Drinking Age Issue: Minimum Legal Drinking Age Debate

The drinking age issue has caused debate for decades. Opinions continue to differ. Here are some of the many arguments in favor of lowering the minimum legal drinking age.

There is widespread misunderstanding about the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act of 1984. Its title is misleading. It doesn’t actually require states to lower their drinking ages. They can receive full highway funding while permitting those under age 21 to drink legally. Discover how in the final section of this page


        1. Under-age Kids or Military Heroes?
        2. Get Real about Teenage Drinking.
        3. Best Minimum Drinking Ag
        4. Govt Attacks Drinking with Junk
        5. Drinking Age Issue.
        6. “Most Regrettable”nDecision.
        7. Easy Solution.
        8. Resources

I. Underage Kids or Military Heroes? Are 18 to 20 Year Olds Adults?

Are American adults age 18, 19 and 20 underage kids or military heroes? They can legally conduct themselves as adults. For example, they can do these things.

      • Marry
      • Adopt children.
      • Vote
      • Serve on juries.
      • Win election to public office.
      • Enter into legal contracts.
      • Operate businesses.
      • Employ others.
      • Go to prison.
      • Be executed
      • Obtain abortions.
      • Engage in legal gambling.
      • Hunt with deadly weapons
      • Fly airplanes.
      • Drive cars and other vehicles
      • Buy porn.
      • Perform in porn.
      • Risk their lives by serving in US military.

However, they can’t legally enjoy a celebratory glass of champagne at their own wedding. They’re adults…..until it comes to alcohol.

By calling young adults “kids,” many anti-alcohol activists attempt to deny their adulthood. This is an effort to justify denying them the right to drink alcoholic beverages legally.

Calling adults kids paints them as children who can’t make good decisions.

Racial segregation was once required in the military. Today we recognize the terrible injustice of that. Yet we continue to treat military personnel under the age of 21 as second class citizens. Many see this discrimination against adults as an unjust civil rights violation of civil rights.

      Kids or Military Heroes?

But the United States military recognizes 18, 19 and 20-year-olds as the adults they are. So it grants them great responsibility.

They can command others. The military trusts them to operate complex and dangerous weapons. They can make major split-second decisions. Persons who are 18, 19 and 20 are clearly adults and the military treats them as such.drinking age issue

Yet they’re denied the right to enjoy a drink!

So are they underage kids or military heroes? You decide this drinking age issue.

      Arguments: They’re Underage Kids

But won’t drinking damage their developing brains? No. Drinking in moderation does not damage young brains. If it did, Jews, Italians, agrees, Spaniards, French and many others drinking age issuewould suffer brain damage.

These groups perform well on standardized tests of math and other subjects.

The studies suggesting otherwise use young alcohol and drug abusers. They’re typically either in treatment or therapy as a result of their substance abuse. Learn more at Drinking Alcohol Damages Teenagers’ Brains.

drinking age issueBut won’t drinking at an early age cause them to have drinking problems later in life? No, it won’t. The average age at first drink around the world is 12. That’s for both males and females.

Those who drink earlier than their peers tend to do so as a result of pre-existing factors. Impulsivity, desire for excitement, and other traits tend to cause the early drinking. And they also tend to cause the later alcohol and life problems. Learn more about this at Early Onset of Drinking: What Research Says & What Anti-Alcohol Activists Say It Says.


Traditionally, active duty U.S. military personnel could have a drink on any federal military installation. That was regardless of the state’s drinking age laws.

drinking age issueBut in the 1980s, Congress was lobbied to prevent this.

“Federal law (United States Code) requires military installation commanders to adopt the same drinking age as the state in which the military base is located.

