Should the Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21 be Lowered?

There is a lack of consensus around the world as to what the proper minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) should be. Many countries set it at zero whereas several have set it at 21. By far the most common minimum drinking age is 18, followed by no minimum drinking age, and then 16 years of age.

The problem of identifying the optimum minimum drinking age to reduce alcohol abuse is a serious one. It involves issues of freedom, responsibility, parental rights, religion, politics and many other realms of life.

Although it is commonly believed that the minimum drinking age in the U.S. is 21, people can legally drink below that age under many different circumstances.

"The National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984 required all states to raise their minimum purchase and public possession of alcohol age to 21. States that did not comply faced a reduction in highway funds under the Federal Highway Aid Act.... It does not prohibit persons under 21 (also called youth or minors) from drinking. The term "public possession" is strictly defined and does not apply to possession for the following:

For more about the minimum legal drinking age visit Underage Drinking and Minimum Legal Drinking Ages around the World.

  • An established religious purpose, when accompanied by a parent, spouse or legal guardian age 21 or older
  • Medical purposes when prescribed or administered by a licensed physician, pharmacist, dentist, nurse, hospital or medical institution
  • In private clubs or establishments
  • In the course of lawful employment by a duly licensed manufacturer, wholesaler or retailer."1

Many of the states that have chosen to specifically prohibit alcohol consumption by those under age 21 have a variety of exceptions. For example,

Some states allow an exception for consumption when a family member consents and/or is present. States vary widely in terms of which relatives may consent or must be present for this exception to apply and in what circumstances the exception applies. Sometimes a reference is made simply to "family" or ‘family member' without further elaboration....

Some states allow an exception for consumption on private property. States vary in the extent of the private property exception which may extend to all private locations, private residences only, or in the home of a parent or guardian only. In some jurisdictions, the location exception is conditional on the presence and/or consent of the parent, legal guardian, or legal-age spouse."2

Many states also allow exceptions for educational purposes (e.g., students in culinary schools), religious purposes (e.g., sacramental use of alcoholic beverages), or medical purposes.3

The ideas presented on this page are designed to stimulate discussion and public debate. This website takes no position on these issues, makes no suggestions regarding them, and none should be inferred.

Readings on Minimum Legal Drinking Age of 21

  • Alcohol Advisory Council of NZ. The minimum drinking age. Wellington, NZ: Alcohol Advisory Council of NZ, 1995.
  • Arguments for lowering the legal drinking age are not valid. In: Kiesbye, S. (ed.). Should the legal drinking age be lowered? Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press: Gale/Cengage Learning, 2008.
  • Arndt, S.K. Adolescent alcohol consumption and a changing legal drinking age. H.S.D. dissertation. Indiana University, 1988.
  • Asch, P. and Levy, D.T. Does the minimum age effect traffic fatalities? Journal of Policy Analysis and Management,1987, 6(2), 180-192.
  • Bolotin, F.N., and DeSario, J. The Politics and Policy Implications of a National Minimum Drinking Age. Cleveland, Ohio, Case Western Reserve University, 1985.
  • Bond, J., and Jones, B. Raising the legal drinking age : issues in alcohol and drug abuse. Issues in Alcohol and Drug Abuse, 1983, 1. OCLC #11290226
  • Carpenter, C., and Dobkin, C. The effect of alcohol consumption on mortality regression : discontinuity evidence from the minimum drinking age. Cambridge, MA : National Bureau of Economic Research, 2007.
  • Carter, R.A. Legal drinking age. Albany, NY: Legislative and Governmental Services, New York State Library, 1983.
  • Choose Responsibility. The minimum legal drinking age should be lowered. In: Watkins, C. (ed.). Teens at Risk. Detroit, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2009.
  • Colón, Israel. The alcohol beverage purchase age and single-vehicle highway fatalities. Journal of Safety Research, 1984, 15, 159-162.


  • 1. Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition. Laws: Minimum Drinking Age Laws.
  • 2. Maryland Underage Drinking Prevention Coalition. Laws: Minimum Drinking Age Laws.
  • 3. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Underage Drinking and Access to Alcohol Consumption. National Institute on alcohol and Alcohol Abuse's Alcohol Policy Information System website.