Could lowering the legal drinking age reduce binge drinking among younger drinkers, particularly those in college? Three Wisconsin state legislators seem to think so.
The proposed bill, sponsored by Republican representatives Adam Jarchow, Cindi Duchow, and Rob Swearingen would reduce the legal drinking age in Wisconsin to 19. By lowering the minimum age, Jarchow insists Wisconsin could save “countless hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars” currently spent enforcing drinking laws, particularly on college campuses where citations for underage drinking are common.
“I see no reason why we can send young men and women off to war but they can’t have a beer,” Jarchow added. The lawmakers also argue that making 19 the new drinking age will still keep most high school students from legally buying alcohol.
Pushback: quick and fierce
Wisconsin’s proposal may have gathered support among a handful of state lawmakers, but it will have to overcome substantial objections and hurdles.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) reacted quickly, arguing the facts don’t support the lawmaker’s line of thinking and issued a statement in strong opposition to the new proposal.
“It would be irresponsible and quite frankly hard to understand why anyone would support, or even condone, an action that would bring about such horrific results as this. . . . lowering the minimum drinking age would add to the terrible toll that already plagues our country because of drinking and driving,” MADD’s statement read.
Opponents point out that the bill is unnecessary as Wisconsin law already allows teenagers to drink in bars and restaurants when accompanied by a parent, guardian, or spouse of legal drinking age. And it certainly doesn’t help that Wisconsin has a reputation as the heaviest-drinking state in the country.
Consequences for lowering the drinking age
Wisconsin isn’t the first state to consider a proposal like this. Minnesota, New Jersey, New Hampshire, and California have each played with the idea of lowering the minimum drinking age in recent years, though none have turned out any laws as a result. The numbers may explain why.
According to NHTSA, in 2016 “young drivers, 16-24 years old, made up 39 percent of drivers involved in fatal alcohol-impaired crashes.”
NHTSA also estimates that minimum-drinking-age laws saved 31,417 lives between 1975 and 2016.
Lives aren’t all that’s in jeopardy—federal dollars are at stake too. If passed, the measure would run counter to a nationally accepted norm set over 30 years ago when the Uniform Drinking Age Act of 1984 required states to raise their legal drinking age to 21 or face federal highway funding cuts. For most states, millions of dollars are on the line.
So, would lowering the minimum drinking age produce the benefits and outcomes Wisconsin lawmakers claim?
Perhaps a better question then is this: given the existing research, does gambling with lowering the minimum drinking age make sense?