The only exception to this rule is if the base is located within 50 miles of Canada or Mexico, or a state with a lower drinking age, the installation commander may adopt the lower drinking age for military personnel on base.”

drinking age issueThe Department of Defense (DoD) codification of this legislation specifies that on bases within 50 miles of

“…Mexico or Canada, the minimum drinking age on that DoD installation shall be the lowest applicable age of the State in which the DoD installation is located or the State or jurisdiction of Mexico or Canada that is within 50 miles of such DoD installation.

drinking age issueThe minimum drinking age on a DoD installation located outside the United States shall be 18 years of age.

Higher minimum drinking age will be based on international treaties and agreements and on the local situation as determined by the local installation commander.”2

Interestingly, 1,323 people responded to a nonscientific U.S. nation-wide poll. Seven of every eight (88%) said military personnel should be able to drink on base regardless of age.

II. Underage Drinking Issue: Get Real about Teenage Drinking

Joshua Levin of Brandeis University has proposed a two-fold approach to reducing underage alcohol abuse

To parents, Levine has this to say.

If you have children in high school, understand that your kids will drink at parties. Despite the legal drinking age, they will find a way to obtain beer or liquor.

While you are home, have a drink with your kids and their friends. Or, at the very least, allow them to have a drink. Ensure they are safe, but also guarantee that they know what they are doing.

Please introduce them to alcohol before they go off to college. So that, on the first weekend, they don’t drink themselves into the ER. They do this not because they want to drink to get drunk, but because they do not know any better.3

To legislators Levine says this.

drinking age issueHow are teenagers supposed to learn to drink responsibly? They cannot even drink legally with their parents at a restaurant. Having a drink with your parents at a restaurant is a more adult experience than drinking with them at home.

The truth of the matter is that almost all under-age drinking is done outside the home, in social circles. So lawmakers should make an exception. They should allow older teenagers to have a drink at a restaurant with their parents.4

      Government Research

Joshua Levine’s proposals are consistent with United States government research findings. It was a nation-wide study of over 6,200 teenagers in 242 communities across the U.S. Teenagers who drank with their parents were less likely to have either consumed alcohol elsewhere or abused it.

Dr. Kristy Long Foley

Drinking alcohol with parents may help teach them responsible drinking habits. It may also eleminatesome of the novelty or excitement of drinking. So suggests 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.5

We should expect this finding. Some societies and cultural groups have very high rates of drinking but very low rates of alcohol-related problems. They have certain common keys to success.

One protective key is that young people learn about moderate drinking from their parents.  And they do so from an early age.

These successful groups teach young people both how to drink and how not to drink. In addition, they avoid stigmatizing alcohol and strictly prohibit its abuse by anyone.

We can reduce youthful alcohol abuse by following the example of those groups. But to do so we need to stop living in a fantasy world of wishful thinking and unrealistic policies. In the words of Joshua Levine, we need to “get real with teenage drinking.”  That’s essential to the drinking age issue.

III. Best Minimum Drinking Age?

A. Why We Should Lower the Drinking Age to 19

by Gene Ford

Age 21 minimum drinking laws are counter-productive. There is much evidence that reducing the drinking age to 19 would reduce the abuse of alcohol among young people.

The U.S. has the strictest youth drinking laws in western civilization. Yet has the most drinking-related problems among its young. And there seems to be a connection between these two facts.

      Scientific Evidence

Gene Ford

Today, facts supports a simple fact. The early introduction of drinking is the safest way to reduce juvenile alcohol abuse.

Young people in France, Spain, and Argentina rarely abuse alcohol. They learn how to drink within the family, which sees drinking in moderation as natural and normal.

Youth in these societies rarely embarrass themselves or their families by abusing alcohol. In Portugal and New Zealand there are no minimum drinking age requirements. In many countries young people of sixteen years may consume in restaurants when with parents or another adult. Australia and South Africa have an 18-year minimum.

Researchers have pointed out that minimum drinking age laws in the U.S. are a post-Prohibition phenomenon. Prior to the repeal of the Eighteenth Amendment (Prohibition), states rarely prohibiting minors from drinking.

