Let’s chalk this up to the legacy of Boardwalk Empire’s bootlegging politician Nucky Thompson, but New Jersey lawmakers are contemplating lowering the state’s drinking age from the national standard of 21 to 18.
While the move would result in a major forfeiture of federal highway funds—the basis of a law (the National Minimum Drinking Age Act) instituted during the Regan administration—the rationale behind it is, to some, clear, and rooted in the military.
“If you’re old enough to hoist an M4 and shoot a terrorist, you’re old enough to hoist a beer,” said Republican Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll, the sponsor of the legislation, in an interview with NJ Advance Media.
The connection between soldiers and alcohol is a long and complicated one. During the Revolutionary War, alcohol was viewed as a necessity for whipping militiamen into fighting shape and to prepare them for battle. (George Washington, for one, was very concerned with being able to consistently supply his troops with booze.)
But the idea was challenged as far back as 1785 by a report called “An Inquiry into the Effects of Ardent Spirits,” by Continental Army Surgeon General Dr. Benjamin Rush, and the U.S. stopped fortifying its troops with alcohol in the 1830s.
The same was true for the British Royal Navy, which went to great lengths to ensure that its sailors had their “daily tot” of rum.
Remarkably, the practice held on until 1970. And that navy strength gin that you’ve been tempted to try? Its provenance lies on those British boats: The liquor is a potent 114 proof, high enough so that if it spilled accidentally onto gunpowder, the explosive could still be lit and used.
But back to New Jersey.
Along with playing up the army angle, advocates of lowering the minimum drinking age also tend to theorize that allowing teens to drink legally negates the temptation and allure of binge drinking, which potentially fosters a more mature relationship with alcohol. (Many European cultures approach things this way.)
The flaw in that line of reasoning, however, is that American teenagers just aren’t drinking as much as they used to.
According to the Monitoring the Future Survey, released by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the University of Michigan, from 1991 to 2015, binge drinking by high school seniors is down by an astounding 42 percent.
One reason for the drop? The report’s creators attribute it to the simple fact that it is harder for teens to get their hands on alcohol.
And that’s not to mention that many European countries, including France and England, have experienced problems with teen binge drinking despite their more open policies regarding when a person can have his or her first legal cocktail.
But whether the minimum drinking age is changed or not, the debate points to a deeper problem. Thanks to Prohibition and both World Wars, we as a society lost much of our collective cocktails and spirits knowledge.
Only in the last 15 years have we begun to address this situation, making drinkers today better educated than they have been in decades. Which is good news for all of us.