Last updated on: 9/8/2022 | Author:

All 50 US states have set their minimum drinking age to 21 although exceptions do exist on a state-by-state basis for consumption at home, under adult supervision, for medical necessity, and other reasons.

Proponents of lowering the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) from 21 argue that it has not stopped teen drinking, and has instead pushed underage binge drinking into private and less controlled environments, leading to more health and life-endangering behavior by teens.

Opponents of lowering the MLDA argue that teens have not yet reached an age where they can handle alcohol responsibly, and thus are more likely to harm or even kill themselves and others by drinking prior to 21. They contend that traffic fatalities decreased when the MLDA increased. Read more background…


Pro & Con Arguments

Pro 1

18 is the age of legal majority (adulthood) in the United States.

Americans enjoy a range of new rights, responsibilities, and freedoms when they turn 18 and become an adult in the eyes of the law. [58]

18-year-olds may vote in local, state, and federal elections; may serve on juries; and may be charged as an adult if accused of a crime. 18-year-olds are responsible for any legally binding contracts they enter; are liable for negligence; and may be sued. [58] [59] [60]

18-year-olds must register with the Selective Service if male and may be drafted into service at times of war. However, 17-year-olds may enter US military service. [60] [62]

18-year-olds may get married without parental consent; buy a house; and enjoy new privacy rights including the shielding of medical, academic, and financial information from parents. [60] [61] [62]

However, drinking alcohol remains regulated under a legal age of license. An 18-year-old may legally be responsible children and legally allowed to make life decisions with years of impact, but may not legally drink a beer. [58]

Todd Rutherford, South Carolina State Representative and Democrat House Minority Leader, who filed a bill on Nov. 10, 2021 to lower South Carolina’s MLDA to 18, stated: “This is a personal freedom issue. If you are old enough to fight for our country, if you’re old enough to vote, if you’re old enough to sign on thousands of dollars of students loans for a college education, then you are old enough to have a[n alcoholic] drink.” [64]

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Pro 2

MLDA 21 is ineffective because young adults will consume alcohol regardless, leading to dangerous behaviors.

By the time 60% of people are 18, they have had at least one alcoholic drink. 32% of 18-20 year olds admitted to alcohol consumption, according to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. [65] [66]

Prohibiting this age group from drinking in bars, restaurants, and other licensed locations causes them to drink in unsupervised places such as fraternity houses or house parties where they may be more prone to binge drinking and other unsafe behavior. [7]

Rather than criminalizing an act that is legal for other adults, lowering the minimum legal drinking age could allow for more regulatory oversight of drinking by 18- to 20-year-olds, whether by a graduated drinking license (a sort of “drinking learner’s permit”) or simply the enforcement of laws other adults are subject to. [64] [67]

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Pro 3

MLDA creates a mindset of non-compliance with the law among young adults.

Lowering MLDA from 21 to 18 would diminish the thrill of breaking the law to get a drink. Normalizing alcohol consumption as something to be done responsibly and in moderation will make drinking alcohol less of a taboo for young adults entering college and the workforce. [14] [15]

High non-compliance with MLDA 21 promotes general disrespect and non-compliance with other areas of US law. MLDA 21 encourages young adults to acquire and use false identification documents to procure alcohol. It would be better to have fewer fake IDs in circulation and more respect for the law. [17]

Further, MLDA 21 enforcement is not a priority for many law enforcement agencies. Police are inclined to ignore or under-enforce MLDA 21 because of resource limitations, statutory obstacles, perceptions that punishments are inadequate, and the time and effort required for processing and paperwork. An estimated two of every 1,000 occasions of illegal drinking by youth under 21 results in an arrest. [18]

Combine a lack of consequences with the thrill of breaking the law, and MLDA 21 actually encourages underage drinking and potentially other illegal activities, such as driving while intoxicated and illicit drug use. Lowering the MLDA would make 18- to 20-year-olds subject to the same laws enforced for those 21 and over.

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Con 1

Alcohol consumption before age 21 is irresponsible and dangerous.

