Dig Baton Rouge

Time to Change Drinking Age?

By Nick BeJeaux

“I believe if you are old enough to fight for this country and vote for its leaders, old enough to marry and enter into contracts, old enough to own and work in a bar, then you should be considered a full legal citizen for all purposes, including drinking and gambling.” – Metro Councilman John Delgado

Marc Fraioli of Fred’s Bar and Grill in Tigerland is no stranger to the issues behind the legal drinking age. While the state’s age for publically consuming alcohol was raised from 18 to 21 in 1987, a sales loophole kept it at 18 until 1995. When the loophole was closed, Fraioli and several others challenged the decision in 1996.

“Back in the day, a group of us from Fred’s and Reggie’s raised about $300,000 to hire a constitutional attorney to fight the raising of the drinking age,” he said. “The state Supreme Court actually ruled in our favor, but three months later they reversed their decision.”

Nearly two decades later, the drinking age remains at 21, but the movement to lower it again to 18 wages on. Activist groups like GenOpp, a non-profit millennial advocacy organization which runs FreeTheFuture.org, have been pushing a petition to let states lower the drinking age to 18 since this summer, which marked the 30th anniversary of the passage of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act in 1984.

Late to the Party

Louisiana was actually the last state in the Union to adopt a drinking age of 21, and it did so only briefly, at least at first. In March of 1996, the State Supreme Court ruled four to three that setting the drinking age higher than 18 unconstitutionally discriminated against age – after all, 18-year olds are legally adults.

But that summer, the Court reversed its decision. It wouldn’t have happened if not for a combination of  the urging of Attorney General P. Ieyoub, several changes to the roster of Judges between March and July of 1996, a spike in drunk driving deaths and most notably pressure from the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 – failure to comply with that threatened to remove $17 million in federal highway funds from the state’s budget.

“Louisiana was basically coerced into complying with the federal government on this, or they would have lost that money,” said Fraioli.

That ruling also cancelled out a planned statewide vote that would have put the decision in the hands of voters. The Legislature at the time had voted before the reversal to let people vote on a constitutional amendment to raise the drinking age, but lawmakers included a provision that would cancel the vote if the Supreme Court reversed its March decision.

Old Enough to Fight, Too Young to Drink

Today, Fraioli doesn’t think lowering the drinking age is likely to happen, no matter how many petitions surface on Facebook and Twitter. But he doesn’t think it shouldn’t be lowered, and he isn’t just saying that because he owns a bar.

“The great majority of our crowd is over 21 anyway, so I don’t think that if we ended up lowering the drinking age it would affect my business very much,” he said. “I do know that if you’re old enough to work in a bar, go to war or have an abortion you should be allowed to have a drink every now and then – to me that’s just common sense.”

John Delgado, Metro Councilman for District 12 and co-owner of Huey’s and Brickyard South in Downtown, agrees with Fraioli.

“I’ve said before, and I will say it again, that I believe if you are old enough to fight for this country and vote for its leaders, old enough to marry and enter into contracts, old enough to own and work in a bar, then you should be considered a full legal citizen for all purposes, including drinking and gambling,” he said.  “I don’t believe in having different rights among adult citizens.”

The Science of 21 

While the consensus among bar owners and bar goers may be sympathetic to lowering the drinking age, the consensus among activists, scientists and medical professionals is quite the opposite.

According to a study released and commissioned by Mothers Against Drunk Driving in 2010, raising the drinking age to 21 has reduced lethal car crashes among teens aged 18-20 by 13 percent and has saved about 22,000 lives between 1975 and 2002. Also according to MADD, the age of 21 was not simply picked out of a hat – there’s solid science behind that number. Teens process alcohol differently than adults. Essentially, they get drunk faster than adult humans with mature bodily systems and chemistry.

However, there is no consensus as to whether personal freedom outweighs protection from personal risk. Until there is, the debate – and the increasing demand for fake IDs – continues.

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