If a 19-year-old can sign a contract and get married, shouldn't she be able to legally sip champagne at her own wedding? And if an 18-year-old can be sent to war in Iraq or Afghanistan, why can't he have a beer in a bar? Furthermore, teens will always find ways to drink -- why not let them do it legally?
A proposed bill at the Legislature this year poses these questions, but it provides the wrong answer. Rep. Phyllis Kahn, DFL-Minneapolis, proposes that the state lower the drinking age from 21 to 18. She believes that the current law setting it at 21 drives younger drinkers underground and encourages more dangerous behavior.
Kahn's bill places Minnesota among several states, including South Dakota and Wisconsin, that are exploring the idea. Some are considering putting the issue on the November ballot, while others are discussing exceptions for active-duty military personnel.
Trouble is, nearly all the research -- from health effects to highway accidents -- is on the other side. Overwhelmingly, the evidence supports a drinking age of 21.
Studies of the still-developing teenage brain show that adolescents are more vulnerable than adults to the effects of alcohol on learning, memory and judgment. And those who begin drinking in their early teens are at greater risk to become alcoholics.
In addition, the lower age limit was tried before -- and it didn't work. Similar concerns were raised in the 1970s during the Vietnam War, prompting many states to lower the drinking age. But in the following decade younger drunken drivers became a bigger issue than war or the military service. As a result, Congress said it would pull federal funds from states that did not set 21 as the drinking age. By 1988, every state was in compliance.
The results speak for themselves. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration reported that the number of drunken drivers under age 21 involved in fatal crashes decreased by 61 percent from 1982 to 1998. The agency also estimated that tens of thousands of lives were saved from 1975 to 2003 by higher age limits.
And five years ago, the Centers for Disease Control reviewed 49 studies on drinking age laws. Nearly all of them found that a 21-year-old drinking age saved lives.
Minnesota Department of Public Safety officials oppose lowering the drinking age because of the high rates of young, inexperienced drivers in car accidents. In 2006, one in 10 drivers involved in crashes were 21 or under, and more than 600 people were killed or injured by an impaired underage driver.
We admit that it seems inconsistent that young men and women who can be sent to war can be too young to drink legally. Yet that's more an argument to raise the minimum age for military service than to lower the minimum age for drinking. There's nothing wrong with the fact that a kid can get a hunting license at age 12, drive at 16 and vote at 18, but not be eligible to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives until age 25.
When it comes to alcohol consumption, the health and safety issues make this an easy call for the Legislature: Minnesota should maintain 21 as the legal drinking age.