Imported beer is on display at a store in Seoul. In Korea, though the legal drinking age is set at 19 years old, a lot of stores are selling alcoholic beverages to the underaged. / Korea Times
By Chang Se-moon
Professor of South Alabama University
Do you know how old you should be for you to be able to buy or drink alcoholic beverages? My guess is that most of you do not know, but go ahead and drink anyway. Like so many other things in life, it can be complicated if you are not careful, however.
The legal minimum age for drinking varies among countries and, sometimes, within a country. Since laws that govern the legal minimum age for drinking change all the time, it is difficult to identify the exact minimum age for drinking in all countries. So far as I can determine, some countries have no legal minimum age for drinking.
These countries include Armenia, Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Portugal, Thailand, Viet Nam, and possibly a couple more. The legal drinking age is 16 in some countries that include Austria, Belgium, France, Italy, Poland, and several others that allow exceptions. By far, the most popular legal drinking age is 18. Over 40 countries adopted 18 as the legal drinking age.
These countries include Argentina, Bermuda, Chile, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Mexico, Philippines, Russia, Slovakia, United Kingdom with 16 in restaurants, Australia, Brazil, Canada in most provinces, Malaysia, Ukraine, Venezuela, and more.
Four countries of most interest to you may be China, Japan, the U.S., and Korea. The legal drinking age is 20 in Japan and 21 in the United States. A website says that there is no drinking age in China. With a tight control over personal lives, they may not need one in China.
Recently, the minimum legal drinking age for U.S. marines in Japan was lowered to 20. This change makes the drinking age for U.S. marines in Japan consistent with Japanese law which sets the minimum age for buying and consuming alcohol at 20. Korea’s legal drinking age is stated differently in different places. Some say it is 19, others say it is 20, and still others say it is 21 unless you are a college student.
In the U.S., the minimum drinking age varied among states, ranging from 18 to 21, until 1984 when the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required all states to raise their purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21, or risk losing federal highway funds under the Federal Highway Aid Act. By 1987, all states had complied with the 21 minimum age law. The U.S. legal drinking age is one of the highest, if not the highest, in the world.
Why do countries require the legal drinking age? The predominant opinion is that young drivers are especially dangerous when they drink and drive, although some scholars claim that the more frequent traffic accidents by young people are caused, not necessarily by their drinking, but by their freedom to drive at an earlier age, their increasing ownership of cars, and others. Another popular reason for the drinking age requirement is simply that it is culturally unacceptable in many countries for young people to drink.
Do you want to know what I think about the legal drinking age?
I believe that the legal drinking age should not be higher than the age at which young people can join the military or go to the college, whichever is lower. Perhaps, recognizing this, more than half of the countries that require the legal drinking age have 18 as the legal drinking age. Any legal drinking age higher than 18 is on shaky ground.
I also believe that the minimum age should be the age at which young people can buy or publicly possess alcoholic beverages, not the age at which young people can drink them. What is the difference between the two? Let me explain.
The legal minimum drinking age is usually set by old people with no input from the young. In conservative countries like the United States, the old people who set the legal drinking age would want to increase the age even beyond 21, believing that they are doing a favor to young people. Well, here are some problems.
At least in the community where I live, once in a while the police arrest college students under the age of 21 who drink at a gathering inside college or in their homes. The police and the old people in the community may be doing more harm than good to the young people because once they are arrested, their arrests will be recorded.
When these college students complete their education and enter the job market, they may have to fill out an application form that may include a question of whether they have been arrested. If the students honestly answer the question, they may not be able to get a job. This is a true hidden cost that old people will never understand.
That is not all. Sometimes, the police send undercover agents who look mature but are 19 or 20 years old to stores that sell alcoholic beverages. Store clerks casually check their identification cards but sell alcoholic beverages.
The police then arrest the unsuspecting store clerks for selling alcoholic beverages to the under-aged. The police appear to be proud of what they are doing and the old people who raised the minimum drinking age appear to be happy, believing that the police arrested bad people. They can never think of the possibility that the requirement of a high legal drinking age may not be reasonable to begin with. I even read an article in the local newspaper that a soldier under 21 years of age who just returned from Iraq was arrested because he was buying an alcoholic beverage. Do you think it fair?
As I said earlier, the legal drinking age should not be higher than the age at which young people can join the military or go to the college, whichever is lower. If drinking and driving are the problem, it is a problem for all ages, not just for the young. I cannot think of any reason why it should be higher than 18.
There is another factor that everyone needs to think about. The age requirement should apply to purchasing and, at best, public possession, but not to drinking. Drinking by young people under the supervision of the parents or the school administrators should not be a concern to the police or to the old people in general. The police should have more important work to do than checking on drinking by young people.
Even the U.S. National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 does not prohibit persons under 21 from drinking. It prohibits purchase or public possession. The term "public possession" in the Act is so narrowly defined that it does not apply to possession in private clubs or private establishments.
Many states that prohibit alcohol consumption by those under age 21 also have a variety of exceptions. For example, some states in the United States allow people under 21 to drink alcohol when a family member or relatives give consent and/or are present. Some states in the United States allow people under 21 to drink at all private locations in addition to private residences. When you start making many exceptions, you know that there is something wrong with the law.
Maybe I should not have talked about legal drinking age because even mentioning that may take all the fun out of drinking. However, my understanding is that the police in Korea rarely, if ever, check whether a drinking person is under the legal age. Go ahead and drink, but do not drink too much to lose your control.