Informal controls regulated adolescent drinking. The family, community, peers, and self-restraint exerted controls. The only successful drinking controls over the centuries have been social and cultural constraints.

Despite the dissolution of the nuclear family, the vast majority of young people in America are upright citizens. The twisted logic of youthful minimum drinking age laws denies them that basic respect.

      Results of Age 21 Law

Research has found that restricting access to alcohol doesn’t lower its consumption among young people. It just drives it “underground” into undesirable locations that aren’t subject to the moderating influence of adults. In short, such efforts are counterproductive.

About one of every five American military service members killed in action since 2002 was under age 21. They couldn’t legally drink.1

No one seriously contends that alcohol beverages should be free of societal controls. The question isn’t whether there should be controls, but which controls work best.

Experience around the world proves that what works best. It’s a combination of reasonable laws and strong social sanctions. But in the U.S. we treat our emerging adults as infants and get infantile behavior as a result.

Adults need to temper their patronizing attitudes toward young men and women. We could then expect more maturity, self-restraint, and social responsibility. Lowering the drinking age to 19 would do much to reduce the youthful abuse of alcohol.

B. Lower the Minimum Legal Drinking Age to 18

Dr. John McCardell

Dr. John McCardell is President Emeritus of Middlebury College. He believes that the minimum legal drinking age of 21 is undesirable. He says it creates more problems than it solves.

It doesn’t stop drinking by young adults but drivers it underground. We can’t control it there. And it creates problems such as rapid heavy drinking (so-called “binge drinking”).

He says that “drinking that is not out in the open, drinking that is unsupervised, drinking that we can pretend isn’t taking place, is drinking that is drinking that is dangerous, drinking that is putting both young adults and other innocent people at greater risk.”

Of course, the same thing occurred during national Prohibition (1920-1933). The government denied citizens the right to drink legally. So they went underground to drink alcohol. And they did so in heavy, episodic ways. That has become a common pattern among young adult collegians.

Dr. McCardell observes that

“State legislators… are held hostage by the denial of federal highway funds if they reduce the drinking age. Our latter-day prohibitionists have driven drinking behind closed doors and underground….  Colleges should be given the chance to educate students, who in all other respects are adults, in the appropriate use of alcohol, within campus boundaries and out in the open.”6

      Drunken Driving

The college leader notes that drinking by college students has nothing to do with drunken driving. “If it did, we’d raise the driving age to 21.”

McCardell says we need to “take our heads out of the sand and open our eyes to the reality.” We need to ask ourselves “aren’t we better off trying to educate young people about alcohol and trusting them to exercise adult responsibility in the same way we trust them when they are appointed to juries or sent to Iraq.” He advocates drinker learner permits analogous to driver learner’s permits.

In the New York Times, Dr. McCardell wrote that “the 21-year-old drinking age is bad social policy and terrible law.”

McCardell has formed a group, Choose Responsibility. It’s to raise the issue of the drinking age. It provides the public facts on both sides of the issue. He says the “legal age 21 has unintended consequences and the public needs to know about what those are.”7

Dr. McCardell believes that we can solve the drinking age issue. But it takes public discussion. And that’s what he’s promoting

C. Get Rid of the Minimum Drinking Age

by Ed Quillen

One place where America must lead the world is in bizarre litigation. A case in point was in Reno, Nev. Ryan Pisco died after drinking a lot of beer and driving his girlfriend’s car into a lamppost at 90 mph. He was only 19, and the legal drinking age is 21.

Naturally, this death had to be the fault of someone other than Ryan. Certainly, 19-year-olds may know enough to vote or deploy lethal weapons during war. But apparently pictures on television or in magazines can control them.

drinking age issueThat’s the argument Jodie Pisco, Ryan’s mother, is advancing. She is suing Coors Brewing Co. for the loss of her son.

It’s on the grounds that “Coors sponsors and supports events that are attractive to minors and youthful persons…” That it glorifies “a culture of youth, sex and glamor while hiding the dangers of alcohol abuse and addiction.”

