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Will the De Facto National Drinking Age Be Finished? Ask Wisconsin

When you watch a nationally televised sporting event, you’re bound to see several advertisements for alcoholic beverages. In some way, each one tells viewers to drink responsibly. In fact, some use the phrase “21 means 21.” This, of course, references the legal drinking age in the US.

But wait a minute… aren’t states allowed to establish their own drinking laws including the age to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages? Yes, they are. However, the federal government incentivized a 21-year-old drinking age more than three decades ago.

Historically, the  most effective way for the federal government to compel states to act is by  proposing financial programs and incentives. In 1984, the federal government did just that with the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Pursuant to the Act, states were faced with the option of adopting a uniform consumption age of 21 years or older or risk losing up to ten percent of their state’s federal highway funds. The majority of states acted quickly to increase permissible consumption ages and have maintained a 21 age requirements since passage of the Act.   

Now, in 2017, some states are looking to change their laws and allow more flexibility for adults that have not yet reached the 21 year mark.

Wisconsin May Lower Its Drinking Age

Recently, a trio of Wisconsin state representatives announced intentions to lower their state’s drinking age to 19 through proposed state legislation. Reps. Adam Jarchow, Cindi Duchow and Rob Swearingen introduced the bill and are working to support passage despite strong opposition at home and around the country.

In defending the bill, Rep. Jarchow has used the longstanding and often repeated argument that if young adults can serve our country’s armed forces, they should be able trusted to consume alcoholic beverages responsibly and be allowed to do so legally. Representative Jarcow also touts potential cost savings from no longer enforcing today’s drinking laws on 19- and 20-year-olds.

Wisconsin state law already allows some flexibility in its alcohol consumption laws by permitting young adults under 21 to consume alcoholic beverages as long as they do so under a parent’s supervision. This allows young adults some level of experimentation with alcohol under the guidance of a legal guardian who hold responsibility for their well-being and ultimate actions if intoxicates. A lower drinking age would allow unsupervised experimentation at a younger age.

Of course, while some see potential benefits in the increased flexibility, various organizations have voiced legitimate concern. One such respected organization, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD, is concerned with the potential immediate impact in incidents of drunk driving accidents. MADD is able to back up their claim on their “Why 21?” website which highlights a National Traffic Highway Administration study finding that the raised drinking age saves around 900 lives a year.

Despite Americans driving many more miles today than around the time the National Minimum Drinking Age Act went into effect, alcohol-related traffic fatalities are down among teen drivers and among all drivers as a whole. Along with a higher drinking age, harsh penalties for DUI charges and improved vehicle safety features undoubtedly also contribute to the decreased rates. While non-alcohol-related fatalities are down as well, MADD’s position is difficult to ignore or contradict.  Recent over-consumption fatalities amongst college age students, aside from traffic related incidents, also may evidence support for maintaining the national standard.  

While state’s have the ultimate right to control and regulate alcohol consumption within their borders, some uniformity may be necessary to facilitate compliance efforts by law enforcement and industry retailers on a national footprint.  While consumers are asked to drink responsibly, our regulators are tasked with regulating responsibly especially in a modern era where ordering alcohol and having it delivered to your doorstep is just an app away.  

What Will the Future Hold?

The National Minimum Drinking Age Act remains a hurdle for Wisconsin lawmakers. Representative Jarchow is confident that this initiative has support and potential for affirmation of the proposed bill. He plans to speak with the Department of Transportation concerning the issue and recommended changes.

For now, all eyes are on Wisconsin with its first attempt to lower the legal alcohol consumption age within its borders. If Representative Jarchow and his team are successful, this bill’s enactment could kickstart a renewed interest and examination of consumption ages in other states. Regardless of personal motivations to support or oppose the initiative, the predominating issues for decision makers should focus on safety, compliance concerns and state funding risks.  Proponents of the bill certainly have a tough road to cross, but if their motivations are legitimate, they can certainly find evidentiary support to further their cause.    

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The Author

Marbet Lewis

Marbet Lewis

Marbet Lewis has focused her practice on the laws governing the alcohol industry and the manufacture, importation, and sale of alcohol beverage products since 2004. She represents clients in all aspects of alcohol and business licensing in Florida including alcohol licensee mergers and acquisitions, negotiation of asset purchase agreements and required alcohol use provisions, license transfers and licensing due diligence, trade practices, alcohol product advertising and review of marketing agreements, importation agreements, label approvals, and regulatory compliance guidance. Her experience also includes enforcement action defense and administrative litigation, zoning and land use due diligence and approval processes, and state and local government regulatory compliance. She works with domestic and foreign suppliers, wholesalers and a broad range of retailers, including nightclubs, bars, movie theater operators, hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, bars, nightclubs, and pharmacy chains.

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