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Substance abuse expert regrets raising drinking age

July 27, 2009 | 10:47 am


One of the people who was instrumental in pushing for laws to increase the legal drinking age to 21 now calls his actions "the single most regrettable decision" of his career.

Dr. Morris Chafetz, a psychiatrist who was on the presidential commission in the 1980s that recommended raising the drinking age to 21, made his remarks in an editorial that he is shopping for publication and which he released to the advocacy group Choose Responsibility. Chafetz wrote the editorial to mark the 25th anniversary of the law that was signed by President Ronald Reagan on July 17, 1984.

"Legal Age 21 has not worked," Chafetz said in the piece. "To be sure, drunk driving fatalities are lower now than they were in 1982. But they are lower in all age groups. And they have declined just as much in Canada, where the age is 18 or 19, as they have in the United States."

Chafetz said the law instead has resulted in "collateral, off-road damage" such as binge drinking that occurs in underage youth and crimes like date rape, assaults and property damage.

Chafetz is not new to controversy. A former presidential appointee at the White House Conference for a Drug-Free America, he is the author of two books that question the expertise of scientists, lawmakers and other experts: "Big Fat Liars," and "The Tyranny of Experts." His latest remarks on the legal age drinking law were applauded by Choose Responsibility, which is a leading advocacy organization working to lower the legal age. The group's efforts, and opposition to it, were profiled last year by the Los Angeles Times.

-- Shari Roan

Photo credit: Phil Coate  /  Associated Press

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Comments (29)

Do we realize how screwed up age restictions are. You can sign a contract or be handed a gun in the military and kill someone at 18, but you can't drink. You can get married at 16. You can consent to sex at 16. You can get a gun permit at 18. But you can't drink until your 21. Pick a standard age for crying out loud.

Plus hold the drinker responsible. Drinking and driving is a crime punish it like one.
How many people are killed every year by drunk drivers 21 or older. More than were probably killed by 18 to 20 year olds when they could drink.

Legislating human behavior so it is just driven underground and thus becomes unregulated just makes the problem society wants to mitigate worse. In short, uptight fear-mongers should not be listened to.

The age of majority, the age of consent, the age to vote, the age to drive, the age to serve in the military, the age to drink alcohol should all be consistent. If that's going to be 18, then it needs to be 18. If it's going to be 21, it needs to be 21. Having a staggered definition of adulthood is certain to cause confusion and problems. Settle in on one age. This is so obvious that only government could get it wrong.

18 should be perfect and wont make it that kooler to teens now that they can easily buy it.

At least the man can admit he made a mistake.

Although I agree that the drinking age at 21 is not necessary, Chafetz's arguments are not entirely convincing. I am not sure if binge drinking, date rapes, or related to it property damages have much to do with the present law. I am sure that there is as much drinking and, unfortunately, date rapes etc for the above 21 as there is for those below 21. And if there is a difference, it is probably because the older ones at one point begin establishing families and have other responsilbilities that with time reduce their haevy drinking.

Have to agree. The biggest factor in the reduction in DUI was from a cultural and legal standpoint. DUI fell across all age groups after the age was raised. One of the real problems here is that too much attention has been paid to MADD, who are nothing but a group of neo prohibionists (reduce drunk driving by increasingly making access to alcohol more cumbersome). Responsibility starts at home and is continued in public, but only in a culture that accepts that young adults drink and doesn't try to shove it underground. Would rather see 18, 19, and 20 year olds drinking in a bar with a mix of age groups than doing way too many shots in some basement somewhere in fear of calling the ambulance when someone goes way overboard.

Great Article-After Recently Graduating From A Respected Big 10 University I Can Tell You That The 21 Year Old Drinking Age is A Joke & That Dr. Chafetzs statements are true. By shifting drinking from organized & relatively controlled environments like Bars to completely unmonitored locations like Fraternity Houses, the Government Has Effectively Put Minors At More Peril From Those Who Prey on Younger Students Who Are Encouraged By Peer Pressure To Abuse Alcohol. This is an Unfortunate Truth & Should Be Examined Closely By People Who Have The Power To Correct This Mistake.

I agree. Waiting until 21 to be legal to buy and consume alcohol makes early, responsible introduction extremely difficult and encourages 'catch up' experimentation.

In Europe, responsible parent-supervised introduction to alcohol in social settings is accepted and, I think, a better way to bring children and teenagers in touch with the real world, which, let's face it, contains people who drink alcohol.