Further, “Coors targets the youth of America with false images of conquest, achievement and success…” It asserts that these images “are reckless, willful and exhibit a deliberate disregard for the impact of illegal alcohol consumption by underage youths.”


Much of that is just legal boilerplate. And as for the rest, young men in their 20s consume most of the beer. And that breweries try to gain market share, rather than create new drinkers from teetotalers. If they are trying to increase consumption, they’re doing a bad job of it. Annual per-capita beer consumption in this country has declined significantly.

By the way, per-capita consumption of wine and distilled spirits has also fallen greatly. Americans just don’t drink as much as we used to.

And if they didn’t market beer to 20-something guys, the ads would be even worse than they are now. How long would you watch a commercial that featured a bunch of half-bald gray-haired guys my age? All nursing beers while they grumbled about politics, the government in general, taxes, the economy and the like?

If we follow the logic of the Pisco argument, the brewery is somehow responsible for Ryan’s death. That’s because brewers advertise to the people most likely to consume their product. And this made the product irresistible to people who weren’t quite old enough to consume it legally.

That’s a hard case to prove, so I suspect this case will fail. But it probably won’t be the last such effort.


Fortunately, the solution is simple. Get rid of the minimum drinking age. That’s how to solve the drinking age issue. Under the federal constitution, this is a state matter, as Congress has no authority.

Congress got around this by tying highway funds to drinking age. Unless a state raised it to 21, it would lose some of the federal taxes its  residents had paid.

Colorado went along with it. Before that, 18-year-olds could drink 3.2 beer. Puerto Rico didn’t. To replace the lost tax revenue, the commonwealth installed toll booths along its major highways.

      Highway Deaths

drinking age issueYet the death rate from accidents in Puerto Rico was recently 33.7 per 100,000 residents. That’s lower than the U.S. average of 35.9 and the Colorado rate of 37.4.

So a lower drinking age doesn’t mean more highway deaths. Many productive, civilized countries manage with a lower drinking age. There’s no minimum in China or Portugal. It’s 14 in Switzerland, 16 in most of Europe.

The idea here is to reduce the number of teenagers who drink and drive. It wouldn’t help if we lowered the drinking age to 16 or 18.  Many kids start drinking at 16 because that’s when they get their driving licenses. And that’s when they can escape parental supervision.

Eliminate the minimum drinking age. Young people could learn all about alcohol long before they turned 16 and got their driver’s license. Booze wouldn’t seem like some glamorous adult activity.

Colorado could take the lead here, and eliminate the minimum drinking age. Statistics show that our highways would be just as safe, if not safer. And it would eliminate  lawsuits like the Pisco case. No company could be accused of targeting underage customers if there was no such thing.8

IV. Government Attacks Drinking with Junk Science

by David J. Hanson, Ph.D. and Matt Walcoff

drinking age issueThe U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) announced an alleged breakthrough in research on alcohol policy. According to the DOJ, teenagers in Europe, with its more moderate alcohol attitudes, have more alcohol problems.

Supporters of the current U.S. drinking age — the world’s highest — have adopted the DOJ ‘s claims as definitive. They refer to them whenever someone mentions that the U.S. has the highest minimum drinking age in the world.

Yet even a quick analysis of the DOJ’s report reveals that it does not stand up to scrutiny. Peers never reviewed the report. That’s the process in which other researchers evaluate a study’s legitimacy.

The DOJ used outdated survey numbers even though newer ones were available. And it left out the figures for several important countries.

What’s more, even the numbers the Department did use don’t back up its claims. American teenagers had a higher rate of intoxication than did their counterparts in half of the European countries.

Southern Europe has very liberal views and practices about alcohol. And southern European teens drink much more responsibly. For example, American teenagers were more likely to have reached intoxication in the last 30 days (21 percent vs. 13 percent). Over half of the American teenagers who drank reported reaching intoxication. Yet under a fourth of young Southern Europeans said they had reached a level of intoxication.

