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.

References

  • 1. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). Consequences of Underage Alcohol Use. http://www.health.org/govpubs/rpo992/
  • 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 (https://www.alcoholproblemsandsolutions.org/LegalDrinkingAge.html)
  • 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.

Readings

  • Allen, D. N., Sprenkel, D. G., and Vitale, P. A. Reactance theory and alcohol consumption laws: Further confirmation among collegiate alcohol consumers. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 1994, 55(1), 34-40.
  • Asch, P. and Levy, D.T. Does the minimum age effect traffic fatalities? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management,1987, 6(2), 180-192.
  • Brake, Mike. Needed: A license to drink. Newsweek, March 14, 1994.
  • Chauncey, Robert L. New careers for moral entrepreneurs: Teenage drinking. Journal of Drug Issues, 1980, 45-70.
  • Colón, Israel. The alcohol beverage purchase age and single-vehicle highway fatalities. Journal of Safety Research, 1984, 15, 159-162.
  • Commission on Substance Abuse at Colleges and Universities. Rethinking Rites of Passage: Substance Abuse on American Campuses. New York: Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, 1994. (Note: An investigative reporter has documented that material in this report is unsubstantiated, of highly questionable accuracy, or misleading.)
  • Davis, James E. Alcohol use among college students: Responses to raising the purchase age. Journal of American College Health, 1990, 38, 263.
  • Department of Health and Human Services. Youth and Alcohol: Laws and Enforcement - Is the 21-Year-Old Drinking Age a Myth? Washington, DC: Department of Health and Human Services, 1991, p. 5.
  • Engs, Ruth C., and Hanson, David J. University students' drinking patterns and problems: Examining the effects of raising the purchase age. Public Health Reports, 1988, 1, 65-83.
  • Engs, Ruth C., and Hanson, David J. Age-specific alcohol prohibition and college students' drinking problems. Psychological Reports, 1986, 59, 979-984.
  • Engs, Ruth C., and Hanson, David J. Reactance theory: A test with collegiate drinking. Psychological Reports, 1989, 64, 1083-108.
  • Fillmore, Kaye M., and Wittman, F. D. The effects of alcohol availability on college student drinking: A trend study. Contemporary Drug Problems, 1982, 11, 455-492.
  • Globetti, Gerald. Prohibition Norms and Teenage Drinking. In: Ewing, J. A., and Rouse, Beatrice A. (eds.) Drinking Alcohol in American Society - Issues and Current Research. Chicago: Nelson-Hall, Inc., 1978. pp. 159-170.
  • Hanson, David J. Drug Education Programs. In: The International Encyclopedia of Curriculum. Oxford, England: Pergamon, second ed., 1991.
  • Hanson, David J. Alcohol, Drug and Smoking Education Programs. In: The International Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford, England: Pergamon, second ed., 1994.
  • Hanson, David J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture, and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995.
  • Hanson, David J. Effectiveness of specific public policies on substance abuse prevention. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 1996, 9, 235-238.
  • Hanson, David J. Alcohol Education: What We Must Do. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.
  • Heath, Dwight B. The new temperance movement: Through the looking glass. Drugs & Society, 1989, 3, 143-168.
  • Hingson, Ralph, Merrigan, Daniel, and Heeren, Timothy. Effects of Massachusetts raising its legal drinking age from 18 to 20 on deaths from teenage homicide, suicide and nontraffic accidents. Pediatric Clinics of North America, 1985, 32, 221-233.
  • Lotterhos, J. F., Glover, E. D., Holbert, D., and Barnes, R. C. Intentionality of college students regarding North Carolina's 21-year drinking age law. International Journal of the Addictions, 1988, 23, 629-647.
  • Perkins, H. Wesley and Berkowitz, Alan D. Stability and contradiction in college students' drinking following a drinking-age law change. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 1989, 35, 60-77.
  • Pittman, David J. The New Temperance Movement. In: Pittman, David J. and White, Helene R. (ed.) Society, Culture, and Drinking Patterns Reexamined. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, 1991. pp. 775-790.
  • Vingilis, E. and Smart, Reginald G. Effects of raising the legal drinking age in Ontario. British Journal of Addiction, 1981, 76, 415-424.
  • Williams, Frank G., Kirkman-Liff, Bradford L., and Szivek, Pamela H. College student drinking behaviors before and after changes in state policy. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 1990, 35, 12-25.

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