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Adolescents look forward to the day when they will be able to consume alcohol. Young people in certain countries can lawfully consume their first alcoholic beverage at the age of 18. However, in the United States, an individual must be 21 to lawfully purchase and consume any alcoholic beverage in any jurisdiction. Why the number 21? Is 21 still the age? Has the minimum drinking limit been reduced in the past? What were the results? Is alcohol intake harmful to the developing brain of an adolescent? Is the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) regulation unsuccessful when there are so many underage drinkers? Why do teens use alcohol? What are the dangers of underage drinking, and how can it be avoided? What are the various points of view on the topic of underage drinking? These are the questions that I intend to explore through this essay.
Reason for the policy
The United States Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 was enacted to “protect young people from adverse drinking experiences such as heavy episodic drinking” or HED (Cheng and Anthony).
Such policy was enacted to prevent young drinkers from getting into car accidents, drowning and other alcohol-related incidents. Decades earlier, in 1933 the drinking age of 21 was enacted in majority of the US states. This was lowered to 18 in the 1960s and 1970s. Alcohol-related accidents increase tremendously in the mid-70s and car accidents “involving persons aged 16-20 were alcohol-related (Tietjen). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention the “youth who start drinking before age 15 years are six times more likely to develop alcohol dependence or abuse later in life than those who begin drinking at or after age 21 years (CDC). There were also problems that were related to underage drinkers. First-time drinkers experience physical and social effects. They may feel intoxicated and at a loss. Since underage drinkers carry out this activity in the company of classmates or friends, there is always a danger of disastrous effects. Underage drinkers who are newly introduced to alcohol may be tempted to keep on drinking because of the new sensations generated by the substance. The increase in frequency also makes their body more tolerant to the substance, thereby resulting in a greater intake. Such intake can have physical effects not only on the immediate consciousness. Drinking may become a regular activity which may also lead to other effects on the body.
Studies on the effect of alcoholic substances have been carried out. One of which is by Selveri from the Harvard Medical School. She noted that MRI imaging provided data showing how fast brain development was in the emerging adulthood stages. At this time the brain is in the process of completing its maturation process. Thus, its development is very much vulnerable to effects from foreign substances. Alcohol consumption during the emerging adulthood stage makes the brain vulnerable to effects of alcohol. The period of "vulnerability of the brain" continues through the emerging adulthood years, or the years from age 18-22. At this time, the brain continues to develop its "cognitive processing and intellectual functioning" (Selveri 3). Full maturation takes place at age 22. Exposure to these effects can be detrimental to the brain which is still in its final stages of maturation (Selveri 4). The researcher explains that the younger the person drinks, the more tolerant he or she becomes to alcohol, thus a greater capacity for consuming more drinks. Such a case may result in more cravings which may eventually result in addiction.
The period of emerging vulnerability of the brain coincides with the college years of young adults. This is the time when attraction to alcohol is at its highest. There are school events, sorority parties, graduation dinners, or even just after-school hangouts. Underage drinkers consume alcohol without adult supervision. Since it is an illegal activity, they do so in private parties or sneak in alcohol to their dormitories and fraternity houses.
This lack of adult supervision is the issue raised by parents who are for the lowering of the MLDA. When 18-year old adolescents drink alcohol during school events or social gatherings, they do so under the watchful eye of their companions and school chaperones. In this way, an adult is able to regulate the intake taking into consideration the immediate effects of alcohol on the person. In this manner, the adolescents learn his/her limitations and would take alcoholic beverages according to his/her capacity only. The current MLDA does not give the parents the opportunity to teach their children responsible drinking habits while these kids are still in the home (Geltman).
Unsupervised drinking leads to disastrous events, such as rape in campuses. Although illegal drinking is still expected to take place in campuses, even if the MLDA is lowered, there is a possibility that incidents that are brought about by unsupervised drinking can be minimized. Teenagers can drink in a normal environment where they would be supervised by their parents and the entire community to ensure responsible drinking (Tucker). Teenagers who become intoxicated are assured that their support system is within their reach. Parents or chaperones can also limit the amount of alcohol given to underage drinkers.
Alcohol consumption is one of the activities that adolescents anticipate when they come of age. In the US, the legal age for drinking alcohol is at 21, years after a young adult attains legal rights to vote and drive. The minimum legal drinking age policy was enacted in 1984 to prevent further increase of alcohol-related accidents especially among teenagers and young adults. Drinking alcohol has effects on underage drinkers. Aside from potential disastrous social effects, alcohol consumption has also been proven to have effects on the brain of teenagers.
There are advocates of lowering the MLDA. The reason they cite is to supervise the drinking of young adults and guide them to become responsible drinkers. Those who are against the lowering of the legal age for drinking points to the adverse effects of early drinking on the adolescent's brain. I expect differing opinions about the MLDA to continue, and further research will provide more insights into this issue.
Cheng, Hui G. and Anthony, James C. “Does our legal minimum drinking age modulate risk of first heavy drinking episode soon after drinking onset? Epidemiological evidence for the United States, 2006-2014.” Peer J. 23 June 2016.
Geltman, Elizabeth Glass. “Lower the Drinking Age Back to 18: We Don’t Have Students Teach Each Other to Drive, Why is Alcohol Different?” The Huffington Post, 17 February 2015. Accessed 10 April 2017.
Silveri, Marissa M. “Adolescent Brain Development and Underage Drinking in the United States: Identifying Risks of Alcohol Use in College Populations.” Harvard Review of Psychiatry, 20(4), 2012:189-200.
Tietjen, Denali. “Why 21? A Look at our Nation’s Drinking Age.” Boston.com. 17 July 2014. Accessed 10 April 2017.
Tucker, Jeffrey A., "The Drinking Age Should Be Lowered, Fast". Newsweek. N.p., 2017. Web.
7 Apr. 2017.
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