Retired Judge Speaks Out on 21 Law – and the Debate Continues

Ron Bogle is a retired Superior Court Judge from North Carolina who recently published a column in The Herald Sun about the debate on lowering the national drinking age. Bogle provided a brief history of the 21 law as well as the recent movement to lower the drinking age led by John McCardell, currently university president in Tennessee. As Bogle’s column described, McCardell is a frequent speaker for the alcohol industry who continues to call for lowering the drinking age to 18.

The movement initiated by McCardell has actually resulted in a national discussion about the 21 law, which is probably not exactly what he intended. That’s because there is now an overwhelming amount of evidence that shows the 21 law has reduced underage drinking and saved thousands of lives. As Bogle wrote in his column: “With current medical research confirming the health dangers of teen drinking and more supportive of continuation of current law, most prevention advocates wanted this forum to inform the nation about the health, safety and behavioral realities associated with teen drinking. With those facts in his way, McCardell seems no longer interested in a national conversation.”

However, the 21 law is no longer just a national conversation here in the U.S. – it’s becoming a global discussion. This is especially ironic since McCardell and others who promote a lower drinking age often point to Europe as a model, arguing that a lower legal drinking age takes the mystery out of drinking and promotes more moderate drinking habits. The problem with this argument is that the facts show otherwise.

For example, consider what’s happening in the United Kingdom, where the legal drinking age is 18. In the U.K. Daily Mail, one British journalist recently wrote an article about returning to his home country after a lengthy assignment in the U.S. “I wasn’t expecting life in Britain to be easy to get used to again,” he wrote. “But nothing prepared me for the booze. Sometimes it seems as if everyone here is drunk.” He went on to write that drinking in English cities has led to increased crime and unsafe streets, even in small towns. “It still annoys me that my mum, during the last few years of her life, could not walk the streets of the city of Bath at night,” he wrote. “Bath, of all places! Hardly the roughest of English cities. But, at night, it was infested with enough drink-fuelled yobbishness to make it unsafe for frail folk to walk home from the cinema.”

In Scotland, the drinking culture is even worse. On average, adults in Scotland consume the equivalent of 46 bottles of vodka every year – or 12.2 liters of pure alcohol for every person over the age of 18. The number of alcohol-related deaths in Scotland has doubled in 10 years, and the country has one of the world’s fastest growing rates of alcohol-induced illnesses such as cirrhosis and chronic liver disease, according to the Scottish government. In 2008, the government published a report recommending a variety of actions to reduce the country’s alcohol problems, including raising the legal purchase age from 18 to 21 for off-premise purchases of alcohol.

The drinking age debate is also taking place in New Zealand, where the Law Commission issued a report in April 2010, calling on the government to raise the drinking age to 20. New Zealand’s legal drinking age was lowered to 18 from age 20 in 1989 – and binge drinking has steadily increased since then. The country’s alcohol-related car crashes and crime problems are increasing dramatically, with police now calling for action to raise the legal drinking age and certain communities enacting their own regulations to curb drinking-related problems.

Clearly, the facts from the United Kingdom and New Zealand show that lowering the legal drinking age does not promote a culture of moderation – in fact, research shows that lowering the drinking age increases alcohol-related harms across the board and affects kids at ever-younger ages.

As the debate continues about the legal drinking age in the U.S. and around the world, it is important to recognize arguments based on myth and learn the facts. As Ron Bogle has shown by example in his recent column, arm yourself with facts – and keep the conversation going in the right direction.

“After a decade in sober America… is everyone in Britain drunk?” by Justin Webb, U.K. Daily Mail, July 8, 2010.
“Last call for move to lower drinking age to 18,” by Ron Bogle, The Herald Sun, July 2, 2010.
“Return the drinking age to 20 – Law Commission,” by Tracy Watkins., April 27, 2010.
“The statistics are clear: Higher age saves lives,” Associated Press, September 14, 2008.
“Changing Scotland’s relationship with alcohol: A discussion paper on our strategic approach,” The Scottish Government, June 2008.

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