Legal Drinking Age - Should It Be Higher or Lower?

The HWN Team | Insider
Legal Drinking Age - Should It Be Higher or Lower?

image by: Maurício Mascaro

Support for lowering the minimum legal drinking age comes from the most unexpected places, several American colleges. Does it makes sense?

In the U.S. young people continue to drink irresponsibly, despite the minimum legal drinking age of 21. College student binge drinking with its consequences is literally an epidemic. Yet, according to a 2010 report by the International Center for Alcohol Policies, the United States has one of the highest legal drinking age limits in the world. The five other countries that also set a minimum drinking age of 21 are Chile, Egypt, Honduras, Russia and Samoa.1

Alcohol abuse in colleges and universities in the U.S. is becoming a major problem despite the existing MLDA law. In 2002, according to a report on college drinking published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol about 80% of college students drink and about 50% go on “episodic heavy drink” or better known as binge drinking.2

The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) refers to the minimum age at which alcoholic beverages can be consumed. This age limit is set by governments to restrict children and minors from purchasing, possessing and consuming alcohol. The age limit may vary from country to country or between states within a particular country. In some countries, there are exemptions or special circumstances that may affect the age limit for alcohol consumption. In Norway, beer and wine may be consumed at age 18 and spirits at age 20. In Canada, drinking age limit are legislated by each province. Three provinces set age 18 as the consumption age while the rest have set the limit at 19. In United Kingdom, alcohol may be consumed from age 5 with parental consent.

The age limit for the U.S. was established by the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. The 21 MLDA law was driven largely by the desire to reduce traffic fatalities associated with alcohol consumption. This requires all states in the U.S. to legislate and enforce a minimum legal age of 21 years for purchasing and publicly possessing alcoholic beverages. States that do not comply with the provisions of the act are subjected to a 10% percent decrease in its annual federal highway apportionment under the Federal Highway Aid Act. The U.S. Department of Transport is responsible in ensuring that this law is strictly observed.3

21 MLDA is closely linked to traffic safety. Drinking and driving do not mix. In the early 1970s, the minimum drinking age was reduced by several states between 18 to 20 years to closely align with the reduced military enlistment and voting age during the Vietnam War. Many studies show that this move resulted in increased traffic fatalities and injuries. By 1983, 16 states voluntarily raised their legal drinking age back to 21 resulting in an immediate reduction in drinking and traffic fatality incidents.4

In 1998, 42% of crash fatalities among 18 to 20 year olds were alcohol-related. However, drinking rates among youth declined since the 21-MLDA law went into effect. The Monitor the Future 2010 study also showed alcohol consumption among American youth has declined.5

Many studies have been conducted to measure its effectiveness and they all have the same conclusion – the law saves lives. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), the 21 minimum drinking age law saved approximately 900 lives per year. This means more than 17,000 lives were saved since all states adopted the law in 1988. The 21 minimum age law is considered as one of the most effective public safety laws today.

However, 21 MLDA is full of loopholes and ambiguities.

For example, provisions that prohibit purchase by, selling to and public possession but not consumption of alcohol by minors are confusing and to further muddy the picture, the implementation of the legislation varies from state to state.6

According to the Surgeon General of the U.S., many state laws allow special “exemptions” for underage drinking. While all states prohibit vendors to sell alcoholic beverages to minors, some states do not prohibit minors from purchasing alcohol. States may allow minors to possess alcohol under certain conditions. Some states do not specifically prohibit alcohol consumption among minors whereas some states allow minors to sell or serve alcoholic beverages without adult supervision. The majority of the states do not prohibit minors from entering drinking establishments.

There are also controversies in connection with the term “public possession” which basically does not apply to the following situations:

  • alcohol for established religious purposes, under adult supervision
  • alcohol for medical purposes, prescribed or administered by a licensed health care professional
  • alcohol use in private clubs or establishments
  • alcohol possession as part of a job with a “duly licensed manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer.” 

Despite the fact that the law saves lives on the highway, the 21 MLDA law is still one of the most scrutinized and debated laws in the United States, besides the infamous Obama Care, primarily because of the loopholes in the law and the epidemic of college drinking. So, what should we do with the MLDA?7

Here's the main arguments in favor of lowering 21 MLDA

Legal age for everything is at 18

Young American adults aged 18 to 20 years old who are not allowed to drink alcoholic beverages are obviously the number one opponents to the 21 MLDA. They raise concerns about the apparent inconsistency in prohibiting them to drink while being treated as adults in most areas of life. For example, American citizens are allowed to vote when they are 18 years of age.

