Alcohol age limit inconsistencies across globe affect international students

Utah gas stations separate alcoholic beverages from the rest of their products because of laws limiting the age of accessibility. The legal age to buy alcohol in Utah is 21, but in other places across the globe that age can be as low as 12 or even 14 years. Photo by Stephanie Brown-Richards.

Utah gas stations separate alcoholic beverages from the rest of their products because of laws limiting the age of accessibility. The legal age to buy alcohol in Utah is 21, but in other places across the globe that age can be as low as 12 or even 14 years. Photo by Stephanie Brown-Richards.

It was Ashley Dechant's first night in Utah. She didn't have many friends, but she was with a group of four boys and four girls who piled into a car to drive to a University of Utah fraternity party. They didn't know which house it was, so they went around back to see if they could see anything.

They found a girl in the backyard surrounded by other drunk friends, who were shoving a toothbrush down her throat so she'd throw up. She'd been drinking too much and they didn't want her to get alcohol poisoning. When someone suggested taking the girl to the hospital, this idea was immediately rejected because the others didn't want her to get a fine for consumption of alcohol by a minor.

Dechant, a 20-year-old from Canada double majoring in finance and marketing at Westminster College, said at that moment she thought, "Americans are insane." Then, they took the drunken minor to the hospital.

According to the 2015 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH), 37.9 percent of college students ages 18 to 22 reported binge drinking in the past month. An additional 12.5 percent reported heavy alcohol use, defined as binge drinking on five or more days in the past month.

Utah law states that individuals must be at least 21 years old to purchase, possess, or be provided with any alcoholic beverage. In other places across the globe, the age limit tends to be lower. In some parts of Canada and Africa, for example, the legal age to consume alcohol is 18. In France, one must be 18 to purchase alcohol but consumption often begins much younger.

Utah gas stations separate alcoholic beverages from the rest of their products because of laws limiting the age of accessibility. The legal age to buy alcohol in Utah is 21, but in other places across the globe that age can be as low as 12 or even 14 years. Photo by Stephanie Brown-Richards.

Utah gas stations separate alcoholic beverages from the rest of their products because of laws limiting the age of accessibility. The legal age to buy alcohol in Utah is 21, but in other places across the globe that age can be as low as 12 or even 14 years. Photo by Stephanie Brown-Richards.

"I came from Canada in August when I had just turned 18 in July," Dechant said. "It was weird and it sucked because I could go out and party with friends and then immediately left for college [in Utah] and now I had to wait again until I was 21."

Dechant explained that for half of Canada, the drinking age is 18 and for the other half it's 19. When she spent the summer at home after turning 19, she was able to go to more places that served alcohol across Canada. But when she returned to Utah again, she had to refrain.

"Because the drinking age is lower [in Canada], underage drinking starts younger, too," Dechant said. "There's still underage drinking [in the U.S.], but it's way less because it's more controlled. People don't start until about 18."

Underage drinking cost the U.S. economy $249 billion in 2010. Excessive drinking contributes to more than 4,300 deaths among people below the age of 21 in the U.S. each year, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

"Where I'm from, nothing from your alcohol or groceries gets taxed or goes to the state—only imported goods,” said Rozanne Ziehl, a 21-year-old from Zimbabwe. “We have a lot of local beers and other alcohol."

Although drinking under the age of 21 is illegal in the United States, people aged 12 to 20 drink 11 percent of all alcohol consumed. More than 90 percent of this alcohol is consumed through binge drinking, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ziehl said she started drinking when she was 16 but said she was able to go the grocery store at 12 or 14 years old to buy alcohol for her dad. She said the law enforcement of alcohol was not as strict as it is in the U.S.

"Coming here was a rude awakening—pretty much a slap in the face," Ziehl said. "I started drinking at a much younger age, so being 21 now is nothing. It takes away the awe of being able to drink because I'm used to it and I already see myself as an adult."

According to the 2015 NSDUH, 33.1 percent of 15 year olds report they've have had at least one drink in their lives. About 7.7 million people aged 12 to 20 (20.3 percent of this age group) reported drinking alcohol in the past month (19.8 percent of males and 20.8 percent of females).

"There is not really a drinking age [in France], which means you can drink if you are even 15," said Oscar Faulconnier, a 20-year-old first-year student at Westminster. "If you want to buy alcohol, you have to be 18."

He said he started drinking champagne and beer when he was 14 or 15 with his parents at Christmas and special events.

When he first came to Utah, Faulconnier said, "I felt like I was 14 or 15 again. I could buy alcohol since I was 18, and here I can't even enter a bar. In France, even if you are 16 you can go into bars and drink alcohol because they don't check your ID."

Faulconnier said it wouldn't be as big of an issue if the law was "more chill," and said alcohol feels taboo here, which he disagrees with.

"To be honest, I feel like [the drinking age] is not really a good thing," he said. "A lot of American students want to drink because they don't have access to it. It's forbidden, so they want to do it—like a rebellious thing."