Before the twentieth century, few laws controlled the consumption of alcoholic beverages by youth. Laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to minors were first put in place early in the twentieth century, as part of a broader trend of increasing legal controls on adolescent behavior. During the period known as Prohibition, from 1919 to 1933, the sale of alcohol to people of all ages was illegal. When Prohibition was repealed, all fifty states established legal minimum ages for the buying or drinking of alcohol, with most states setting the age at 21.
From the 1930s through the 1960s, the drinking age was not an issue of great public interest. However, in the 1970s a change in the voting age led to changes in the drinking age as well. In 1970 the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution lowered the voting age in federal elections from 21 to 18. By 1974, all fifty states had lowered their voting ages for state elections to 18. As part of a trend to lower the "age of majority," twenty-nine states also lowered their minimum drinking ages, with most setting the age at 18 or 19.
Then, in the mid-1970s, studies emerged showing significant increases in the rate of young drivers' involvement in traffic accidents. This increase in accidents began almost immediately after the legal drinking age was reduced. Within a few years, states began to reverse the trend toward lower drinking ages. In October 1977, Maine became the first state to raise its legal drinking age, from 18 to 20. Several other states soon followed, and research studies completed by the early 1980s found significant declines in youth traffic-crash involvement when states raised their legal drinking age back to 20 or 21. Citizen-action groups such as Remove Intoxicated Drivers and Mothers Against Drunk Driving took action to reduce alcohol-related traffic accidents. They helped influence Congress to pass legislation in 1984 requiring that a portion of federal highway-construction funds be withheld from any state that did not have a legal drinking age of 21 by October 1986. By 1988, all the remaining states with a legal drinking age of below 21 had raised their drinking age to 21. Today, all states have a legal drinking age of 21, although rules regarding the purchase, possession, consumption, sales, and furnishing of alcohol to underage youth vary from state to state.
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Car Crashes and Other Consequences
The legal drinking age became a major issue because of the serious consequences of drinking by young people. Many teenagers drink, and almost a third regularly get drunk. Youth drinking results in a great deal of damage. Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, and one-third to one-half of the crashes involve alcohol. Alcohol plays a role in 25 to 75 percent of the other leading causes of disability and death among youth, such as suicide, homicide, assault, drowning, and recreational injury.
Injuries are only part of the problem. Early use of alcohol appears to affect many aspects of a person's development—physical, social, and mental. Alcohol use increases the odds of having unprotected sex (such as not using a condom). This in turn increases the chance of unwanted pregnancy and catching sexually transmitted diseases, including the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS. Many date rape situations involve individuals who have been drinking. The early use of alcohol increases the odds that a young person will move on to using other drugs, such as marijuana, cocaine, or heroin. Finally, the earlier a person starts a pattern of regular drinking, the higher the chance of later serious problems with alcohol, including dependence .
Of the many problems stemming from young people's drinking, the most obvious one, and the one that receives the most attention in debates on the legal drinking age, is the role of alcohol in traffic accidents. After the drinking age was lowered (in most cases from 21 to 18), traffic crashes involving young people increased significantly. In contrast, when the drinking age was raised again, traffic crashes among youths declined significantly. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that, in the states that raised the drinking age to 21 after 1982, the reduction in the number of car crashes alone saves 1,000 lives per year.
Raising the drinking age to 21 has also had an effect on problems other than traffic crashes. Vandalism dropped as much as 16 percent in four states that raised the drinking age. Studies also show significant reductions in the number of suicides, injuries to pedestrians, and other unintentional injuries. In a study of two Australian states that lowered the drinking age, increases in admissions to hospitals for alcohol-related injuries other than car crashes increased.
The drinking age appears to influence rates of drinking among young people. The most reliable studies show that raising the legal drinking age reduces young people's drinking. However, the age-21 policy does not eliminate youth drinking, particularly on college campuses. Surveys of college students tend to show that the drinking age has little effect on drinking patterns. In contrast, surveys of random samples of high school seniors and 18- to 20-year-olds across many states, including those entering college and those in the workforce, show that a higher legal drinking age does significantly reduce drinking.
Drinking among youth is now significantly down from its peak in 1980. Yet in surveys of high-school seniors, about half still report drinking in the past month, and about one-third report having had five or more drinks at a time at least once in the previous two weeks. Among the many reasons that youth continue to drink, one important reason is that alcohol remains easily available to them, despite the minimum drinking age law. Underage drinking very rarely results in arrests. More important, instances of drinking by underage youth very rarely result in any action being taken against a store, restaurant, or bar for selling or serving alcohol to a minor.
A number of research studies have stated that the problem of underage drinking can only be tackled by an approach that looks at the entire community in which underage drinkers live. Efforts to restrict underage drinking need to be directed at the adults, store-owners, and barkeepers that may potentially help supply underage drinkers with alcohol. Some communities have passed laws that make storekeepers and bartenders responsible for injuries or deaths inflicted by underage drinkers. In some states, an establishment's liquor license can be taken away. Private homeowners who allow alcohol to be served to underage drinkers can also be prosecuted for injuries that occur as the result of underage drinking. Law enforcement officials need to randomly spot-check establishments that sell and serve liquor to make sure that proof of age is checked before liquor is sold.
What are the Arguments against the Age-21 Policy?
Some have argued that it is illogical to set the legal age of drinking at 21 when other rights and privileges of adulthood, such as voting and signing legally binding contracts, begin at age 18. But we have many different legal ages, ranging from 12 to 21, for various activities—voting, driving, sale and use of tobacco, legal consent for sexual inter-course, marriage, access to contraception without parental consent, compulsory school attendance, and so forth. Minimum ages depend on the specific behavior involved. In the case of the drinking age, good policy must take into account the dangers of youth drinking.
Other critics of the age-21 policy have argued that a higher drinking age will increase drinking rates when young people finally get legal access to alcohol. The theory is that forbidding teenagers to drink will only strengthen their urge to drink when they reach the legal age. At 21, the theory goes, they will break loose and drink at significantly higher rates than they would have if they had been introduced to alcohol earlier. This theory is clearly not supported by research. One nationwide study found just the opposite results: people aged 21 to 24 drank at lower rates if they had to wait until 21 to have legal access to alcohol.
A related argument is that a minimum drinking age of 21 may reduce car crashes among teenagers, but this will only be a temporary effect if it simply delays those problems until the teenagers reach age 21. This argument is also false. The minimum age of 21 significantly reduces car crashes among people aged 18 to 20. There is no "rebound" effect at age 21. In fact, the higher legal age appears to produce benefits, in terms of reduced drinking, that continue into a person's early 20s.
The debate surrounding the legal age for drinking appears settled in the United States. Polls have shown that the majority of the public clearly supports a legal drinking age of 21. Even youth under the age of 21 support the age-21 policy. However, other countries (particularly in Europe, where drinking ages are typically set at 18) are now examining the research and experience of the United States with increasing interest. Professionals in the areas of public health and traffic safety, as well as citizens, are beginning to see the benefits of the age-21 drinking law in the United States, and they are beginning to debate in their own countries the most appropriate age for legal access to alcohol.
see also Accidents and Injuries from Alcohol; Adolescents, Drug and Alcohol Use; Binge Drinking; Driving, Alcohol, and Drugs; Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD); Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD).