How the United States drinking age causes college students to develop risky drinking behaviors


Every adult can remember the first time they got drunk (how much of that night they remember, one can never be sure) and which alcohol they will never touch again because of it. I will never again drink tequila…unless it is mixed in a margarita with salt, of course. I am only 20 years old, 5 months from being of the legal drinking age in the United States. Coming to England where I can freely drink everywhere and not be given a ticket or an odd look has given me a bit of perspective on what lengths American students go to to obtain alcohol. Begging your older sibling or paying a friend with a fake ID are two of the easiest ways a teenager can get alcohol when they are years away from being able to buy it themselves. In England, I can have a cider with lunch and a glass of white wine with dinner and actually enjoy the social act of drinking and the taste of the alcohol itself. In America, most of my friends drink one or two nights out of the week, and since they’re not allowed to drink in public, they attempt to get the most out of their two nights off by binge drinking until they can no longer tell the ceiling from the floor. Hours are spent taking shots of the cheapest, worst tasting alcohol in order to get as drunk as possible.

Binge drinking has in fact been a problem among American teenagers for quite some time. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (a U.S. federal agency designed to protect public health and safety) 90% of the alcohol consumed by Americans under the age of 21 is in the form of binge drinking and it is the 18-20-year-olds who are at the highest risk. Also, by the time American teenagers graduate from high school at the age of 18, 90% of them on average have experimented with alcohol. And, approximately 35% of adult Americans have participated in binge drinking at least once in the past two weeks. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States defines binge drinking as consuming 5 or more drinks for men, and 4 or more drinks for women in 2 hours. One drink could be 0.75 pint of beer, a shot of liquor, etc.

In a place where alcohol is legal to drink at the age of 18, like in Australia, it is almost shocking to report compared to the United States just over 10% of Australians binge drink every week. Whereas in England approximately 30% and in Ireland approximately 50% of men and women recorded binge drinking at least once in the past two weeks. For Australia, binge drinking is defined as 7 or more drinks for men and 5 or more drinks for women per occasion, which is just slightly less than the American standard of binge drinking. The United Kingdom defines binge drinking as consuming 8 or more units for men (about 3 pints of beer) and 6 or more units for women (about 2 large glasses of wine) per occasion. The United States then has the highest limit for the amount of alcohol an individual must drink to be classified as binge drinking, so perhaps in relation to the UK’s definition of binge drinking there is actually more high-risk drinking than we think there is. The United States is one of 5 countries worldwide that has a minimum drinking age of 21; every other country has a minimum drinking age that is below 21. The U.S. has lower recorded liters per capita each year than Australia, England, and Ireland. So even though Americans consume less alcohol than these countries, they participate in a very high level of binge drinking, and it is binge drinking that is much more harmful to one’s health than drinking moderately more frequently.

After experiencing many Friday nights of having silent parties in college dorm rooms hiding from campus police, I can see how a negative relationship could be formed with alcohol. We come to learn that to get the most out of our evenings we must drink large quantities of alcohol so that if we do get caught by the campus police its been “worth it”. And possibly this relationship with alcohol could be carried into adulthood, creating unhealthy drinking habits for life. If the minimum drinking age was lower in the United States, college students could be given an opportunity to learn to drink responsibly before going to college and not after and they could form a more positive relationship with alcohol that is not accompanied by drinking in excess amounts.


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