      Government not Impartial

It’s not unusual for interest groups to tout junk science. But when a government agency does such tactics, it gives the claim a false respectability. People tend to assume the government is an impartial arbiter. That it sorts through conflicting data to arrive at the truth.

drinking age issueYet the federal bureaucracy has never been neutral when it comes to alcohol policies.

It should make impartial scientific inquiry.  But they throw all their weight squarely on one side of the debate. Indeed, they have created a drinking age industry. Research designed to promote the current drinking age gets federal funding. It gets a stamp of approval and widespread dissemination, regardless of its scientific merit.

      Claim of Lives Saved

drinking age issueAnother good example is the oft-heard line that the increased drinking age has saved hundreds of lives per year.

The Department of Transportation claims it can estimate to the single digit how many people the law has saved.  One year it was supposedly 927.  That is nearly half the number of alcohol-related crash deaths among 16-20 year-olds that year.

No serious social scientist would ever make such an outlandish claim. It’s impossible to know what would have happened had the law not changed. And real research hasn’t found a cause-and-effect link between the law and alcohol use or abuse.

Many studies show no relationship between the two variables. Others report that some alcohol-related deaths have shifted. Specifically, from the 18-20 age group to the 21-24 age group. When it comes to the effects of the drinking age, the jury is still out.

      False Federal Claim

Yet the supposedly impartial federal bureaucracy claims the drinking age has been a success. An internet search in the .gov domain finds more than 1,000 references to lives saved by the drinking age. It makes a great sound bite but poor public policy.

The bureaucracy’s use of junk science is especially troubling. That is because it calls into question the validity of potentially life-saving policy. If we can’t trust the government about the drinking age, how can we trust it about other things?

When it comes to alcohol policy, federal officials should stick to dispassionate, peer-reviewed research. Not with slick marketing aimed at promoting one view. They should act more like public servants and less like leaders of pressure groups. That’s how to solve the drinking age issue.

V. Drinking Age Issue – Reduce College Alcohol “Bingeing”: Lower the Drinking Age

Barrett Seaman

Lowering the legal drinking age would reduce heavy drinking among college students. That says former Time magazine editor and White House correspondent Barrett Seaman. He’s the author of Binge: What Your College Student Won’t Tell You.

Seaman says that there would be an initial surge of heavy drinking at first. That’s as young adults savored their new freedom. But then alcohol abuse would drop.

He cites the example of Montreal’s McGill University which enrolls about 2,000 American undergraduates each year.

“Many, when they first arrive, go overboard, exploiting their ability to drink legally. But by midterms, when McGill’s demanding academic standards must be met, the vast majority have put drinking into its practical place among their priorities.”10

drinking age issueFlo Tracy has been McGill’s director of housing for decades. In preparing for the new school year, she held a training session for about 50 resident advisors. She brought pizza, soft drinks and three cases of beer and told them they could have all they wanted. A whole case of beer remained.

Tracy says Quebec’s lower legal drinking age of 18 is an important reason her students rarely abuse alcohol.11 On the other hand, “huge crackdowns, abolishing fraternities, enforcing dry zones — none of that works” observes Seaman.

      College Leaders

In researching his book, Seaman interviewed college administrators around the country. He says

“I did not meet any presidents or deans who felt that the 21-year age helps curb the abuse of alcohol on their campuses. Quite the opposite. They thought the law impeded their efforts since it takes away the ability to monitor and supervise drinking activity.”12

“The thing is, there are smart ways of drinking and there are stupid ways of drinking,” Seaman says. “If you can get more people drinking smartly, you’re going to have a safer campus.”

Seaman says that we can reduce drunken driving by following the example of Norway. It throws the book at DWI offenders without regard to age. DWI is DWI.

