Humans have been imbibing since the beginning of civilization. But at what age is it appropriate to start drinking alcohol? On Nov. 6, Kelli Kazmier, assistant professor of Chemistry, Paul Moreno, professor of History, and Gary Wolfram, professor of Political Economy, were on a panel to discuss alcohol and the drinking age.
Kazmier started the discussion by explaining the basic chemistry of alcohol and its effects on the body. Alcohol is classified as a drug in the sedative class since its main component is ethanol. Kazmier explained that it is easy for ethanol to enter the bloodstream from the stomach and intestines and from there cross the blood-brain barrier, which is why alcohol affects the human body and brain so quickly.
“Within minutes of imbibing alcohol, you’ll feel an effect,” Kazmier said.
As the human body metabolizes, the initial reaction is pleasurable and relaxing. But because the body goes through withdrawal so quickly, many people decide to keep consuming more alcohol to keep having the pleasurable experience. The more you consume, the more the negative effects begin to set in.
“First thing to lose is decision making in your prefrontal cortex, then your motor, then your memory, then your breathing,” Kazmier said.
Enough alcohol, especially over the long term, also affects the brain and memories. Sobriety can help, but chronic alcohol intake will damage the body and brain. In the first month of sobriety, there will be a lot of improvement, but after that things will remain about the same.
“Our brain is not as resilient as our liver, but it is fairly resilient. So if you have suffered some negative effects due to alcohol, many of those will go away with sobriety, but not all,” Kazmier said.
Young, adolescent brains appear to be more susceptible to these problems, Kazmier explained. Moderate to extreme consumption can lead to brain shrinkage and learning and memory deficits can exist and persist, even in sobriety, in younger people.
“What does seem to be the case is that learning and memory deficits can persist and are especially exacerbated in adolescence,” Kazmier said. “Adolescents also have a really bad combination: the positive pleasurable effects of alcohol tend to be turned up, and the negative, unpleasant effects that might get you to stop drinking, are turned down.”
After Kazmier provided the foundational understanding of alcohol and the effects of consumption, Moreno looked at the issue from a historical and constitutional standpoint.
“At the time of the American founding, regulation of things like drinking was considered completely a state and local matter, something that the new federal government would have nothing to do with,” Moreno said.
Throughout the 19th century, drinking age, and whether a state was going to be dry or not, was all decided on the state and local level. At the beginning of the 20th century, Congress even passed legislation allowing dry states to prohibit alcohol importation from wet states.
World War I was the first time the U.S. saw any sort of prohibition, but it was a wartime measure so that grain would be used for soldiers and not whiskey. After the war, in 1920, prohibition was enacted under the 18th Amendment, but it was repealed in 1933. People were still making and consuming alcohol, and with the onset of the Great Depression, the government needed the revenue from the tax on alcohol.
“This experiment in the 1920s didn’t work very well,” Moreno said. “The determination of a large part of the American population to get alcohol for beverage purposes, despite the law, made the whole experience of prohibition in the 1920s generally, but not universally, regarded as having been an unwise policy experiment.”
It wasn’t until later in the 20th century that the federal government persuaded states to adopt a universal drinking age. The government did so not by taking away the decision from state and local authorities, but by letting them know that if they didn’t enact the universal drinking age, they would be deprived of benefits like highway funding. Thus, they established a universal drinking age, first at 18, then 19, and now 21-years-old.
The government thought having a universal drinking age would help with drunk driving, but time has shown that it is not the drinking age but rather the work of private organizations and individual decision making that has helped decrease drunk driving.
Wolfram then picked up the discussion and explained how the role of government and private responsibility affects decisions about drinking and the drinking age.
“I would argue that yes, you should have a legal drinking age,” Wolfram said. “It should be that people can’t sell legally to people under that drinking age and the age at which that’s appropriate is going to be open to discussion.”
Wolfram explained that having a drinking age simply delineates the age at which people are held responsible for their own decisions and also provides the easiest mechanism to limit selling alcohol to people too young to be held responsible.
The drinking age simply sets a timeline on the society and makes an age at which we assume humans will thereafter be held responsible for their own decisions. Before that age, others are held responsible for the young person’s actions because they have not yet reached the maturity to make their own decisions and be held responsible.
He stressed, however, that the government’s job is to allow the individual to make decisions.
“The role of government is to maximize our ability to act according to our own plan,” Wolfram said. “If you’re a 6‑year-old out there and you want to have a whiskey sour, then somebody should be saying, ‘Hm, no, you can’t do that.’ But we can all agree, adults should be able to get out there and drink if they want to. If they want to kill themselves, God love them, they can do that.”