The United States is one of only seven countries in the world to have a minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) of 21 years old. In fourteen countries, the MLDA is as low as 16. However, the most common MLDA is 18 years old, which is the case in one hundred countries. Clearly, the vast majority of the world seems to be okay with having younger people drink legally, so why is the drinking age 21 in the United States?
Why Is the Drinking Age 21?
Surprisingly, there is actually no federal drinking age in the US. Each state has the power to set their own MLDA.
When Prohibition ended in 1933, almost every state in the US had their MLDA set at 21. The age 21 had long been considered the age one reaches adulthood, dating back to English common law which states 21 was the age you were allowed to become a knight and vote.
In 1942, during World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the minimum age for joining the military from 21 to 18. This sparked a movement to lower the voting age to 18 as well, and was accompanied by the slogan “old enough to fight, old enough to vote”.
In 1971, the 26th Amendment was ratified, which lowered the voting age to 18. This was largely a result of the Vietnam War, in which many men who could not vote were drafted into the military.
Immediately following the ratification of the 26th Amendment, states began to lower the MLDA to 18, 19, or 20 years old.
The Problem With Not Having a Uniform Drinking Age
Since setting a MLDA was up to the states, there were many cases in which a state with a legal drinking age of 18 would border a state that still had the legal limit set at 21. This gave incentive for young people to simply cross the state border whenever they felt like having a drink.
Driving across state lines to drink legally became routine for many young adults. However, driving to find legal booze meant that eventually they would need to drive back home. As you can imagine, this led to many drunk drivers around state borders.
The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984
A rise in deaths due to drunk driving near state lines eventually led to the term “Blood Borders”. Drunk driving became so prevalent in the early 1980s that the Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) proposed a law to help prevent this from happening. They called for a higher drinking age, and President Ronald Reagan agreed that this was the best course of action.
Eventually, President Reagan would sign the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. Since states have the right to set their own MLDA, the act instead declared that any state which did not have the legal limit set at 21 would have to pay a 10% tax on federal highway funding. This tax would be especially damaging to larger cities such as New York, potentially resulting in the loss of millions of dollars.
This was incentive enough for every state in the country to impose the new law. While President Reagan recognized that this act would help save lives, critics argued that signing it might have been a political move to help him win re-election.
It is important to note that the National Minimum Drinking Age Act does not prohibit underage drinking. Rather, it makes the purchase and public possession of alcohol by people under the age of 21 illegal. Minors are still allowed to drink legally in certain cases, such as for religious practices, in the presence of family over the age of 21, or for medical purposes.
Is Underage Drinking Dangerous?
So, is underage drinking really that dangerous?
Statistics tell us young people are more likely to seek out risk than those that are older and have more life experiences. Some would argue that lowering the drinking age to 18 would decrease the curiosity that young people have towards alcohol, and make it less of a taboo. The main thought here is that a lower drinking age would allow teens to feel more comfortable around alcohol at a younger age. Theoretically, then, this might lessen the amount of binge drinking that occurs in college.
However, the argument that the Mothers Against Drunk Driving gave to President Reagan was that the cognitive functions of the brain are still forming at 18. Alcohol can impair this crucial brain development. They also reasoned that a higher drinking age would decrease the amount of deaths due to drunk driving in the US.
It’s hard to say whether or not lowering the drinking age would affect the rate of car accidents. The rate of accidents attributed to drunk driving in the United States is currently at 31%, which is higher than some other countries with a lower drinking age. France and the United Kingdom, for example, both have a MLDA set at 18. Their rates of accidents attributed to drunk driving are both below 25%.
Is There a Possibility the Law Will Change One Day?
It is possible that one day the United States will allow individual states to decide their own MLDA without imposing a tax, but for the foreseeable future, it seems the drinking age will stay at 21. According to a study conducted by the Center for Alcohol Policy, 84% of Americans support the legal drinking age as it is. Any policy change surrounding the MLDA would likely bring about much debate.
For now, if you’re under 21 and want to enjoy a legal drink, your best bet would be traveling either north to Canada or south to Mexico. Just don’t plan on drinking and driving home.