November 9, 2017

Possible change to legal drinking age?

This week, a new bill introduced by some Republican lawmakers (and a former President of the Tavern League) would lower the drinking age in Wisconsin to 19 if passed.  Proponents of the bill state that it will decrease amount of money and time spent on patrolling underage drinking (mainly on college campuses). They also point out that an 18-year-old can serve in the military, live independently, purchase firearms, purchase tobacco products, and vote, so why shouldn't they be able to enjoy an adult beverage? Although, the proposal would not allow 18 year olds to purchase alcohol (that is to prevent high school students from legally drinking, according to the bill's authors).

Wisconsin Alcohol Fact: In 1902, Carrie Nation, famous hatchet-wielding member of the anti-alcohol Temperance Movement, swung her axe in a bar in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin.

Let's look back at the history of the 21-year-old drinking age. This became Wisconsin law in 1986, in order to be in compliance with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed by President Ronald Reagan. Prior to this, the drinking age had been 19 years of age (and 18 years old from 1972-1984). Part of the National Minimum Drinking Act is that any state with a drinking age lower than 21 can lose a substantial percentage of federal highway funding (since 2012, the bar was set at 8% annual decrease, which would be a $53.7 million reduction in Wisconsin this year). The proposed bill that would lower Wisconsin's drinking age would be contingent on Wisconsin not losing federal highway money.

Wisconsin Alcohol Fact: Wisconsin is one of few states where those under the legal drinking age may be served, possess, or consume alcohol if they are with a parent, legal guardian, or spouse who is of legal drinking age.

Has there been any benefit to raising the age of alcohol consumption to 21?   There are a few. After increasing legal drinking age to 21, states saw a 15% decline in motor vehicle crashes.  And after all states adopted an age 21 minimum drinking age, drinking during the previous month among persons aged 18 to 20 years declined from 59% in 1985 to 40% in 1991; drinking among people aged 21 to 25 also declined significantly when states adopted the age 21 minimum drinking age, from 70% in 1985 to 56% in 1991.

In looking at high school students, the 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Survey found that 33% drank alcohol and 18% binge drank during the past 30 days (both stats currently at the lowest seen since 1991!). Sadly, 8% of high school students drove after drinking and 20% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol.

Wisconsin Alcohol Fact: Wisconsin has been consistently one of the top binge-drinking states.

These numbers are significant. Excessive drinking contributes to more than 4,300 deaths among people below the age of 21 in the U.S. each year. There were about 189,000 emergency department visits by people under age 21 for injuries and other conditions linked to alcohol in 2010. Underage drinking cost the U.S. economy $24 billion in 2010. I'm not sure how much this cost is due to policing underage drinking and would be lessened with decreasing the drinking age. My guess is not much.

What are your thoughts on the Wisconsin drinking age?