Alco­holic drinks (photo: Wiki­media Commons)

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.”