Eighteen-year old males are also required to render military service for possible drafting. This means that 18-year old males can go to war and carry guns. Eighteen-year olds can also be selected for jury duty. These youth groups are now questioning why they can be trusted to vote, serve the military and justice system, but can’t be trusted to drink alcohol. There's even an online petition in support of this contention.8

Forbidden is attractive

By portraying alcohol as a forbidden fruit, the MLDA law actually makes drinking more attractive to the young. This observation is not only restricted to alcohol but other substances such as illegal drugs. However, the big difference is that access to alcohol, albeit regulated by law, is easier and more affordable than drugs. Also, by coupling the law to age, it presents a challenge to the youth to prove their maturity and adulthood.

In addition, history proves that prohibition of alcohol, as was the case in the early part of the last century in many countries, including the U.S., encouraged periodic but excessive drinking. Also because of the loopholes in the 21 MLDA law, cross-state drinking excursions from strict states and less stringent states are frequent. It is also common for young people living close to the borders to Canada and Mexico to go binge drinking “abroad.”

The European Experience

Opponents of 21 MLDA argue that Europeans have lower alcohol-related vehicular accidents and alcoholism is not any worse despite the lower minimum age limit.

21 MLDA does not prevent college drinking

Support for reducing the MLDA comes from the most unexpected places – top officials of several American colleges. The Amethyst Initiative, launched in 2008, is an organization made up of over 100 university heads, including presidents and chancellors of prestigious institutions like Duke University, Dartmouth College and Johns Hopkins.9

The organization members claim, based on their campus experience that “twenty-one is not working” so that there is a need to examine the currently existing MLDA law. Here are some of their arguments:

“A culture of dangerous, clandestine “binge-drinking”—often conducted off-campus—has developed.” “By choosing to use fake IDs [to bypass the law], students make ethical compromises that erode respect for the law.” “Alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students.”

The Amethyst Initiative points out that drinking problems start even before college. They are now calling upon legislatures to review current alcohol policies and develop new ideas to prepare young adults in becoming responsible alcohol drinkers. This is in line with questions raised by the paper on college drinking which was in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

According to Indiana University professor Ruth Engs the current law actually has worsened the drinking problem in colleges.10

Students who are “vomiting after drinking” increased from 46% in 1982-87 to 50% after the age limit law has changed. “Cutting classes after drinking” has increased from 9% to almost 12%. “Missing classes due to hangover” increased from 26% to 28%. “Getting low grades due to drinking” increased from 5% to 7%. “Been in a fight after drinking” went up from 12% to 17%.

This increase in excessive and irresponsible drinking is due to “underground drinking” in student dormitories, fraternity basements and apartments without adult supervision. These young drinkers lack the knowledge of responsible drinking behaviors. By reducing the MLDA, young people can learn the proper norms of social drinking early, under supervision, thus helping resolve the problem of irresponsible drinking.

The report on the state of science of college drinking recommends the following:

  • Promote health behaviors through individual and group-focused approaches
  • Create a healthy environment
  • Create comprehensive college-community interventions

Here's the main arguments in support of the status quo, 21 MLDA

Saving Lives

It is not surprising that parents and anti-drunken advocacy groups are the ones who are strongly against lowering the age limit. One of the most influential supporters of the 21 legal age limit is MADD. This non-profit organization was established in 1980 with the mission of helping the victims of crimes caused by individuals driving under the influence of alcohol or drugs. It also aims to aid the families of the victims and to increase public awareness of the problem of drinking and drugged driving. MADD was one of the most influential proponents in the signing of the minimum drinking age act in 1984.

In 1999, MADD had expanded its work on preventing underage drinking and promotes research to prevent youth alcohol use. MADD’s efforts in this area were also encouraged and supported by the government, corporations, educators, the media and public. Their mission statement was changed to officially include preventing underage drinking.

They believe that underage drinking is not just a youth problem but also an adult problem. Many adults allow underage drinkers to drink by selling or providing alcohol to them. MADD advocates for increased enforcement of the 21 MLDA by limiting social and retail access to alcohol by those under 21. They also organize awareness campaigns and outreach programs such as WHY 21. These programs try to distract young people away from drinking and counteract peer pressure.