Alcohol consumption can interfere with development of the young adult brain’s frontal lobes (essential for emotional regulation, planning, and organization) which can increase the risk for chronic problems such as vulnerability to addiction, dangerous risk-taking, reduced decision-making ability, memory loss, depression, violence, and suicide. [20] [21] [22] [23]

MLDA 21 reduces traffic accidents and fatalities. 100 of the 102 analyses (98%) in a meta-study of the legal drinking age and traffic accidents found higher legal drinking ages associated with lower rates of traffic accidents. [19] In the 30 years since MLDA 21 was introduced, drunk driving fatalities decreased by a third. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that MLDA 21 has saved 31,417 lives from 1975-2016. Lowering the MLDA would surely increase traffic accidents, injuries, and deaths. [50]

A 2019 study of alchol consumption in India found “a causal channel between alcohol consumption and domestic violence,” in that men who were legally allowed to drink were “substantially more likely to consume alcohol” and “significantly more likely to commit violence against their partners.” Lowering the MLDA is likely to raise domestic abuse rates. [71]

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Con 2

MLDA 21 lowers alcohol consumption and illicit drug use across age groups.

MLDA 21 reduces alcohol consumption and the number of underage drinkers. 87% of studies, according to a meta study on MLDA, found higher legal drinking ages associated with lower alcohol consumption. Studies indicate that when the drinking age is 21, those younger than 21 drink less and continue to drink less through their early 20s, and that youth who do not drink until they are 21 tend to drink less as adults. The number of 18-to-20 year-olds who report drinking alcohol in the past month has decreased from 59% in 1985 – one year after Congress passed the National Minimum Drinking Age Act – to 39% in 2016. [19] [42] [49] [51]

Many point to lower MLDAs in Europe as proof that the United States should have a lower MLDA. However, a study found “significantly increased alcohol consumption – particularly among boys and those from underprivileged backgrounds – when drinking becomes legal. Raising the minimum legal drinking age in Europe could reduce alcohol poisonings and the early socioeconomic gradient in teenage binge drinking.” [68]

Additionally, lowering the drinking age will invite more use of illicit drugs among 18-21 year olds. The younger a person begins to drink alcohol the more likely it is that they will use other illicit drugs. Lowering MLDA 21 would increase the number of teens who drink and therefore the number of teens who use other drugs. [37] [38] [39]

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Con 3

Alcohol consumption should be based on age of license (legality), rather than age of majority (adulthood).

Many rights in the United States are conferred on citizens at age 21 or older. A person cannot legally purchase a handgun, gamble in a casino (in most states), or adopt a child until age 21. No one can rent a car (from most companies) at age 25, or run for President until age 35. Drinking should be similarly restricted due to the responsibility required to self and others. [24]

Purchasing and smoking cigarettes and vaping e-cigarettes are similarly regulated. The age of license was raised to 21 on Dec. 20, 2019. Robin Mermelstein, Professor of Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago, explained, “I think that you would be able to see lots of improvements in reduction of tobacco use among teens, all of which is good because the longer you delay any kind of initiation, the less likelihood there is to develop addiction and the less likely it is that use will escalate.” The same goes for alcohol. [69] [70]

Other things are similarly regulated throughout life. Kids can’t play Tee Ball until they’re four and basketball players can’t play for the NBA until they’re 19. In most states, teens can’t obtain a restricted license until they’re 16. Senior citizens can’t collect social security until age 62. Rarely are these age restrictions arbitrary. [71] [72] [73] [74] [71] [72] [73] [74]

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Did You Know?
1. Underage drinking is allowed in some US states if done on private premises with parental consent, for religious purposes, or for educational purposes.
2. Between 1970 and 1976, 30 states lowered their Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) from 21 to 18, 19, or 20. [3]
3. The enactment of the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 [4] prompted states to raise their legal age for purchase or public possession of alcohol to 21 or risk losing millions in federal highway funds.
4. After the repeal of alcohol prohibition by the 21st Amendment on Dec. 5, 1933, Illinois (1933-1961) and Oklahoma (1933-1976) set their state drinking age at 21 for men and 18 for women. The 1976 US Supreme Court case Craig v. Boren ruled 7-2 that this age difference violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. [47]


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