To those who read, skim, glance at or throw out the Yale Daily News, I have something I want to get off my chest. Feb. 12, 1999 was a stressful day in American politics. Bill Clinton, Yale alumnus and 42nd president of the United States, was being impeached in Washington. In Westchester, New York, a perhaps more stressful and hectic but less grave situation was unfolding: my mother was giving birth to a baby boy, who would grow up to narrate this ire. Since, 21 years, 1 week, 1 day and about 21 hours have passed.
As a result, I am no longer being discriminated against based on my age for a variety of newfound rights. I can legally drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes and gamble as I please. This accolade comes three years after I was granted a variety of rights that may, perhaps, be assessed with larger gravity: the right to serve in the military and the right to vote in local, state and federal elections as a citizen of the United States.
We can vaguely see where I’m going here, and it is an argument that is treated with high degrees of infantilization. The classic argument is as follows: if I am not discriminated against based on age to the extent at which I can vote for the leaders of the United States government, then it appears unfair and unreasonable that I am discriminated based on age in the realm of cigarettes and alcohol.
First, however, it appears important to detail the longer history of 21-year-old standard for drinking and the more recent history of this standard being applied to smoking cigarettes.
The drinking age was changed from 18 to 21 during the Reagan administration in 1984. The policy was used to coerce the states into changing their state drinking age from 18 to 21, pinned with a threat to withhold federal funding specifically allocated for highways from the states until they changed their drinking laws. This change was the result of a lobbying effort from a variety of groups worried about the disproportional percentage of drunk driving incidents involving those aged 16 to 20.
The history involving cigarettes is far more recent, with the national switch from 18 to 21 occurring in Dec. 2019. The higher age standard was tucked into President Trump’s most recent spending bill, with the ban preventing the sale of any tobacco products to those below the age of 21. This, of course, is not limited to cigarettes but also includes e-cigarette products.
The history is, perhaps, less relevant to my point. I would rather talk about the variety of options that appear more sensible in dealing with the questions of voting age, tobacco products and alcohol.
My, and I hope your, dear reader, most favored option is to lower the legal drinking and tobacco age from 21 to 18. Other than a desperate desire for a drink right now, how am I getting to this opinion?
There is very fair evidence to show that raising these ages is, in fact, beneficial. Studies published by the Center for Disease Control state that nearly 9 out of 10 tobacco users smoke their first cigarette by age 18. CNN reported that when the drinking age was raised from 18 to 21, fatal crashes involving young drivers dropped from 61 percent in 1982 (two years before the age change) to 31 percent by 1995.
There appear, then, to be clear utilitarian benefits to these age increases. However, what then is the implication from this data and its intersection with the new laws? The implication I see is that those between 18 to 20 are less mature than those who are 21 and above. The data would imply that 18-year-olds do not have the capacity to dissuade themselves from cigarettes, despite now decades of informational campaigns encouraging them otherwise (of course, this includes me). This same line of logical thought can apply to alcohol.
Therefore, why are we entrusting those so aged with these statistical negatives with the right to vote for our nation’s leaders? This line of thought would lead you to the opinion that voting, like drinking and smoking, should be restricted to those aged 21 and above.
While I think this result makes the most sense, we can all agree that the repealing of a constitutional amendment — the 26th amendment allowing those 18 and above to vote — is quite the arduous process. As a result, matching the voting age to the drinking and smoking age will prove overly difficult if we aim to raise the voting age. What, then, is the obvious answer?
Lower the drinking and smoking age. This argument, my roommate noted, can be restated by the phrase “the perfect is the enemy of the good.”
Nick! There are fewer drunk driving incidents. Fewer people are smoking. The age inconsistency is, perhaps, unfortunate, albeit practical, pragmatic and the most likely end to this discussion. Can’t we ignore this age inconsistency issue?
I am a biased writer. I was not 21 for 20 years and give or take 364 days. I lived three years given the right to vote without being able to enjoy a drink after a long day’s work. I lived months at Yale being able to serve my country in the military without being able to walk out of a bad final exam and enjoy the soothing sensation of a Marlboro Gold cigarette.
Yet, notwithstanding this, we should look at America within a comparative context, observing the lower drinking ages across the world, the lax positions on smoking. Of all the countries in the world, only 14 percent of them enact drinking ages at 21 years old or above, with 8 percent of countries outlawing drinking entirely. This means that only 6.5 percent of nations that allow alcohol prohibit 20 year olds from drinking alcohol.
We should additionally think about this as a rights-based discussion. As was mentioned, the argument that voting implies the right to drink and smoke cigarettes has been wildly infantilized. But we need to reckon with the idea that 18- to 20-year-olds can elect arguably the most powerful political figure in the world without being able to have a drink on the way back from the voting booth. Voting is one of the very clear ways by which large numbers of people are able to buy into the proverbial social contract and assert their role as electors in our American democracy. Therefore, the idea that 18- to 20-year-olds cannot receive full individual rights because they are not wise or coordinated enough to create a grassroots lobbying campaign does seem absurd. That the political requests of 18-, 19- and 20-year-old are so easily ignored is, quite simply, unfair.
There is, of course, the practical politician who would reassure me that, even if I am right, such age standards will likely not change. And I’ve accepted that and have become, I suppose, disinterested in the topic, given my graduation to 21. Furthermore, 18- to 20- year olds are hardly next in line in the world of American politics. Swaths of people are fighting for the destruction of voting barriers, equal pay, and a continuing list of problems that far outweigh the drinking capacities of those below the age of 21.
Yet, while this is hardly the most pressing topic today, we, the current group of young adults, should take heed of the rights of the youth as we graduate further past 21 and into the world of adulthood.
Nick Tabio | email@example.com