Newsbrief: 20th Anniversary of Law Raising Drinking Age to 21 7/16/04

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Saturday marks the 20th anniversary of the federal law that forced states to raise their minimum drinking age to 21. On July 17, 1984, President Ronald Reagan signed the National Uniform 21 Minimum Drinking Age Act, ushering in the day millions of college students, members of the armed forces, married couples, and others undertaking the responsibilities of adulthood would become criminals by virtue of downing a cold one.

Advocates of the legislation, prominently including Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), portray it almost solely as an anti-drunk driving bill and credit it with saving thousands of lives over the years. Both MADD and Congress marked the anniversary, as some of the people involved in pushing the bill back then basked in the glow.

"Over 20 years ago, I and many others fought to raise the drinking age to 21 and reduce the number of young people killed each year as a result of drunk driving," said Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ), who was one of the bill's cosponsors. "And since that day 20 years ago when President Reagan signed my bill into law, we have saved 20,000 lives. This is one of the most successful public health policies in the history of this country."

Senator Elizabeth Dole (R-NC), who as Reagan's secretary of transportation lobbied for the bill, said, "I am truly proud to have played a role in the enactment of the 21 minimum drinking age law. At the same time we celebrate 20 years of success and lives saved by this landmark legislation, it is important that we look forward to what more can be done to curb underage drinking and drinking and driving."

MADD and its congressional allies are pushing a new set of proposals to "step up enforcement" and create a national media campaign to discourage adults from buying booze for minors, MADD said in a release celebrating the anniversary. Those would include "Expanded Impaired Driving and Seat Belt Law Enforcement Mobilizations; Incentives for passage of Primary Seat Belt Enforcement laws; and Strengthened enactment of a National Standard Banning Open Containers of alcoholic beverages in vehicles."

As the Institute of Medicine pointed out in a report this year on underage drinking, however, "Despite minimum legal drinking age laws, actual drinking patterns in the United States suggest that almost all young people use alcohol before they are 21." While the 21 minimum drinking laws have an arguable role in saving lives, the also criminalize the behavior of millions of otherwise law-abiding young people, and they are part and parcel of a schizophrenic approach to the nation's most widely used party drug, which teaches kids it is the devil's own poison, until they become 21 and it is now the norm.

Read the Institute of Medicine Report, "Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility," online at:

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