Over here in Aotearoa New Zealand, substance abuse is of epidemic proportions but we treat it less seriopusly than Swine Flu. Binge drinking, drugs, prescription drugs, domestic violence, we are in a time of social meltdown and we hear the voices of "experts" on radio each and every day and still nothing changes. I guess society hasn't yet hit bottom. I have had my own views over the years and I have shared them but do I really know or even have an understanding of the root issues. I think not. All I know is that in my own life I worked and consumed to fill an internal void that others try and fill with whatever they use. It never worked for me. Dr.Harry Teibout appears to have the closest understanding as to the cure. Absolute surrender with our fellows. But as for the problem of substance abuse, I can only believe that I and everyone else suffers from a spiritual dis-ease. I don't believe it to be any more complicated than that, certainly not in my own case. And I am not talking about religion, I see that issue as part of the problem.

thios guy is wrong i had afew buddies killed in the 70s s
when nj lowerewd thrir age to 18 it tgakes many years to learn how to drink

Just like the legalization of marijuana, prohibition does not really solve anything. The only thing that will stop drunk driving, binge drinking and so on is education. End of story. Apparently Chafetz has come to his senses. Bravo.

There's a great debate on Opposing Views about lowering the drinking age. Check it out:

Mr. Chafetz has no credibility in my eyes because he is a flip flopper and says what he wants based on what he wants. Drinking age or alcohol consumption is a privilege and not a right.

The only exception would be for 'active duty' military oversea's and than I would allow 18 yr. olds to have a couple of beers to reduce their stress load. Then the military management can determine the 'responsible' amount . When our service personnel are home they abide by the laws of the land.

Mr. Chafetz your time was yesterday and because you 'regret' making a responsible decision does not mean you can come back and say "I was only kidding."

This piece does not make clear the connection between illegal underage drinking and crime. Would not those still be linked if the underage drinking was in fact legal?

Thank you.

While it may be more difficult to teach young people responsible behavior when it comes to alcohol consumption, it is much better than abdicating that responsibility by saying just don't drink.

If children were taught this by their parents, in the home, we'd have far less problems with alcohol than we do now.

Lower it to 18 if they graduate high school. Issue a special liquor ID that can be revolked for any liquor violation and not renewable untill they turn 21. Kind of a learners permit for booze.

Lower the drinking age and enforce stricter laws in regard to DUI offences.

John Jake... You by far have the dumbest comment and should refrain from such acts in the future.

1. Any American citizen can drink in another country as long as that country permits it already, wether that person be military or a civilian.
2. What data do you possess showing the relationship between alcohol and stress alleviation?
3. You have 2 first names.

I mean the Dr. didn't persuade me either, but... a majority of these comments are pretty idiotic.

Do you know why the drinking age was posted at 21 instead of 18?

So that if the United States ever had to go into a draft again they wouldn't be losing so many ripe american men and women to alcohol or alcohol related accidents. If you have 25 million 18yo's your not going to decrease that number by allowing them to drink. Your going to keep the numbers high. At the age of 21 if they start drinking and getting injured or dead, the nation loses less people. These people, make active decisions not to drink and peer pressure is lessened at an older age. Less peer pressure, fewer drinkers. Fewer drinkers, less inuries or deaths. Less deaths means more bodies for war, so they can die on foreign soil instead of our own.

Ever wonder why you can get a drink if you have military ID and your only 18? Think about it.

Sound stupid? Ask a republican. Do your own research.

Lots of great posts regarding this topic. I think the most important ones put forth the point that MADD is nothing more than a neo-prohibitionist group, and I might add that they have probably done more damage to youths than the drug war has.

My daughter turned 18 a couple of weeks ago. She is exercising her new found freadom by staying out late. She also opened a checking acct just because she could. She starts collage on 8/24, and knows what she wants to do with her life.

She also had her first wine cooler at age 14, and I bought them for her. I don't think she finished an entire bottle at once until last year. She's not a drinker, period, and I dont think she ever will be.

Iit really pisses me off that she could end up with a big black mark on her record if she gets a breath test after two drinks when she gets to college.

If there was an organization with a mission statement to put MADD out of business, I'd contribute.

Why is 18 the magical age? There is no set age when maturity begins. The government needs to be totally out of our lives. I have been to places in Europe where there is no age limit at all and they have no where near the amount of problems we do.

John Jake - It's an intellectually bankrupt idea that once you've made a statement that changing that statement shouldn't be allowed. It's insane that you'd suggest such. There's plenty of people that used to be for segregation that changed their minds. Are they flip-floppers? What about the fact that the medical community used to think that it was a good idea to cut you open to let out the poisons... It looks like you bought into the repub BS that daring to change your ideas based on new information is a BAD thing. Did you know Einstein spent his last years trying to disprove some of his own theories?

I agree with there being a standard age for adulthood and thus allowing them to make adult decisions, including drinking. Americans are known for bing drinking, whereas europeans allow teens to drink wine and beer at the age of 16 and hard liquer at 18. Every country will continue to have alcohol related problems but at least the majority of people will be acclimated to alcohol intake by the age of 18. There will always be exceptions to the rule, yet europeans can handle their liquer much more than americans can, simply because alcohol has become a social norm.

God would I love to be able to buy a beer at McDonalds like in Germany, wouldn't that be the life.



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