VI. Supporting Legal Drinking Age of 21 “Most Regrettable” Decision of His Career.

Dr. Morris Chafetz was founding director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). He also was an influential member of the presidential commission that recommended raising the minimum legal drinking age (MLDA) to 21 back in the early 1980s.

drinking age issue
Dr. Morris Chafitz

Dr. Chafetz says he reluctantly supported the recommendation. But the “legal age 21 has not worked.”

Many people say the law has been effective. That’s because drunk driving fatalities have dropped among those under the age of 21.

However, alcohol expert Chafetz points out that “they are lower in all age groups. And they have declined just as much in Canada, where the age is 18 or 19.”

Dr. Chafetz stresses that the law has resulted in “collateral, off-road damage.” That includes such things as binge drinking, injury, and property destruction.

The founding NIAAA director wishes he hadn’t supported the minimum legal drinking age of 21. He said it was “the single most regrettable decision” of his career.1

VII. An Easy Solution to the Drinking Age Issue

The U. S. has the highest national minimum legal drinking age in the entire world. No country has a higher one. Raising the drinking age to 21 was a radical social experiment. It was so both cross-culturally and historically.

Most other countries have a minimum drinking age of 18 and they rarely enforce it vigorously. Except in Islamic countries, most of the world has a much more relaxed attitude toward drinking by young people. Consequently, they suffer fewer alcohol-related problems among their youth.

Most adults age 18, 19 and 20 consume alcoholic beverages. Indeed, by raising the drinking age we’ve made consumption a sign of “real adulthood.”

Thus, our laws have made drinking even more attractive. And drinking in excess has become a way of rebelling against what they consider an unjust and immoral law.

      Opposition is Incorrect

Opponents argue that any state lowering its drinking age would lose 10% of its federal highway funds. However, the Minimum Legal Drinking Age Act of 1984 doesn’t actually call for states to lower their drinking ages.

It only requires them to prohibit the (a) purchase and (b) public possession of alcoholic beverages. In fact, many states have no minimum legal drinking age. However, they continue to receive full federal funding.

States could easily conform to the federal law. It’s as simple as decriminalizing the purchase or public possession of alcohol by adults age 18 through 20. And they could prohibit any fines or other penalties.

Those states with laws prohibiting drinking by such adults could also conform to the federal law.  They could similarly decriminalize alcohol drinking and prohibit fines or other punishments.

      The Drinking Age Issue: Observations

The drinking age issue continues in the U.S. and other countries. Evidence alone can’t resolve the matter. Nor can logic.

Basic beliefs about the world form our opinions. In this way, it is much like religion or politics. And, of course, the political battlefield is the scene of the conflict. So political power determines the outcome of the drinking age issue.

VIII. Resources on Drinking Age Issue

Web Pages

Popular Readings

These books take various positions on the drinking age issue.


1 Personal communication from Jeanne B. Frites, Dep Under Sec Defense, Prog Integ.

2 Powers, R. U.S. Military: Military Drinking Age.

3 Levine, J. Get real about teenage drinking. Boston Globe, Nov 20, 2004.

4 Ibid.

5 Foley, K. et al. Adults’ approval and adolescents’ alcohol use. J Adoles Health, 2004, 35(4), 345-346.

6 McCardell, Jr., J. What your college president didn’t tell you. New York Times, Sept 13, 2004.

7 Choose Responsibility website.

8 Ed Quillen is a columnist at the Denver Post.

9 Adapted from Hanson, D. and Walcoff, M. The government attacks teenage drinking with junk science. Reason, 2004, 36(5), 44-45.

10 Seaman, B. How bingeing became the new college sport. And why it would stop if we lowered the drinking age. Time, Aug 21, 2005.

11 Farquharson, V. Drinking outside the box. Nat Post, Aug 16, 2005.

12 Seaman, op cit.

13 Roan, S. Substance abuse expert regrets raising drinking age, LA Times, July 27, 2009.

You now know many facts about the drinking age issue. So congrats!