According to statistics compiled by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD), annually alcohol drinking by college students ages 18 to 24 contributes to the following:11

  • Approximately 1,700 student deaths
  • Almost 600,00 injuries
  • Almost 700,000 assaults
  • More than 90,000 sexual assaults
  • 474,000 engagement in unprotected sex

Prevention of college drinking

21 MLDA is closely linked to the issue of college drinking. “Excessive alcohol intake among college students is associated with a variety of adverse consequences: fatal and nonfatal injuries; alcohol poisoning; blackouts; academic failure; violence, including rape and assault; unintended pregnancy; sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV/AIDS; property damage; and vocational and criminal consequences that could jeopardize future job prospects.

Students who engage in excessive drinking impact not just themselves. Fellow students experience secondhand consequences ranging from disrupted study and sleep to physical and sexual assault. Furthermore, the institutions they attend expend valuable resources to deal with institutional and personal consequences of their behavior.”

Although the report did not give any recommendations about MLDA, many fear that lowering the age limit can exacerbate the college drinking problem. As a response, health authorities have set up the College Drinking Prevention Initiative.12

Effects of alcohol on the teen brain

Alcohol consumption can seriously affect a developing brain causing long term and irreversible damage. The human brain development does not stop until the person reaches early to mid-20s. Research evidence suggests that adolescents and young adults under 21 are more vulnerable to the effects of alcohol on both memory and memory-related brain function than other age groups.13

According to neuroresearcher Dr. Sandra Brown of the Veterans Affairs Medical Center in San Diego, “our brains go through important transformations during adolescence…This study shows that alcohol use during the adolescent years is associated with damage to memory and learning capabilities as well as to the decision-making and reasoning areas in the brain.” In addition to the brain, heavy and binge drinking have adverse health effects, regardless of age.

Alcohol abuse and dependence

Scientific evidence showed that drinking at an early age can lead to alcohol dependence later in life. A UK cohort study showed that teen binge drinkers are more likely to become heavy drinkers as adults, which can lead to social exclusion and criminality and in a more recent study, “age at onset of drinking” is a major indicator of risk of alcohol dependence among American women.14,15

The Bottom Line

Both proponents as well as opponents of 21 MLDA agree that alcohol consumption is a serious youth problem but no one can agree on common solutions to resolve this agonizing issue. Resolving the problem also requires addressing the loopholes in the MLDA law which weaken the enforcement of law in controlling underage drinking.

Although the biological and health issues of alcohol consumption seem to be well-established, less is known about the social and psychological issues of alcohol prohibition in the youth. But, maybe the college presidents are on to something, so don't get MADD!

Published December 11, 2008, updated August 19, 2012


  1. Drinking Age Limits, International Center for Alcohol Policies, 2007
  2. College Drinking - Changing the Culture
  3. Fact Sheet - Minimum Drinking Age Laws, NHTSA
  4. Minimum Legal Drinking Age, American Medical Association
  5. Monitor the Future 2010 study,
  6. Lynn MD, What is the Legal Drinking Age in the United States and Why? Yahoo, November 20, 2006
  7. Should the drinking age be lowered from 21 to a younger age?, Drinking Age,
  8. Lower the U.S. Legal Drinking Age to 18, Petition Online
  9. Amethyst Initiative
  10. Engs R, Why the drinking age should be lowered: An opinion based upon research, Indiana University, Bloomington, 1998
  11. Underage Drinking and the 21 Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) Law, Support 21, MADD
  12. How To Reduce High-Risk College Drinking: Use Proven Strategies, Fill Research Gaps, College Drinking - Changing the Culture, September 23, 2005
  13. Harmful Consequences of Alcohol Use on the Brains of Children, Adolescents, and College Students, American Medical Association
  14. Viner RM, Adult outcomes of binge drinking in adolescence: findings from a UK national birth cohort, J Epidemiol Community Health. 2007 Oct;61(10):902-7
  15. Grucza RA et al, Correspondence between secular changes in alcohol dependence and age of drinking onset among women in the United States, Alcohol Clin Exp Res. 2008 Aug;32(8):1493-501. Epub 2008 Jun 28

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