Minimum Legal Drinking Age Myth

The minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) myth is perpetuated by the federal government through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, (HHS)1, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ)2, the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)3, and other federal agencies. The myth is also perpetuated by private groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)4 and the American Medical Association (AMA)5.

The minimum legal drinking age myth was probably started by the misleading title of the federal legislation (Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984) that required states to establish the minimum purchase age and the minimum public possession age at 21. In spite of its title, the act did not require the minimum age to be set at 21.

Nineteen states have not passed legislation setting the minimum drinking age at 21. And many of the states that have established a minimum drinking age at 21 provide a variety of exception to that law. Commonly the exceptions apply to drinking under parental supervision, drinking for religious purposes, consuming alcohol for health or medical purposes when prescribed by a physician, or for drinking with a spouse age 21 or older. 6

There are important reasons for these exceptions. For example, federally funded research has found that drinking with parents is a “protective factor” against alcohol abuse. Teenagers who reported drinking alcohol with their parents were less likely than others to have either consumed alcohol or abused it in recent weeks according to a nation-wide study of over 6,200 teenagers in 242 communities across the U.S.

Drinking alcohol with parents “may help teach them responsible drinking habits or extinguish some of the ‘novelty’ or ‘excitement’ of drinking” according to senior researcher Dr. Kristie Long Foley of the School of Medicine at Wake Forest University. Dr. Foley describes drinking with parents as a “protective” behavior. 7

This finding is to be expected. Those societies and cultural groups with very high rates of drinking but very low rates of alcohol-related problems have certain common keys to success. One such protective key is that in such groups young people learn about moderate drinking from their parents and they do so from an early age. 8

Nevertheless, agencies and groups typically assert falsely that “21 is the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) everywhere in the USA,” “All states and the District of Columbia now have minimum drinking-age laws set at 21 years of age,” “In the United States, the MLDA in all 50 states in currently 21 years,” and many other variations on that incorrect and misleading message.

By misinforming the public, this myth discourages a responsible parenting behavior that could reduce the abuse of alcohol among young people in the United States.


  • 1. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Consequences of Underage Alcohol Use.
  • 2. Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP). Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center web site.
  • 3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Underage Drinking: A Growing Health Care Concern. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) web site.
  • 4. Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD). Why 21? Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) web site.
  • 5. American Medical Association (AMA). Minimum Legal Drinking Age. American Medical Association (AMA) web site.
  • 6. Hanson, David J. Legal Drinking Age (
  • 7. Foley, Kristie Long, et al. Adults’ approval and adolescents’ alcohol use. Journal of Adolescent Health, 2004, 35(4), 345-346. [This research study was funded by the National Evaluation of the Enforcing Underage Drinking Laws Program.]
  • 8. Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.


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  • Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.
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