January 28, 2009
LOWERING THE DRINKING AGE
By: Meghan Reilly, Legislative Analyst
You asked for information about the drinking age in Connecticut, specifically policies around lowering the drinking age, the impact on federal funding, and the states considering lowering the age.
The Connecticut drinking age has changed a number of times over the years: 21 in 1933, 18 in 1972, 19 in 1982, 20 in 1983, and lastly back to 21 in 1985.
Recently, some college presidents across the nation have pushed for a lower drinking age, arguing that 21 is an arbitrary age that does little to ensure the safety of young people. Opponents of a lowered age cite reduced youth fatalities and teen drinking as positive benefits of the current law.
We found one law linking federal funding to state drinking ages, the National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984, which ties federal highway funds to a minimum age of 21.
HISTORY IN CONNECTICUT
The minimum age for purchasing alcoholic beverages was set at 21 in 1933 by the original Liquor Control Act. Under that provision (§ 4222), “minor” was defined as anyone under 21 years of age and no permittee could sell or deliver alcoholic liquor to a minor. In 1972, PA 127 lowered the age from 21 to 18. Ten years later, PA 82-68 redefined “minor” as used in the Liquor Control Act as a person under 19, thus raising the drinking age from 18. A year later, PA 83-508 raised it again to age 20. Finally, PA 85-264 raised the age of majority for liquor purchases to 21, where it has remained since that act's effective date, September 1, 1985.
CURRENT POLICY ARGUMENTS
OLR Report 2005-R-0497 outlines the arguments made for and against higher drinking ages in Connecticut in 1972, 1982, 1983, and 1985. While many arguments exist for and against the establishment of the drinking age at 21, several arguments have been more popular in recent endeavors.
Support of a Lower Age
Some college presidents across the country have spoken out in recent years in favor of a lower drinking age. In 2004, the president of Middlebury College argued that “the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law” that has made the college drinking problem far worse (John M. McCardell, Jr., What Your College President Didn't Tell You, N.Y. Times, Sept. 13, 2004). In 2008, over 100 college presidents, including five in Connecticut, publicly called for a reconsideration of the drinking age law. The Connecticut college presidents represent Fairfield University, St. Joseph College, Trinity College, the University of Hartford, and the University of New Haven (http://www.amethystinitiative.org/signatories/).
They argue that the current drinking age (1) promotes a culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking,” (2) has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students, and (3) creates and atmosphere that erodes students' respect for the law through use to fake identification. They point to the contradiction of deeming adults under 21 capable of voting, signing contracts, serving on juries, and enlisting in the military, but not mature enough to consume alcohol (http://www.amethystinitiative.org/statement/).
While opponents of a lower drinking age point to a decrease in highway fatalities, supporters claim that the drop actually began in the late 1970s, before the federal drinking age set in, and may be better explained by safer cars, increased seat belt use, and increasing awareness of the dangers of drunk driving. They point to data showing that the highest risk age for an alcohol-related auto fatality is 21, followed by 22 and 23, as an indication that delaying exposure to alcohol until 21 may not be the safest way to introduce individuals to alcohol (http://www.reason.com/news/show/119618.html).
Opposition to a Lower Age
A 2007 Gallup Poll found that 77% of Americans oppose lowering the drinking age to 18 (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-03-20-drinkingage_N.htm).
Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) argues that lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes and accusing the college presidents of misrepresenting science and looking for an easy way out of an inconvenient problem. MADD officials have urged parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on. “It's very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses,” charged Laura Dean-Mooney, national president of MADD (http://www.boston.com/news/education/higher/articles/2008/08/18/college_presidents_seek_debate_on_drinking_age/).
Furthermore, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says laws setting the current drinking age cut traffic fatalities involving drivers ages 18 to 20 by 13% (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-03-20-drinkingage_N.htm). A NHSTA report says that in 1982, there were 10,270 drivers under the age of 21 involved in fatal automobile crashes. Forty-three percent were deemed to have been drinking prior to their crashes. The incidence of fatal crashes decrased by 21% between 1982 and 1998 and the percentage of crashes in which drivers had been drinking declined by 61%, to to 21% of drivers (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/research/FewerYoungDrivers/iii__what_happened.htm). Connecticut saw an 88.1% decline in the rate of drinking drivers age 16 to 20 involved in fatal crashes between 1982 to 1998 (http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/people/injury/research/FewerYoungDrivers/iii__b.htm).
Opponents also argue that the current minimum drinking age laws decrease underage consumption of alcohol. They claim that over the last 15 years, the percentage of 8th, 10th, and 12th graders who drank alcohol in the past year decreased 38%, 23% and 14% respectively (http://www.why21.org/history/).
LINK BETWEEN DRINKING AGE AND FEDERAL FUNDS
The National Minimum Drinking Act of 1984 required that all states raise their minimum purchase and public possession age to 21 or risk losing 10% of their federal highway funding. By 1988, all states had complied. Previously, the legal purchase age varied from state to state.
When the law was passed, South Dakota had a drinking age of 19 for “low-point beer.” In South Dakota v. Dole, 483 U.S. 203 (1987), the state sued to force the federal government to pay the full amount of federal highway funds. In a 7 to 2 decision, the Court held that indirect congressional action encouraging state policy was constitutional. The Court found that the legislation related to “general welfare” and that the means chosen to preserve welfare were reasonable.
PROPOSALS IN OTHER STATES
In 2008, amendments to the drinking age were introduced in several states. Kentucky, Wisconsin and South Carolina considered lowering the drinking age for military personnel. Missouri considered a ballot initiative to lower the age to 18. A South Dakota initiative would have allowed individuals age 19 and 20 to purchase low-alcohol beer. Vermont had a proposal to create a task force to study this issue. Minnesota legislators filed a bill allowing anyone over age 18 to buy alcohol in bars or restaurants. None of these proposals were enacted (http://www.usatoday.com/news/nation/2008-03-20-drinkingage_N.htm).