CONCORD, N.H. — As much as New Hampshire wants to attract more young people, lowering the drinking age is no way to do it, a public safety official said Tuesday.
Christopher Casko, an attorney for the Department of Safety, testified against a bill that would allow 20-year-olds to drink alcohol in private settings while still prohibiting them from buying it or consuming it in public until age 21.
“We would be backsliding if this bill were to pass,” he told the House Criminal Justice and Public Safety Committee. “It would make us the only state in the country that would have a lower than 21 drinking age, and we fear that would make us a haven for 20-year-olds to come into the state and potentially purchase alcohol.”
The federal government since 1984 has required states to set the legal drinking age at 21 in order to receive funding for highway repairs and other transportation projects. That has resulted in an estimated 1,000 fewer fatal crashes per year, Casko said.
And he disagreed with the bill’s sponsor, who said retaining a prohibition on public consumption would protect the state from losing its $17 million in highway funding.
The sponsor, Republican Rep. Dan Hynes of Merrimack, argued that countries with lower drinking ages don’t have the same problems with alcohol as the United States.
“With a statute setting it so high, what happens is people binge drink in college,” he said. “I think we’re actually encouraging binge drinking, I think we’re encouraging alcohol problems. I don’t think there’s any scientific evidence to show that someone who drinks a beer at the age of 20 is going to be harmed any more than someone who drinks a beer at age 21.”
Police chiefs also opposed the bill, as does New Futures, a health advocacy group. But Republican Rep. John Burt of Goffstown appeared more open to it.
“What would be the issue to drop it down to 20?” he said. “You can go into the military and die for our country but you can’t have a beer?”
Similar bills have also failed in other states over the years. A bill pending in Wisconsin that would lower the age to 19 only if the state would not lose its federal highway money has failed to garner momentum.
In New Hampshire, lawmakers in 2012 rejected lowering the age to 19 for active-duty military. More recently, the House killed a bill in 2016 that would have allowed those over 18 to drink beer or wine, but not liquor, and only when accompanied by an adult.