Alcohol Policy for Youth in the U.S.: What Should It Be?

What should alcohol policy for youth be in the U.S.? This is a heated subject. Here the National Youth Rights Association (NYRA) gives its views.


I.  Alcohol Policy for Youth

II. Resources

I. Alcohol Policy for Youth

NYRA believes U.S. youth alcohol policy should recognize the inevitability of alcohol consumption among youth. Therefore, it should seek to reduce the harm of that alcohol use. It shouldn’t try to keep young people from drinking at all. That won’t work.

Congress and states could enact any of many policies to promote safer consumption. Some exist in other countries. We should consider policies that could save lives.

The US has the highest national drinking age in the world. None is higher. States spend vast sums trying to prevent people under 21 from drinking alcohol. Yet many do so.

Most people can legally buy alcohol. And drinking is considered an important part of everyday life. So it’s hardly surprising that young people drink. A group of researchers said it well decades ago. “In such an environment, any effort to teach youngsters abstinence from alcohol is like trying to promote chastity in a brothel!”1

Ineffective Policy

Alcohol Policy for Youth At the very least, our youth alcohol policy doesn’t work. More disturbing, the drinking age may be counterproductive. It prevents teaching youth how to drink responsibly. In some states, it’s illegal for parents to serve their offspring alcohol in their own homes! And abstaing young people who serve as designated drivers can be charged merely for being at a party where alcohol is served. Mike Males says drinking age laws prevent a transition between youth abstinence and responsible adult drinking.

Under such laws, many young people learn drinking in unsafe places, like basement keg parties. And they drink to get drunk. Researchers say US young people engage in dangerous “binge drinking” far too often. They do so far more often than some of their European peers.

Most Europeans learn to drink responsibly. The US should take lessons from cultures like those of Jews, Italians and Greeks. “Educational efforts should encourage moderate use of alcohol among those who choose to drink,” explains Dr. David J. Hanson.2

Abstinence Only

Unfortunately, the federal government maintains a “no-use” policy in its alcohol education. It tells educators to reject any responsible-use messages for young people. Even when they refer to those 21 or older. As a result, schools offer “abstinence-only” alcohol curricula. These are far less effective in preventing abuse than those that promote responsibility.

Much of the debate about the drinking age has centered on the National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984. It forced states to raise their drinking age to 21.* Agencies and anti-alcohol groups claim that law has saved thousands of lives. This “fact” is repeated without question in the media. But researchers have regularly challenged that assertion.

So the bottom line is simple. US alcohol policy clearly treats adults age 18, 19, and 20 as irresponsible kids.


*The law prevents the purchase of alcoholic beverages. In spite of its name, the law doesn’t prohibit drinking them. See National Minimum Drinking Age Act of 1984.


Alcohol Policy for Youth

II. Resources


1. Mauss, A. et al. The prospects for prevention, J Stud Alco, 49(1), 59.

2. Nat. Res. Coun. Reducing Underage Drinking, p. 671.

    • Reprinted with minor edits by permission of NYRA.