The story of America's legal drinking age

In the United States, it is illegal for anyone under the age of 21 to buy, possess, or consume alcohol. What you might not realize is that the US is one of only fourteen countries in the world where the legal age limit for drinking or purchasing alcohol is 21. The others are Cameroon, Egypt, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, Sri Lanka, Tajikistan, the United Arab Emirates, the Federated States of Micronesia, Palau, the Solomon Islands, and Tonga. (India's diverse states, each with its own liquor laws, has age limits which range from 18 to 25.) 

The rest of the world's limits are much lower: in Liechtenstein, for example, 16-year-olds can drink beer, wine, and hard cider, and 18-year-olds may drink hard liquor and buy any type of alcohol. Many other countries have similar laws. 

This raises an obvious question: why is America's age limit so high? 

The short answer is car accidents

From 1776 to 1919, American states had no laws concerning the legal age for buying or consuming alcohol. Then the 18th Amendment was passed in 1920, outlawing the sale of alcohol in the US to anyone of any age. Following Prohibition's repeal in 1933, many states set the legal limit for the purchase or consumption of alcohol at 21, while others set it lower (18 or 19). In 1971, the 26th Amendment was passed, lowering the voting age to eighteen. Several states took the opportunity to lower their drinking ages to 19 or 18 years of age.

But then a problem arose: teenagers. 

Teenagers' brains don't work the way adult brains do. A teens' pleasure center is much larger than an adult's, meaning that fun things are far more fun for teens—so fun, in fact, that those crazy kids go to extreme and even reckless lengths to find joy. This is the reason why teens—primarily young males—crash their cars, leap off precipices into swimming pools, lakes, or oceans, drink and drive, and engage in other kinds of risky behavior. 

There were so many drunk-driving accidents on America's roads in the 1970s—60% of fatal accidents were alcohol-related—that the legal drinking age became a question of public safety. States began to raise the limits again: some to 19 or 20, others as high as 21. Then came the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984, signed into law by Ronald Reagan. The act mandated that all states raise the legal age for possession, purchase, and consumption of alcohol to 21 by October 1986, or forfeit a tenth of their federal interstate funding. By 1988, all fifty states and the District of Columbia had raised the legal drinking age to 21. (Several American territories, like Puerto Rico, have refused to raise their drinking age limits, preferring the 10% highway fund cut.)  

Today, opinion is sharply divided over the wisdom of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act. Proponents of free will and personal responsibility avow that the law is unjust, foisted upon the American public by good-intentioned but short-sighted activists, who didn't anticipate the illegal drinking, clandestine parties, and narcotic drugs which teenagers would pursue if they couldn't drink legally. Proponents of the law bring up the sensitivity of the developing adolescent brain to alcohol, and the damage excess alcohol consumption can cause to young adult's brains—hardwiring them for addiction later in life and delaying or halting the growth of their brains. While it's true that drunk-driving accidents have fallen off by half since 1986, the biggest threat to teenagers in America is no longer alcohol, but pharmaceutical and designer drugs. The effects of these substances are unpredictable and often deadly, making them arguably more dangerous and addictive than alcohol ever was. 

No change to the law seems to be forthcoming, but the solution today is the same as it has always been, even in the days before Prohibition: parents must teach their children responsibility, moderation, and temperance. Without using scare tactics or other ineffective strategies, parents should lead by example: showing their children how to handle their alcohol responsibly and keep their wits about them on the party scene. Knowledge is power: the more teens are educated about the positives and negatives of alcohol, the better prepared they'll be to navigate the frenetic years of adolescence.

If you or someone you know has an addiction to alcohol, prescription drugs, or any other substance, call (877) 257-7997 to speak to our friendly representatives and find out about reputable rehab centers across the country.