Drinking age change proposed in states

Dylan Boyle

It doesn’t matter how long students under the age of 21 hold their breath, Iowa won’t be seeing a change to the current drinking age any time soon.

Recently, legislators in Minnesota, Missouri, Vermont and South Carolina have proposed lowering the age to either 18 or 19, while Kentucky, South Dakota and Wisconsin want to lower the age for active military personnel only.

With other states considering a change, the question of whether Iowa should jump on the lower drinking age bandwagon has been a topic of interest.

Misty Moyse, a spokesperson for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the states are making a mistake when considering lowering the age because the 21-year-old limit deters young people from drinking and, in turn, saves lives.

“The 21 law saves 900 lives a year,” said Moyse. “We also know that the average age of first contact right now is 16, so if you lower the drinking age to 18, people will start drinking earlier, and studies have proven that they are more likely to become alcoholics later in life.”

John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont and director of Choose Responsibility, disagrees with MADD, and is pushing for action on lowering the legal age.

“When you’re 18, you’re an adult in all other aspects besides the drinking age,” McCardell said. “At 18 you’re an adult. If 18 year olds aren’t mature enough for alcohol, how are 18 year olds mature enough to vote, sign contracts and join the military?”

McCardell said that having the drinking age set at 21 creates problems because minors, especially on college campuses, are drinking alcohol illegally. He said not being able to drink in public causes many deaths from binge drinking.

“There is a net loss of life, but these lives are not being lost in public,” McCardell said.

Senate minority leader Ron Wieck, Dist.-27, said he would oppose such legislation and doesn’t think a lower age is in the interest of most Iowans, including the state’s lawmakers.

“I don’t think it would be something legislators would be in favor of either,” Wieck said.

Although some, like Wieck, already don’t support the change, others, like Speaker of the House Patrick Murphy, D-PA, are “not worried about it at this time.”

Senate majority leader Mike Gronstal, Dist.-50, said he’d be willing to consider changing the drinking age, but he’d “have to wait and see what the proposal is.”

Gronstal, Wieck and Murphy all said they couldn’t remember any legislation in Iowa to lower the age since the National Minimum Drinking Age Act passed in 1984. The act effectively took away the states’ right to choose by threatening any state that set a drinking age of lower than 21 with a 10 percent decrease in highway appropriations, a move some disagree with.

Gronstal said it is wrong for the federal government to take away states’ power to determine what’s best for its citizens through these types of threats.

“The government shouldn’t hold states hostage for funding,” he said.

Wieck disagreed with Gonstal’s view and said the state government imposes the same types of threats when it comes to local governments.

“The government has to do what it needs to do,” Wieck said.

McCardell said young people might be surprised to find they have the power to spark a change in the drinking age by exercising their right to vote.

“It’s fascinating that states are still considering lowering the age, even with the 10 percent penalty,” McCardell said. “The highway fund legislation that contains this penalty is up for reauthorization Sept. 30, 2009 – it’s an election year – students have the power to tell their legislators that they want this changed.”

Although Wieck and Gronstal rarely find common ground, they both agreed that, in the Legislature, they have come to expect the unexpected.

“You never know what will get introduced. This session is an example of that,” Wieck said.