Even the drinks industry is reluctant to challenge the US 21-year-old rule

Even the drinks industry is reluctant to challenge the US' 21-year-old rule

At 21, the legal drinking age in the US is higher than almost every other country in the world. Ben Cooper looks at a recent attempt to exempt armed forces personnel from the limit and examines why the country’s high legal drinking age is so resilient to challenge, even within the industry.

Recent moves to increase the legal drinking age (LDA) in India and Turkey have caused controversy and have received only limited popular support.

In the US, one of the most profitable drinks markets in the world, the story remains very different. Strong public and political backing for the high legal drinking age in the US shows no sign of waning.

I point you towards the response to a private bill in the Alaska State Legislature. In April, Representative Bob Lynn introduced a Bill to allow men and women under 21 years of age serving in the armed forces to purchase alcohol and tobacco in Alaska.

The most common minimum purchase age for alcohol worldwide is 18, though in many countries the limit for consuming alcohol is lower.

The US is the most notable exception. The 1984 National Minimum Drinking Age Act compelled all states to institute the LDA of 21 by 1988. Through the Act, Congress can withhold 10% of a state’s federal highway funds if its LDA is below 21. Alaska would lose around US$50m a year.

It has been challenged judicially and in state legislatures without success. Kentucky, South Carolina and Wisconsin have seen challenges similar to the Lynn Bill in Alaska. Last year, Representative Jack Kingston introduced a Bill in Georgia to allow troops over 18 to drink on military bases. This also failed though Kingston plans to re-introduce it.

The reason why all these attempts have been unsuccessful comes down to the huge support for the 21 LDA, underpinned by groups such as Mothers against Drunk Driving (MADD). MADD claims around 25,000 lives have been saved by the limit. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that 623 lives were saved by the LDA in 2009.

Other analysts dispute such assertions, suggesting the LDA is only one factor behind a steady reduction in road deaths – a trend seen before 1988 – with safer cars, lower speed limits and tighter drink-drive laws playing a part. This is supported by the fact that similar trends have been observed in countries where LDAs have not been raised.

Such campaigning to lower the LDA that there is comes mainly from libertarian groups and has little popular support.

The most notable campaign in recent years is the Amethyst Initiative, launched by a group of university principals in 2008. Amethyst says that the high LDA has spawned a culture of “clandestine binge-drinking”.

Putting forward the standard arguments about 18-year-olds being allowed to vote and serve in the military, Amethyst says the high LDA compels students to “make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law”. It asks whether the highway funds incentive “encourages or inhibits” debate, and invites politicians to consider new ideas about how to “prepare young adults to make responsible decisions about alcohol”.

The fact that people can vote, marry and serve in the military but not be served alcohol has long been an inconsistency highlighted by those advocating a lower LDA. For Representatives Lynn and Jackson, the disdain the law shows to those serving in the armed forces is insupportable. Lynn says it is “outrageous” that a soldier can be “subjected to the horrors of war but can't legally have a beer”. He believes people who risk their lives for their country should be treated like adults, “in every sense of the word".

From a civil rights perspective it is hard not to agree, whether with regard to military personnel or 18- to 21-year-olds in general. However, do not expect the drinks industry to stand up for the rights of these 18- to 21-year-old potential customers.

When asked about the Alaskan Bill, none of the three major producer groups in the US was supportive. DISCUS said: “The Distilled Spirits Council continues to support the 21 year old legal drinking age.” Wine Institute (WI) said it had not taken a position, but may do so if the Bill progresses, and that it supports the current LDA. The Beer Institute did not wish to comment.

Those who believe industry advocacy is about pragmatism more than principle would no doubt give a wry smile. Industry may campaign vigorously about the protection of personal and commercial freedoms but youth drinking is a hot potato, and the drinks sector is simply not going there. The words 'touch' and 'bargepole' come to mind.

However, this position exposes the industry to a delicate question. Lynn would contend that if someone is considered responsible enough to operate a 50-calibre machinegun then they should be assumed capable of consuming alcohol responsibly. In supporting the status quo, is the industry tacitly accepting that drinking alcohol requires a greater sense of responsibility and maturity? In effect, that its product is more dangerous than a machinegun? For all its PR expediency, it’s an interesting position to take.

Industry advocates may not be unduly concerned. The Alaskan episode brought this inconsistency to prominence but like other such challenges is likely to come to nothing.

After its introduction, Lynn’s Bill (HB 210), which has no co-sponsors, was referred to the House Special Committee on Military and Veterans’ Affairs (MLV) where it was given a decent but clearly sceptical hearing. It is currently held in the MLV and would have to move through that committee and the House Judiciary Committee before returning to the House for a vote. Alaska’s Legislature bizarrely only has a 90-day term so the new session will not begin until January 2012.

There are few certainties in politics but it is a safe prediction that the 21 age limit will remain in the US. State governments will not vote for a change which threatens millions of dollars of highway funding.

As for an exemption to the highway funding condition relating to the military, this is also unlikely. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has already said he does not support lowering the LDA for military personnel and the industry is not interested in the issue.

It is interesting to note that the two politicians who have challenged the LDA are Republicans, given that it was under a Republican administration that the nationwide 21 limit was introduced. Some say it could play well for them. It fits with Republican support for small government and opposition to federal interference in state affairs; they like to show solidarity with service personnel and could do with courting younger voters. On the other hand, they would be trespassing on a highly emotive issue and risk criticism from popular grassroots organisations like MADD.

Interestingly, the last time LDAs were widely reduced was during the Vietnam War, when 29 states cut the LDA out of respect to young soldiers fighting in Southeast Asia. Given the level of US military activity overseas over the past ten years, one can’t help feeling that if this was likely to be repeated it would have happened by now.

One further thought. If those under 21 lack the maturity to drink sensibly, why are they asked to take on such a grave responsibility as serving in the military? One wonders how many politicians who back the 21 LDA would support increasing the minimum age for serving in the military to 21.