OPINION: Lowering the drinking age would make us more responsible

A drink with 2 ice cubes
Graphic by Natalie Bauer

Last week, Scripps College hosted Eurobash, a party that was meant to recreate a European club for American students. For myself, an exchange student from the U.K., and other European students I went with, it was a somewhat confusing experience. 

None of us quite understood why everyone was dressed in neon and sequins (is that really what Americans think Europeans wear to clubs?). In other ways — namely the bouncers at the door and the basement-like feel — it did nearly resemble a European club. 

I might have been able to pretend I was back in Britain, except that instead of serving alcohol, this club was serving bottled water and pizza. 

At the age of 18 in the U.S., you can vote, get married, create a will, adopt a child (and/or a puppy), buy a house, apply for a credit card, drive a car and fight in Afghanistan. What you can’t do is buy alcohol.  

The U.S. is one of only 12 countries in the world to have a drinking age as high as 21, according to ProCon. Nearly 140 of 190 countries (almost 72 percent) have a legal drinking age between 16 and 19 years old.

Coming to Pitzer College on exchange from the U.K. as a 20-year-old who has been legally drinking for two years was something of a shock. I can no longer order shots at a club or pop into a supermarket to buy a bottle of wine. I can’t order a cocktail at a restaurant or enjoy a pint at the pub with my friends. In short, I can’t drink alcohol like an adult. 

At 18, you reach the “age of majority” in both California and the U.K., meaning that you cease to be a minor under the control of a parent or guardian. You become a legal adult, responsible for your own finances and decisions. But in the U.S., when it comes to decisions about drinking, this concept doesn’t seem to apply. 

There’s a lot of debate around how much the legal drinking age affects the amount of underage drinking. Rates of teenage drinking, for example, vary between countries in a way that doesn’t necessarily align with legal drinking age. In 2007, 18 percent of American 15- and 16-year-olds reported being drunk in the past month, according to Vox.

In my home country of the U.K., where drinking is legal at 18, more than 30 percent of 15- and 16-year-olds had been drunk in the previous month. 

But in France, which also has a drinking age of 18, the figure was 18 percent — the same as in the U.S. In Belgium, where wine and beer (but not spirits) can be purchased at age 16, the figure was only 10 percent. 

Statistics aside, a walk around the 5C campuses on any Saturday night will make it obvious that American college students are drinking, and drinking a lot. 

A drinking culture is by no means unique to American colleges. When I started university in Britain, I felt enormous pressure to drink, and enjoy doing so, in a strange city with people who were virtual strangers. 

But by this time, I had already been able to legally drink for six months. I had already worked out my tolerance levels and exactly how many tequila shots I could handle (the answer is not very many). 

I worked this out living at home, with friends I had known for years and where my parents made sure I came back after a night out. I worked it out in pubs and clubs that were (to an extent) monitored by landladies and bouncers, instead of in dorm parties filled with other students. 

Kendall Lowery SC ’22, a domestic student, said in the U.S., students “get to college and then have easy access to alcohol [that they] haven’t been exposed to before, [so they] probably don’t know [their] tolerance and then that leads to dangerous situations.” 

In Europe, if you’re 18 (or younger in some places) you know that once you enter the club, you can buy a drink inside. Under that system, there’s far less incentive to binge beforehand for events like Eurobash.

Sam Kahn, a fellow Pitzer exchange from the U.K., said American students drink less often than British students, but that “when Americans do drink, they have loads really quickly.” This sentiment is echoed by research: In 2003, Institutes of Medicine found that 90 percent of alcohol drunk by American 18 to 20 year olds was consumed during heavy drinking, according to Choose Responsibility

When it’s legal, alcohol doesn’t feel so special that binging it is necessary every time. When you can’t drink alcohol in a sophisticated way — when you can’t order a glass of wine with dinner but instead have to drink it out of mugs in your dorm room — it’s natural to drink more immaturely.

In the words of The New York Times’ John McCardell Jr.: “If you infantilize someone, do not be surprised when infantile behavior — like binge drinking — results.” College students are trusted with great amounts of responsibility in other areas of life. We are legal adults, and maybe if the drinking age reflected that, we would drink more like adults. 

Ellie Woodward-Webster is a Pitzer College exchange student from the U.K. She’s really enjoying life at the 5Cs but is definitely looking forward to turning 21.

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