly in the dose. None of the alcohol education programmes has been able to address the issue and compared with a wide range of other programs and efforts to reduce drinking among teenagers and youngsters, increasing the legal age for purchase and consumption of alcohol appears to have been the most successful effort till date. The magnitude of effects of the increase in age policy may appear small, however, even modest effects when applied to the entire population of youth results in a very large societal benefit.
Underage drinking has been and will remain a serious problem that needs to be addressed and lowering the drinking age further would be a gigantic step backward. Apart from the age it should be the moral values and the right perception about the effects of alcohol that ought to determine and motivate every youth whether to imbibe it or not.